Something which keeps on coming up on Sounds-Write trainings we run is the question of ‘silent letters’. The explanation that there are such things as ‘silent letters’ is still one to which many teachers resort when they find themselves unable to explain the relationship between sounds and print. For example, in the word ‘knight’, although they will refer to the igh spelling as representing the sound ‘ie’, many talk about the k as being ‘silent’.
Apart from being logically inconsistent, the tendency betrays a lack of understanding of how the writing system works. Having recognised igh as representing the sound ‘ie’, it is but a short step to recognising the two-letter spelling kn as a spelling alternative for the sound ‘n’.
In English there are multiple spellings: ‘fun’, ‘winning’, ‘know’, ‘gnome’, ‘pneumatic’, and ‘gone’, are all examples of spellings of the sound ‘n’. What is true for the sound ‘n’ applies equally to the other sounds in the English language and this makes learning to read and spell in English harder.
Why is the use of the term ‘silent letters’ potentially damaging to children’s understanding of how the English alphabet code works and to their ability to learn what is a complex system? For a start, young children are often very literal and when people talk about letters ‘making’ or ‘saying’ sounds, they take this literally. They think that letters do actually make sounds. In such a complex system as English when letters singly or in combination can represent multiple sounds – for example, the combination ea can be /ee/ in ‘meat’, /e/ in ‘head’ and /ae/ in ‘break’ – unless children are taught systematically and explicitly, the system can give the appearance of being completely random and chaotic. This makes the task of learning it appear impossible and, for some children, ‘magical’, for if letters ‘make’ sounds, then they can make any sound and there is no logic to the writing system. Letters do NOT make sounds. People make sounds and spellings (letters, singly or in combination) represent them.
Symbolic systems are fundamental to highly developed societies. We use them in music, mathematics, literature and, most importantly, in writing. In the writing system, spellings represent sounds in the language. The English writing system is complex but it is rendered consistent and coherent if learners are taught from the beginning how it works from a conceptual point of view. If learners, and this includes young children, are taught that the sounds in their speech, of which there are a limited and finite number, are represented by the squiggles on the page we call letters (I prefer the more accurate and specific ‘spellings’), we have a system that is ordered and can easily be taught from simple to complex. In teaching from sound to print, we avoid the contortions purveyors of the print-to-sound trajectory have to go through to explain the code, which result in illogical ideas such as ‘silent letters’. To paraphrase Diane McGuinness: speech sounds are the basis for the code, the spellings are the code.
In a system in which all letters in a written word are orthographic symbols in their own right, there isn’t anything left out that can be designated a ‘silent letter’.