Why the split spelling cracks me up

I know that many teachers will not appreciate me starting this hare, especially when we, at Sounds-Write, have coded lots of words with split spellings and, to boot, we also have a terrific lesson for teaching them, but I wanted to give us something to think about.
Having said that, I want to state firmly from the outset that I have no intention at the moment of adopting the alternative I’m about to suggest, though Trish at TRT might want to think about it.
For those unsure of what I’m writing about, the split spellings most commonly in use are < a-e >, < e-e >, < i-e >, < o-e > and < u-e >. We teach these spellings in words like ‘bake’, ‘Pete’, ‘home’, ‘fine’ and ‘flute’, in which, respectively, they represent the sounds /ae/, /ee/, /ie/, /oe/ and /oo/.
Although I believe that we teach teachers how to cope with so-called split spellings very well and I believe our approach works well in the main, I think there may be a better, more credible alternative.
To begin with, I want to ask the question of why it is that split spellings were introduced in the first place. I have a hunch it was because the originators were unsure about two aspects (especially the second) of the alphabet code: the one-to-many principle, in which one sound can be represented by multiple spellings; and, the many-to-one principle, in which one spelling can represent different sounds. For example, in the first, the sound /ae/ can be spelt < a >, < ay >, < ai >, < ea >, < eigh >, < ei >, < ey >, etc, as well as by using the split spelling < a-e >; in the second, the spelling < o > can represent the sounds /o/ in ‘mop’, /oe/ in ‘go’, /oo/ in ‘to’ and /u/ in ‘ton’.
Keeping the above in mind, let’s take the first word with a ‘split’ spelling I used in the post: ‘hate’. The word is comprised of three sounds /h/ /ae/ /t/ and someone decided that they would code it as < h >, < a-e >, < t >, with the < t > splitting the < a-e >. Apart from being more complicated than most spellings to teach, this approach has the disadvantage that, when an inflectional morpheme such as –ing, –s or –d is added, possible confusions begin to arise. For example, the /ae/ in ‘hate’ is spelt with a ‘split’ spelling but in ‘hating’ with the spelling < a >. The same is true of ‘hated’, a two-syllable word comprised of the sounds /h/ /ae/ /t/ /schwa/ /d/.
The second complication comes when teaching words like ‘hates’. Here, the teacher has to guide pupils when they are reading by going from < h >, forwards to the split spelling < a-e >, then back to the < t > and finally, bizarrely, (jumping across the letter < e >, the second part of the split digraph) forward again to the < s >. There’s little doubt in my mind that the approach slows down novice readers.
In addition, the split spelling is very likely to be confused with words which look as if they might contain split spellings but don’t. For example, a much better – and more transparently linguistic, approach would be to teach from left to right across the word in logical sequence. We would do this by teaching ‘hate’ as < h > < a > < te >. In other words, it would still be taught as a CVC word, but with the final consonant spelt as te.  This approach would make the split spelling far less likely to be confused with words which look as if they might contain split spellings but don’t. For example, we already teach consonant + vowel digraphs in words like ‘give’, ‘have‘, ‘horse’, ‘sleeve’, ‘granite’, ‘snooze‘, ‘some‘ and many others. Teaching consonant plus e instead of all the ‘split’ spellings would be consistent and more logical, as well as making at least as much sense as its counterpart.
So, how would we correct errors, such as when pupils read the word ‘hate’ as /h /a/ t/ (‘hat’)? We would simply point to the spelling < a > and say, “This can be /a/ but it can also be /ae/. Say /ae/ in this word.” The context of the sentence will do the rest, exactly as it does when we read words with the spelling < o > in them.
“Scure nel tronco” by Luigi Chiesa – Photo taken by Luigi Chiesa. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scure_nel_tronco.jpg#/media/File:Scure_nel_tronco.jpg

6 thoughts on “Why the split spelling cracks me up

  1. John, until you mentioned this yesterday, I'd never thought of getting rid of the "split vowel" concept and just going with consonant + e. Before I make embark on such a revamp, I might trial both ways and ask the young people which they prefer and which they think they'll remember better.

    There's nothing like the thought of a little bit of change to make me feel alive! (I just heard groans from That Reading Thing trainers.)
    I'll keep you posted.

  2. Hi Trish,
    I'm all in favour of trialling the alternative and I'd be delighted if you'd be kind enough to let me know how you get on.
    Funnily enough, the reason why I decided to write about it was because I am teaching a boy who pointed out that the split spelling didn't make sense. He also, by the bye, convinced me that q and u should be taught as two separate sounds /k/ and /w/.
    Certainly, I think it might be worth having the conversation with pupils about which approach they think makes more sense to them. I've always found that talking about how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language enhances understanding. One of my favourite examples is that of words like 'ball', 'tall', etc. I think it makes more sense to teach that the a represents the sound /or/ and the ll is the /l/; whereas, I've seen some people teach them with al as the /or/ to line up with 'chalk' and 'talk'. So, when we come to this, my pupil and I have a discussion about it and we try and explain our reasoning.
    As I've argued before, it's often possible to code words in different ways. The trick is to go with the most common spellings of the sounds. But the greatest value comes with having the discussion.

  3. Hi All,

    Great food for thought. It could simplify matters. How would this work when teaching children about doubling final consonants to avoid changing the sound of a vowel? For example; hop to hopped, as opposed to hop to hoped. The split vowel concept currently makes this easily explainable.

    Another thought is that the split vowel concept is understandable to children who are largely still taught 'magic e' in schools. At present, it is easy to change this understanding to something like "the e is not really magic, it's just a bit difference as it works with the o in this manner, o-e………" Any thoughts? Thanks.

  4. Great post John, I will include the discussion in my lessons with a couple of students I am working with. I will still need to have discussions re spellings when I move from, for example, 'hate' to 'hated'. The spelling of the /t/ changes if part of my focus is on the explicit spelling of the suffix 'ed'. I like the fact though that you are continuing to think of how words could possibly be coded to better align linguistically. I like that we are being asked to think and to interact in a meaningful way with our students.

  5. Hi Georgina,
    Great to hear from you!
    I think the important thing is that, if Sounds-Write is being taught in the spirit in which we deliver it in the training, students are always being presented with different degrees of complexity, which they are challenged to solve. This is why, right from the start in Lesson 1 Word Building, we present the children with problems to solve and opportunities to interact with the teacher and with each other.
    The other question many teachers raise about -ed endings is the one about sound. After the sounds /d/ or /t/, -ed endings represent two sounds: /schwa/ and /d/, the schwa being realised as /i/ or /u/ depending on accent. When a verb ends in the sounds /f/, /k/, /p/, /s/, /sh/, /ch/ and /th/ (unvoiced), the -ed represents the sound /t/; when it follows the sounds /b/, /g/, /j/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /r/, /v/, /z/, /th/ (voiced), the -ed represents the sound /d/.
    However, this isn't something you have to teach because L1 speakers do this naturally and, when they're speaking, children also form the regular, simple past tense endings pretty accurately by age four years. This is why you quite often see children in the early years spelling words like 'picked' as 'pickt' but it usually sorts itself out or is easily taught explicitly.

  6. Hi Leana and thanks for your comment/question,
    We would, I hesitate to say, never bring the idea of magic into our teaching of reading and spelling. So, we've never taught 'magic e' simply because if children think that letters/spellings behave magically, then there's no logic to the alphabet code: letters can 'be' anything!
    However, the consonant doubling issue when adding the bound morpheme -ing does, on the face of it, present us with a problem. The trouble is that most attempts to solve the problem have involved the formulation of rules and the trouble with rules is that you not only have to learn what the rules are but you also have to learn all the exceptions to the rules. And young children find that very difficult, probably because the cognitive load is too great. As Diane McGuinness writes in her superb book Beginning Reading Instruction:
    'Should this (doubling rule) rule contain a drop -e clause, or an antidoubling clause, or are these to be separate rules? And because this rule must also specify where a reader has to look to find out whether to double, it needs two additional subclauses and a blocking rule to make it work: (1) if the word ends in -e, drop the e before adding -ing (dine, dining, bridge, bridging); (2) double the consonant when the preceding vowel is a "simple" checked vowel (bat, batting) BUT NOT when it isn't (beat, beating).' (page 289)
    One of the reasons why 'traditional' phonics programmes that teach from print to sound and introduce rule upon rule are so poor is that they don't work.
    Most university students are completely unaware of any of these orthographical or morphological rules and yet they manage to spell words like 'hopping' and 'hoping' perfectly well. So, what's going on? Isn't it more likely that our brains, being excellent pattern seekers, notice the probabalistic structures of spellings in words because of their frequencies?
    It's a complex issue but, to my mind, the best suggestion is that readers and writers process in parallel orthographic, morphological and phonological information.

Comments are closed.