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Spelling Rules vs Spelling Patterns:
What is the Difference?

by Dolores G. Hiskes

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English is not an easy language to learn. It never has been, and never will be. But when it is organized into spelling rules and spelling patterns, it then accounts for more than 90% of our language, and learning how to spell becomes a much more "do-able" task.

An example of what I'm talking about is learning math. We learn our times tables by pattern. What if we had to learn them randomly--12 x 7, 6 x 9, 4x 3, etc.? It would make things very difficult indeed!

There is a difference, however, between spelling rules and spelling patterns. Once this is understood it might help give a perspective to this sometimes-perplexing problem:

PHONICS RULES
When a particular spelling is mentioned as a "rule," it means that there is a logical reason behind it and that all or most words are spelled in a certain way when that particular configuration appears. To illustrate:

In a single-syllable short-vowel word, the ending "k" sound is spelled "-ck." And so whenever we hear a single-syllable short-vowel word that ends in the "k" sound, we can almost count on its being spelled with a "-ck" ending. There is a logical reason why it is spelled that way--and so we call it a "spelling rule." (Naturally there are a few exceptions, such as "yak" and "doc." But this is true most of the time.)

PHONICS PATTERNS
Sometimes there are multiple spellings for the very same sound, with no logical reason behind it (unless one digs deeply into word and language origins, and that is beyond the scope of Phonics Pathways).

A rather extreme example of this would be all of the spellings that can make up the long-u sound:

u-e June
oo moon
o do
ew new
ue blue
ui fruit
ou soup


These configuration are called "spelling patterns" if there are a number of words with the same sound that are spelled a particular way, but there is no logical reason why that sound is spelled in that way. When one of these words is spoken, if we did not already know how to spell it there would be no special rule we could call upon to help us.

There is another spelling of this sound that is not called a "spelling pattern" because only one example of this spelling comes to mind, and so we call it a "sight word": (One word does not a spelling pattern make!)

wo two

Using a computer analogy, when words are learned in patterns they are stored in your brain in similar "folders" and are more easily and quickly retrieved. When words are learned individually with no relationship to anything else they are stored randomly one by one in hundreds of individual "folders," requiring much more time and effort to locate and retrieve.

Therefore, while it can be somewhat confusing to teach "sometimes it is spelled this way" and "sometimes it is spelled that way," it is much easier learning how to spell many words by one rule or pattern rather than laboriously learning how to spell each and every word individually, one by one.

English is a composite of the romantic languages (Latin, French, etc.), the Germanic languages, and the Greek language. Each of these three systems is rigorously phonetic with their own set of phonics rules, but it is when they appear together in English that the mix becomes confusing.

Phonics Pathways is designed to teach children how to read and spell in the simplest way possible, by spelling rules and spelling patterns, without getting too technical.

Delving into Linguistics would reveal more technical reasons behind some of these word origins. The unabridged Oxford dictionary, comprised of more than a dozen volumes, would be an excellent reference for those wishing to investigate further.

© 2002-2003 Dolores G. Hiskes
May only be reprinted with permission from the author

Send your questions, comments or suggestions to: dor@dorbooks.com

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