Spelling deMYTHtified: 7 Insights for Language Teachers

It’s been sent to you dozens of times by well-meaning friends and family. Perhaps you’ve  forwarded it to folks in your own address book, or perhaps you’ve even developed a pronunciation lesson around it, as I did several years ago.

It’s a meme, really, one that simultaneously bemoans and celebrates the idiosyncrasies of spoken vs. written English. It might go like this:

Crazy English (anonymous)
We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese… 

This trope exists in several forms, the most succinct of which is the fishy one-word poem etched into the mind of every language educator and often misattributed to George Bernard Shaw: ghoti. At the other extreme is The Chaos of Pronunciation, by Gerard Nolst Terinté, who in 1929 penned more than 100 lines, all essentially about how mint and pint look more similar than they sound.

(Visit this thread on the Linguist List for a thorough exploration of these and similar creations.)

What these all have in common is their cleverly disguised message of doom: English is crazy, and, for the learner of English, English is unlearnable. The truth is, English spelling is not crazy at all; it’s merely a complex system in a modern world that eschews complexity. More to the point, English spelling “is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections. Instead, it is a more complex and more regular relationship, wherein phonemes and morphemes share leading roles” (Venezky, 1999, p. ix).

Enter my new-old favorite book, The American Way of Spelling, written by the late Richard Venezky in 1999. He rightly marvels, “Any time you are engaged with print, you are confronted with an orthography that demands some special knowledge to be rendered into sound” (p. xi). As ESL teachers, we can’t afford not to know this: Print does not lead us to sound, but rather the other way around.

The seven insights below are summarized from Venezky’s work. Read the rest of this article aloud, and appreciate the miracle of your performance: You’re decoding a nonphonemic alphabet, and for you it’s not just possible, but easy.

Myth #7: English spelling is just confusing.

Think of English spelling as the DNA of a word, containing precious clues to its history (etymology) and its word forms (morphology). Venesky explains it beautifully:

English has always had rather loose immigration regulations for vocabulary. Words, unlike people, have been forever welcomed, regardless of their origins. Neither quotas nor IQ tests have ever been required for admission to the lexicon. And unlike the melting-pot emphasis on assimilation in most of American history, orthography has been unencumbered by pressures to shed its alien appearance. (p. 7)

Written English therefore embraces foreign spellings (ballet from French, Farenheit from German) and tolerates variable spellings (flier/flyer, dialog/dialogue, disk/disc).

Myth #6: English spelling is rule-based.

Sorry, but “i before e except after c” is not a rule; weird, caffeine, forfeiture, and protein are not merely additional exceptions to an otherwise good rule, but proof that something else is at play.

Myth #5: English spelling has no rules.

Rest assured: English spelling demonstrates at least two true rules, or constants. 1) By and large, the letters in a word occur in the same order as the sounds in that word: “talk” will never sound like “caught”; and 2) by and large, every letter in a word serves a function, even if that function is not sound-oriented (see Myths #4 and #3).

Myth #4: Letters are used randomly.

As Venezky (1999) explains, “letter distribution is capriciously limited” (p. 6). This may come as a surprise, but there are some fairly set conventions. Only certain letters can be doubled (<b> in rubber, <d> in ladder, <f> in different, among others) while <aa>, <ii>, <qq>, <xx> and several others are not considered common patterns of English. Similarly, only certain letters can hold the final position in a word, and <u>, < v>, <j>, and <q> are among those not allowed.

Myth #3: Letters represent sounds.

Some letters represent sounds while others are merely markers with no pronunciation of their own. These may mark the pronunciation of another letter (as in the well-known function of silent <e> in mat vs. mate) or communicate the morphology of a word (as in the <g> in sign-signature).

Myth #2: All you have to do is “sound it out.” 

While words like cat and shower bolster the “sound it out” motto, the fact is that a word’s visual identity trumps its letter-sound simplicity. Consider the sound-shifting behaviors of head vs. bead, snow vs. plow, though vs. thought. Says Venezky, “English favors the eye over the tongue and glottis,” a reality I explored in my recent post, Eyes vs. Ears: the problem of vowels.

This last one is HUGE:

Myth #1: The written word introduces the spoken word.

Flip that, and you’ll be set. Venesky writes, “English orthography facilitates word recognition for the initiated speaker of the language, rather than being a phonetic alphabet for the non-native speaker [emphasis added]” (p. 10). Prior to the reading moment, one already knows whether object will be stressed on the first syllable (as a noun) or the second (as a verb), and you already know what the  -s sounds like in cats (/s/), dogs (/z/), and ostriches (/əz/). These are but two examples.

It’s time for us to retire the shallow advice that students “sound it out.” We can do better. I’d like to hear from you, dear reader: How do you approach spelling vs. sound, what do you say, and how might Venezky’s insights influence your next lesson?


Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York, NY: Gilford Press.

About Karen Taylor de Caballero

Karen Taylor de Caballero
Karen Taylor de Caballero is an educational consultant and trainer. She holds a Master’s Degree in TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and BA in English Literature from Georgetown University. She has taught extensively in the Washington DC area, as well as in Namibia and Mexico, where she served as a Fulbright TEFL specialist. Karen is co-author of the Color Vowel Chart and co-founder of English Language Training Solutions, dedicated to empowering teachers, learners, and our society at large with sound awareness for mutual comprehensibility. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and 6-year-old twins. Visit Karen's personal blog at http://elts.solutions/category/blog/
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Spelling deMYTHtified: 7 Insights for Language Teachers

  1. Elda Espinoza says:

    Hello! I loved your article, but I’m still a bit confused. I’ve been teaching for almost a year and teaching spelling has always caused me a lot of trouble. Is there any reccomendation you can give me? Because from now I think I have been using only phonetic symbols to teach my students but I’m looking for more information to teach them spelling correctly.

    Thanks 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.