The ill-conceived idea of ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ spelling – a reprise

This post is a reprise of a post I wrote in February 2016. As its subject matter seems to crop up all the time in discussions about phonics teaching, I thought it would be helpful to re-post it.


What do people mean when they talk about ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ spellings?

‘Regular’, as the dictionary definition suggests, means ‘arranged in or constituting a constant or definite pattern, … well ordered, well structured, perpetual, constant…’ The problem is that there is only one constant in the spelling system in English and it isn’t the spellings! It is the forty-four or so sounds in the language; it is sounds that drive the spelling system, not spellings.

When people talk about ‘regular’ and irregular’ spellings, it is because they are confused about the nature of the writing system and its relationship to the forty-four or so sounds in the English language.

We can, fairly reasonably, say that Spanish, say, is almost ‘regular’. What this means is that most of the sounds in Spanish are represented by one-letter spellings. With around 23-25 sounds in Spanish and only around 35 spellings of the sounds, Spanish spelling is really easy to learn. It is true that there are a few complexities but these pale to insignificance in comparison with English with its forty-four sounds and around 175 common spellings.

Most English teachers who teach phonics have accepted the model of what is often referred to as a ‘basic code’. At Sounds-Write we call it the Initial Code, but no matter. A basic code looks very similar to what teaching reading and spelling in Spanish looks like. It begins by teaching children one sound-one letter spellings – because they are easy to learn. Different programmes may have a different order of play – the order in which sound-spelling correspondences are introduced – but they all arrive at the end point having taught that the sound /a/, as in ‘map’, is spelt < a >, /b/ is spelt < b >, and so on.

Of course, in terms of regularity, a problem can be identified early on: if the teacher has taught that the sound /k/ is spelt < c > and then, a week or so later, they go on to teach that < k > can also represent the sound /k/, which one is regular? Later still, the teacher will go on to teach that the sound /k/ can be spelt in still another way: < ck >. Later still, < q > is introduced as yet another way of spelling the sound /k/ in words like ‘quit’ and ‘queen’. Does this alter our view of the idea of regularity?

And if we flip over from sound to spelling to spelling to sounds, we quickly encounter further ‘irregularities’. For example, the spelling < c > can be /k/ but it can also be /s/; < f > can be /f/ and it can be /v/; < g > can be /g/ and /j/; and so on. And that is only the consonants. The vowels are much more complex and that is where, in the minds of many teachers, all hell breaks loose because beginning readers and writers need to know that sounds can be spelt in different ways. For example, /ee/ can be spelt ‘seed’, ‘tea’, ‘funny’, ‘key’, ‘brief’, ‘ski’, ‘she’, and ‘receive’. Are all of these spellings in words ‘regular’? This is the point at which people begin to shift uneasily in their seats. Suppose that the answer to the latter is that they are ‘regular’ because they all appear fairly regularly in English words. Then, what about the /ee/ in ‘archaeology’, or the /ee/ in ‘amoeba’ or aeon? Are these encountered infrequently enough to be classified as ‘irregular’? Surely it depends on the domain of knowledge to some extent?

The thing is that the idea that spellings of sounds in words are regular or not regular simply doesn’t have any logic to it. What does make sense is to talk about the gradations between common (i.e. frequently encountered) spellings and highly unusual spellings. I would consider the spelling < ae > representing the sound /ee/ to be highly unusual in children’s KS 1 texts, informational or narrative. However, by Key Stage 2, I would expect it to crop up from time to time in certain words and be taught explicitly as it comes up in teaching (the Egyptians or Romans, for instance) at KS2.

As I’ve said, there are gradations. Is the spelling < a > in ‘was’ irregular? Clearly, many teachers think so. Why do they think so? Because ‘was’ is a frequently encountered word in children’s texts and they believe that, in the initial stages of learning to read, to teach that < a > can be /a/ in ‘mat’ and that it can also be /o/ in ‘was’ might confuse young learners. I don’t doubt that this is absolutely right if they were to introduce the spelling early on (at the same time as introducing < o >), say.  It might! But that isn’t a reason to suggest that the spelling is ‘irregular’. If it were, we’d have an awful lot of trouble teaching ‘swan’, ‘want’, ‘swap’, ‘what’, ‘wan’, ‘wallop’, ‘wasp’, ‘quad’, ‘qualify’, ‘quantity’, etc. In fact, as can be seen, the spelling < a > representing the sound /o/ in words preceded by the sound /w/ is very common. So, perhaps the pattern isn’t so irregular after all.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us teaching, to begin with, a straightforward ‘Initial’ or ‘Basic’ code in which single letter spellings represent one sound only. Once all the one-to-ones have been introduced and children have been taught the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation to mastery level, different ways of spelling the vowel sounds and consonant sounds can be added – always, I hasten to add, grounded in the sounds of the language. Our teaching can then be completed by introducing less frequently encountered spellings – usually as they crop up in the context of what is being taught in the curriculum. These can be added, as reminders, in the context of real words, to spelling posters on the walls of the classroom.

Nonetheless, we come back to the same old refrain: to be able to teach all of this, teachers need to have a clear understanding of how the code works, the skills required to be able to use the code, and the conceptual knowledge needed to understand the relationship between sounds in the English language and the spelling system.

*Thanks to Pixabay for the image

2 thoughts on “The ill-conceived idea of ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ spelling – a reprise

  1. What would be your suggestion then in terms of how to teach spelling once the initial code and some extended code (alternative spellings for vowel sounds etc.) have been introduced?

    1. Hi Corrina,
      You say in your question ‘some spellings for vowel sounds’. Although, undoubtedly, there are some children who, having learnt how the code works and having acquired the necessary skills and understanding of how the code works, do manage to bootstrap themselves, the majority of children don’t. For this reason, we teach, systematically, all the vowel and consonant sound-spelling correspondences over a period of two years. We also teach the structure of polysyllabic words and how to read and write them. After that, we aim to consolidate our teaching between years 3 and 6 and, during this time, we also advocate introducing less frequently encountered sound-spelling correspondences, such as the < ae > spelling of /ee/ in ‘archaeology’ or ‘aeon’, and, in the main, this is done in the context of the everyday curriculum.
      I hope this answers your question.
      Best wishes, John

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