Don’t Teach “Silent” Letters

The mastery of English spelling is difficult enough without the hocus-pocus about “silent” letters.

Chaucer's knight
The Knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Take the word knight. Do you teach the learner that the k, the g, and the h are “silent”? Or do you teach the easily remembered phonograms kn and igh?

If you take the latter approach, the learner can listen to the word knight, hear the three speech sounds in it, and write it with the three sound symbols knigh, and t.

Kn is an alternate spelling for the sound represented by the single letter nIgh is an alternate spelling for the long sound of the single vowel letter i. Teach igh as “3-letter i.”

Teaching children only the 26 letters of the alphabet leads to confusion. You must teach them the 26 single letters and their alternate spellings.

Here are eleven single consonant letters that represent distinct speech sounds, together with some alternate spellings that represent the same sounds:

F as in fan. Alternate spelling: ph as in phantom

G as in gethug. Alternate spelling: gh as in ghost.

J as in jet. Alternate spellings: g as in gypsydge as in fudge.

K as in kite. Alternate spellings: c as in catck as in luck.

L as in lap. Alternate spelling, ll as in full.

M as in man. Alternate spelling, mb as in lamb.

N as in nut. Alternate spellings: mn as in mnemonickn as in knotgn as in gnome, pn as in pneumonia.

R as in ran. Alternate spelling: wr as in write,

S as in sit. Alternate spellings: c as in centss as in miss,

V as in van. Alternate spelling, f as in of.

Z as in zebra. Alternate spelling: x as in xylophone.

Note that the distinctive sound represented by the letter x is /ks/, as heard at the end of such words as sixfox, and tax.

drawing of a xylophone
X at the beginning of a word represents the sound /z/.

When x occurs at the beginning of a word, it is an alternate spelling for the distinctive sound represented by the letter zxylophoneXerxes.

Xylophone begins with the sound of Z

ABC books frequently illustrate the letter X with the picture of a xylophone or an X-ray, a misleading practice, especially with X-ray in which the x represents neither /ks/ nor /z/.

X-ray of a hand
The first medical X-ray (1895)—Wikipedia

X-ray begins with the name of the letter X.

In case you’re wondering why the letter c isn’t in this list: the letter c has no sound of its own. It is an alternate spelling for the sounds that belong to the letters k (cat) and s(cent).

The alternate spellings for the vowel letters a, e, i, o, and u are so numerous they require a separate post for each letter.

Tagged basic literacy

5 Responses

  1. Ted,
    No. “Xy” would not be a digraph. Both letters in the combination are pronounced. The x represents the sound /z/, and the y represents the long i sound.

  2. So would the xy in xylophone be a digraph? It doesn’t seem to meet criteria for silent.

  3. David didn’t answer you — but I wonder if he mean “British” English? Perhaps the Brits spell “gypsy,” “gipsy”? That’s the ONLY thing I see that might make him wonder.

  4. Dear
    Before asking you my main question, I would like to ask you another question.
    are u a native speaker of english?

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