Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Spellbound and Tongue-Tied

Some years ago the Portuguese government signed an agreement with other Portuguese speaking countries about the way the language was to be written, and the slow process of making it happen started to be rolled out. I was quite amused recently to learn of the number of students of English in Portuguese schools who thought that the novo acordo ortográfico — the new spelling agreement — applied also to English. 

The purpose of the agreement is to standardize spelling across the Portuguese-speaking world, though it seems that in reality what is happening is to bring the spelling of words in the old country, Portugal, where 1.6% of words are changing, into line with the way that spelling is dealt with in big, brash offspring Brazil, where 0.4% of words are changing. As far as I can tell the African countries where they speak Portuguese are more or less ignoring the agreement. It would be as if Britain had decided to drop its traditional method of spelling and adopt the American way. The thought has me waking in the middle of the night in cold sweats and gibbering in terror. 

It isn't going quite as smoothly as its champions would like, and some of the major national cultural institutes are holding out on implementing it, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, in Portugal we are bombarded every morning, over our breakfast cornflakes and along with a daily diet of ever gloomier news from the TV, with camera crews out checking who in the general populace has got a handle on the new spelling. Naturally the kids are coping far better than us olduns and not only do they tend to get the new spelling right but they also give us the rules for doing so. Echoes of the school parrot, perhaps. One of the rules, for example, is that if a consonant isn't sounded then it is omitted. This means that a lot of c's and p's have now joined the long line of the unemployed, as acção become ação, acto become ato, baptismo becomes batismo and óptimo becomes ótimo. There is also a lot of huffing and puffing about the use of the hyphen.

So I was first bemused and later amused to discover that the kids think that the spelling rules in English have changed in the same way, though they obviously weren't thinking through the rules properly. So some students were assuming that a word like action was now spelt ation and baptism as batism. Now I wouldn't be mentioning this if there was no more than a little head-shaking amusement to be gained from the confusion displayed here, but it did get me and some colleagues thinking further about what was going on. Clearly the students who were making the mistake were engaged in spotting redundant letters in their own language and deleting them, but they hadn't gone so far as to work out if the same letters were actually redundant in English.

In the examples given above the letters aren't redundant in English though they are in the very similar words in Portuguese. However, English is full of redundant letters as far as pronunciation is concerned and it is the disjoint between spelling and pronunciation that causes one of the biggest problems for learners of the language (as well as native speakers, I should add). What, then, if we used this innocent mistake by some students and turned it into an activity of positive use in the classroom?

Many students of English around the world have become familiar with the sound of the language through the media of music and film rather than in the written form, and it often comes as a surprise when they have to match the familiar sound of words like though with the unfamiliar word on the page. One result is that even fairly fluent speakers of English aren't particularly fluent readers and even less assured at writing because the shape of the word frequently doesn't seem to match its sound. Why not, then, an activity asking students to identify apparently redundant letters in a text so that when extracted the words look more like the way they sound?  Let's start off with fairly simple choices, limiting the choice to consonants only:

"She can't know anything about me," added Oliver, after a moment's silence. "Though if she had seen me hurt, it would have made her sorrowful…."
(Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)

A diligent student might decide to rewrite this passage thus:

"She can't no(w) anything about me," aded Oliver, after a moment's silence. "Tho(u) if she had seen me hut, it would have made her soro(w)ful…."

A native speaker reading this version would find that the removal of some of these apparently redundant letters had changed the sound of some words, showing that the letters weren't redundant after all. A valuable lesson is learned by realizing that the supposed useless 'k' in front of words like know do have a purpose in that they indicate a change in the sound of the vowel that follows. An even more valuable lesson is learned by the realization that this is not a fixed rule, and that the 'k' in front of knife and knight are, for the purposes of pronunciation anyway, genuinely redundant. In the same short extract above we might also learn that double letters following a vowel frequently change the sound of the vowel itself, often making it longer in sound, and that the letter 'r' following a vowel usually creates a significant change (in the example hurt becomes hut). A more advanced activity would look at redundancy, or otherwise, in the use of vowels. (Consider the words though, trough and thorough for example: what function, if any, does the 'u' play?)

The whole process is one of sensitization to nuance but also to the aspects of the language which are genuinely and stubbornly eccentric. Above all, though, it actively engages students in the process of examining how words are constructed rather than simply accepting them as items magicked out of air. It can also lead to fun discoveries that functional English can be constructed by using different formulae, such as the one invented as a spoof about the European Commission as a way of making the use of English in the European Union "better regulated."  In this scenario a series of changes to the language are actuated over a period of years, first by soft c's substituting by s's, later with 'ph' being replaced by 'f', later still the process will involve the removal of double letters in words. In many instanses, double leters do not afekt the aktual pronunsiation of a word. They are, however, a comon deterent to akurate speling. By the end, the process will have created a fine example of spelling by committee where English vil be ze komon languag ov ze Komuniti, vich vil no longer be merly an ekonomik sifer, but a kominashun ov fre pepls.

(See The Spelling Society for the complete spoof.)

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.