Shh Silent letters at work – again!

Frankly, I thought that the notion of ‘silent letters’ had gone out with the Ark. Evidently not! What still doesn’t seem to be understood by some advocates of phonics is that all letters are silent! All letters are silent because letters, singly or in combination, are symbols for the sounds in speech. Speech is biologically primary; writing is biologically secondary. This is important to note because ‘language skills are a natural product of the human mind, … while writing is a product of the human intellect: no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language; writing must be studied’ (Peter Daniels and William Bright). So, everyone everywhere in the world learns to speak their own language(s) naturally; writing, on the other hand, is an invention and has to be taught. The writing system was invented to represent the sounds of the language.

Precision in talking about reading and writing is vital! For example, it is a mistake to use loose language and to tell children that letters MAKE or SAY sounds, which is partly where the confusion about ‘silent letters’ comes from! People make or say sounds and the alphabet code is a symbolic system designed to represent the sounds in English. If children are encouraged to think that letters ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds, because the writing system in English is complex, it is easy for them to start thinking that letters can ‘make’ or ‘say’ anything and then they think that the system is unlearnable. For example, a spelling can represent a number of different sounds, which can, if the code isn’t taught systematically from simple to more complex, cause young children to believe that there is no rhyme nor reason to phonics. The spelling < a > can represent the sound /a/, as in ‘sat’, /ae/, as in ‘April’, /o/ as in ‘what’, /or/, as in ‘water’, /ar/, as in ‘father’, and /e/, as in ‘many’. If the concept of one (spelling)-to-many (sounds) aspect of the code is not taught from simple to more complex, it is likely to cause confusion.

For teachers to teach reading and spelling from the moment children enter school, they need a detailed knowledge of the code and a conceptual understanding of how the code works, not to mention the individual and particular procedural skills involved. Such knowledge can only come with proper training.

Bearing in mind that the alphabetic writing system was invented to record the sounds of the language, when talking, there are no silences in speech within words, between words or between sentences, unless we are pausing to breathe, for dramatic effect, or to punctuate our speech to help the listener follow our train of thought. But none of these reasons would result in silent letters being encoded to appear as spellings within individual words.

Instruction may also be inconsistent with the pupils’ own observations of words. In the situation in which a pupil is told that the letter spelling < k > at the beginning of the word ‘know‘ is silent, then, in the interests of consistency, one might assume that the letter spelling w at the end of the word ‘know‘ is also silent, which, of course, is NOT the case: the sound /oe / in ‘know‘ is spelt < ow >. Both < kn > and < ow > are digraphs: they are two letters representing one sound. It is indeed an oddity that many ‘traditional’ phonics programmes seem to have no difficulty in teaching that the < ow > at the end of the word ‘know is a spelling representing the sound /oe / and teach it as such, but can’t seem to acknowledge that the < kn> at the beginning is another two-letter spelling representing the sound //.

Once this idea is fully appreciated, it becomes completely obvious that English is actually spelt in a very logical, although complex, manner – complex because, unlike in many other European alphabetic languages, there are so many spelling alternatives for the sounds in English. Here, from a conceptual point of view, is how the alphabets code works:

Individual spellings represent individual sounds in speech, from left to right across the page

Sounds can be spelt with one, two, three or four letters

All sounds in the English language can be spelt with more than one spelling

Many spellings represent more than one sound.

Due to various historical quirks and changes in pronunciation, there are well over 200 spellings to represent around 44 or so sounds In English. Fortunately, we only need to teach up to about 175 of these (at mostbefore the brain starts self-organising the remainder just by virtue of the reader regularly reading and writing new texts. However, if the concept of silent letters takes hold, the pupil may come to view all new words with suspicion in the belief that any of the letters in them, in any position, may be silent.

Here is an example from an educational psychologist’s clinical practice. A 12-year-old student with a reading age of about six-and-a-half read the word ‘animal‘ correctly from a reading test. But the psychologist testing the pupil felt that there was something ‘amiss’ with the student’s decoding process, so he wrote the word on a whiteboard and asked the pupil to underline which letters in the word represented which sounds. This the pupil did as follows:

a n i ml

The examiner pointed to the two letters < i > and < a >, asking, “What are these letters doing in this word then?”
“It’s because they’re silent!” the pupil replied.
The examiner rubbed them out. “So, we could just as easily write the word ‘animal‘ like this then?” he said, writing:

a n m l

“Yes,” said the pupil.
“Go on then, sound it out for me please.”
The reply was confident and immediate: ‘a … nuh … ‘muh … l …  animal‘ – a triumph for the combination of silent letters and imprecise pronunciation of consonant sounds!

Consider pupils struggling quietly to read a word such as ‘whistle and think about what might be going on in their heads if there is no understanding that the spellings in the word represent individual sounds. In fact, ‘whistle’ contains four spellings: < wh > <  i > < st > < le > (/w/ /i/ /s/ /l/. If the hypothetical pupil is using single-letter decoding in combination with the idea of silent letters to try to find the real word, they might hit on the idea that the ht and e could all be silent, then ‘wisl‘ suddenly appears to be correct. But there again, if they decide that it is the < h >, < s > and < l > that are silent, the word could be ‘white‘; or indeed if in another instance it is < h >, < t > and < l > that are silent, the word would be wise‘! In all these situations, the poor reader would almost certainly be going back each time to read the sentence in which the word occurred slowly to see if the word they have ‘decoded’ makes sense in context. But, of course, in most situations, the pupil does not find a correct solution to this puzzle, and much intense thought (cognitive overload) is directed at a problem that, with the right instruction and a more complete understanding of how the code works, the competent reader would solve immediately.

How long, we wonder, can motivation and enthusiasm be sustained for pupils with such an inaccurate strategy that can never succeed? The answer is all around us: pupils, particularly but not necessarily boys, badly taught, appear to give up at about age eight because they believe that the reading process, as they have been taught it, is irrational and they cannot access it successfully.

Teaching that sounds can be spelt with one, two, three or four letters and that we spell sounds in different ways removes the need for the absurd notion that there are ‘silent letters’ in words. It also removes the potential need for having to teach later how the orthography of English really works.

When a pupil tells me that such and such is a silent letter, I hold up the text to my ear and listen carefully, after which I say, “You’re right! I can’t hear anything. But then I can’t hear any of the others saying anything either. They’re all silent!”


*Daniels, P.T. ‘Grammatology’ in Daniels, P. T., and Bright, W., Eds, (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ on The World’s Writing Systems, OUP, Oxford, p.2.