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"Stay on the Horse" or An Alternative to "Silent Letters"

Most of us are familiar with the term "silent letters." We tell children (or ourselves) "the <e> in "have" is silent. "Pterodactyl" has a silent <p> I don't deny that this terminology makes a certain amount of sense. Though the <k> in "knife" was pronounced in the past, it has been dropped from modern English pronunciation and thus is a seemingly random, useless addition to a word that could logically be spelled "nife." These "silent letters" often give us clues about the words etymology - <kn> words have Germanic origin. Words like "pterodactyl" or "pneumonia" come from Greek where the /p/ is pronounced. It is unlikely we are going to rid the language of them, so how how do we effectively teach them?

I used to be a "silent letter" proponent. I didn't really think much about it, and it made enough sense to me. "English is crazy," we all agree, and it is simple to just shrug it off like the dude who wrote the dictionary had some sort of sick and twisted plot to make us all feel insane when trying to spell. However, since I've trained in Structured Linguistic Literacy approaches including Reading Simplified and EBLI, I have given the term more critical thought and dropped the term "silent letter" from my vocabulary. EBLI founder Nora Chahbazi has said something along the lines of "if you put kids on one horse, keep them on that horse." I can't cite exactly where she said this as I think it has been more than once in various webinars and trainings I have taken, so my apologies for that. However, I will do my best to explain what that means to me and my teaching practice below, and how I think we simplify reading instruction in this way.

In EBLI and other Structured Linguistic literacy approaches, we are teaching students some fundamental principles of how the code of the English language works. These principles are that: letters represent sounds, 1-4 letters can represent one sound, sounds can be represented by more than one "grapheme" (letter or combination of letters), and that one grapheme (letter or combination of letters) can represent more than one sound. These statements can seem a little "jargon-y" without exemplification, so let me elaborate.

First, "letters represent sounds and 1-4 letters can represent one sound." So when you see letter <p> on the page, you will (usually) say the sound /p/ (not the letter name "PEE"). The letters are not chosen at random, they are a code that signals you to make a specific sound with your mouth. Their actual "letter name" is irrelevant when reading, the sound they are supposed to represent is what is important. Since 1-4 letters (in English) can represent a sound, when you see the letters <e i g h> you will say the sound /ai/ like in "sleigh" or "weigh." When you see the letters <i g h> you will say /eye/ like in "fight" or "sigh." Perhaps you have never thought about your reading this way - but this is what proficient readers are doing, at lightning speed.

Next, sounds can be represented by more than one grapheme. Grapheme is just a technical term that means "the chunk of code that represents a particular sound." So in the word "rain," <ai> represents the /ai/ sound, and in "pay" the <ay> does this same job. In "sleigh" the code bit is <eigh> and in "acorn" it is just <a>. This is what makes our language complicated and frustrates people when spelling. Which /sh/ spelling do we use in "nation"? Is it <sh> (nashun), <ti> (nation)?, <ci> (nacion)?, <si> (nasion)?, <c> (nacon)? If you are a proficient reader, you likely pronounced each of those examples a little differently. You are also likely adept at recognizing certain patterns in our language. Yet all those options (and more) CAN spell /sh/ (shun, clinician, tension, ocean). Since we likely aren't going to get a total language system re-write, we have to accept this complexity along with the final challenging aspect of our written code.

One grapheme (piece of code) can represent more than one phoneme (sound). This means that <e a> isn't always the sound /ee/ like in "team, dream, plead" it can also represent the sound /e/ like in "bread, head, dead" or /ai/ as in "great, break, steak." PLUS those two letters side by side may also be two separate graphemes like in "preamble" or "delineate." Goodness that's really overwhelming! Yet, I assure you, even severely struggling readers can learn this crazy system.

Back to my point and what this has to do with silent letters! Most importantly, lets think about the concept that "Letters spell sounds" and "sounds are represented by 1-4 letters." <e i g h> represents the sound /ai/ in "weigh" or "freight". If we use the term "silent letters," which of those letters is "silent?" Aside from the technicality that ALL of them are silent (YOU say the sounds, not the letters), which part of that code are we supposed to understand as the bit that says /ai/ versus the bit that says nothing? What about in the word "colonel"? (This word is pronounce /kernel/ for those who may not be aware.) If the middle <o l o> spelling is "silent," is the /er/ sound "invisible?" Is the "ti" in "nation" silent because it represents neither /t/ nor /i/? See where I'm going? Why are some letters silent and some are just a different spelling or an unusual spelling? If the <e> in "have" is silent and the <k> in "knead" is silent, is the <g h> in "enough" silent?

If we think of Nora's (loosely quoted) statement that we ought to "keep the kid on the same horse" we can just say that <gn> is a 2 letter spelling for /n/ in gnome just like <i> is a spelling for /ee/ in "ski" or <e t> is a two letter spelling for /ai/ in "ballet" or "beret." This keeps the language and the concept consistent. Those letters are just part of the spellings. None of the letters are talking (but you know that), but you need to know what to say when you see them and you need to know that you (not the letters) may need to say something different. A cat may always say "meow" but <ai> does NOT always say /ai/ (said, again). Additionally, if you SEE something different, you may need to say something different. If I wrote "fight" without the "silent" <gh> then I have "fit" and that, obviously, is an entirely different word. This all ties in the other principles of our language which encompass the idea that, essentially, we need to be flexible!

Sounds are represented by more than one grapheme or chunk of code. The code bits <e>, <ee>, <ey>, <y>, <i>, <eo>, <ea>, etc. all represent the sound /ee/ in some words (me, seem, key, baby, taxi, people, meat). We may be tempted to say the <o> in "people" is "silent." Is the "a" in "meat" silent - or is that a two letter spelling for /ee/. Why not just keep the concept and terminology the same? We may need to say /ff/ when we see <gh> like in "rough" or we may need to say /g/ like in "ghost." We can learn to see these patterns and become flexible with sounds, but neither of those examples require any of the letters to be "silent." We can take ALL that jargon along with the explanations, "rules" and exceptions and still teach what we need to teach. Simple. Less cognitive overload.

I realize that in many ways, this is an uphill battle. This is an idea that children learn in school and it has been ingrained into parents and teachers. It is not an easy switch to make, I know! Yet, if we can simplify instruction by us as adults taking on some hard work (changing our habits, our language and maybe even our understanding of what is "true" and "absolute" about learning to read) and help kids to make progress faster without the cognitive load of "some letters are silent, some are digraphs, some are vowel teams, some are bossy, some are controlling, some are just "heart words," (etc. etc. etc.) then I think it is worth us adults feeling a little "this is confusing and difficult for ME to change MY ways." You'd be surprised at how easy kids, when they don't have to unlearn these confusing bits, can progress with this simplified instruction.

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