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. What people are confused about is the nature of the writing system by which we represent the sounds.
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.
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 with 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/ 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 still another way: [ ck ]. 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 are all appear fairly regularly in English words. Then, what about the /ee/ in ‘archaeology’, or the /ee/ in ‘amoeba’? 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, it might, but that isn’t 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 a straightforward ‘Initial’ or ‘Basic’ code to begin with, followed by more frequent spelling patterns - 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 understand how the code works and how to teach it from simple to more complex.