English: “Irregular Words” or “A Rich Verbal Tapestry?”

English:  “Irregular Words” or “A Rich Verbal Tapestry?”

“English spelling is unusual because our language is a rich verbal tapestry woven together from the tongues of the Greeks, the Latins (Romans), the Anglo Saxons, the Celtics, the 76’ers, and many other ancient peoples, all of whom had severe drinking problems.”

— Dave Barry, humorist

The drums are beating louder and louder about the importance of including morphology (the study of word structure) and etymology (the study about the original meaning of words and how they change over time) in early intervention for reading and spelling.  I have come to the conclusion that including morphology and etymology in your intervention approach from the beginning is critical.

What fascinates me (or confuses me) is that many of us are still saying that 56% or so of English words are “irregular.”  That is not accurate. The English language is a rich tapestry woven from centuries of trade, religion, occupations, wars and politics.  Over at least 500 years, our language has been informed by  Anglo-Saxon, Norman ( from Latin via French), Celtic, Old Norse, French, and other linguistic influences.  This is not information hidden away in some obscure texts. These words have patterns and predictable spellings that are no longer familiar to us but they can be noticed and learned instead of just asking children to merely memorize them.

How, specifically, did English evolve?

Recently, in 1986, McCrum, Cran and MacNeil wrote a wonderful book about The Story of English https://www.amazon.com/Story-English-Third-Revised/dp/0142002313.  The book is actually a written companion to the US-based Public Broadcasting System television series of the same name. I highly recommend that you take a look.

Closer to our world, Louisa Moats and Carol Tolman wrote an article for Reading Rockets in 2009 that eloquently described the “layer cake language” of English.  https://www.readingrockets.org/article/historical-layers-english  The article is essentially an excerpt from Moats’ Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS); Module 3:  How English Spelling Works.

The point is this: Unlike certain languages like Finnish or Italian, the English language does not have a simple print to sound map. In other words, English doesn’t follow a clear sound/symbol relationship because of the history of how English developed over time and because English is a stress-timed language (stress within words and within sentences changes pronunciation) as opposed to Italian and Spanish, which are syllable-timed languages.  So it only makes sense that if we’re going to teach students to read and spell in English, we need to provide them with explicit instruction in morphology and etymology!  By doing that, we’re creating a map to follow to help them go beyond just phonological intervention. 

If you provide direct intervention with our dyslexic kids, you may have encountered a common dynamic.  The student may have completed a prescribed course or approach in phonological processing but still struggles with fluency, spelling and comprehension as they move through school. The reason is that dyslexia is impacted by many facets of oral language processing, and knowledge of all three parts of orthography, not just phonology.

With this awareness of the key importance of including morphology and etymology (e.g., Structured Word Inquiry) in our intervention approaches educators, psychologists, speech and language specialists, tutors and parents can help their children unlock a whole new level of skill-building as they work to become skilled readers, spellers, and writers.  

Be sure to check out our products pages on https://trueliteracy.in/courses/ for training opportunities regarding Structured Word Inquiry.

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