Bringing child literacy to the community

English spelling is often described as absurd. For apparent proof, consider the words tough, dough, and through; or meat, great, and threat. At Western’s Child and Youth Development Clinic, we are saying enough to this myth of illogical spelling.

In our Wise Words program, children learn the logic of the English writing system and how to make meaningful connections between related words and their spellings.

During the 10-week program, we help children gain literacy by understanding the meaning behind words that, at first, seem to have no discernable pattern in spelling or pronunciation. They learn to detect word patterns that often trip up adults.

For example, everyone knows there is a link between the speech sounds we say and the letters we write. The sound at the beginning of the word fish is usually written with the letter f.  It is important to realize, though, that written language isn’t simply a way to represent spoken sound but a way to draw meaning from related words.

Take for example, two and sign. Two needs its silent w to show its connection to words like twenty, between and twin. Sign needs its g to link to signal and signature. By understanding the meaning connections between words, the reason for these spellings becomes clear.

With Wise Words, we study how words are connected with the same central meaning or base. Our focus on meaning is aimed at supporting vocabulary growth which, in turn, supports reading comprehension and school learning.

Many people would argue one of the most confusing aspects of English spelling is its apparent inconsistency. Think again of the sound at the beginning of the word fish. It is true that sound is often spelled with the letter f, but what about words like rough and phone? Why should the f sound be spelled f in one case, ugh in another, and ph in yet another?

In fact, though, the ability to spell sounds in different ways is a key strength of our English writing system. Many spoken words in English sound the same but have different meanings: one/won, ate/eight, buy/bye. By spelling these words differently, the written language does a better job of representing the lack of an association between them.

Once again, by studying how words are connected, and then linking to the way a word is spelled, children in our Wise Words program come to a better understanding of written language. (Remember that f sound? It turns out that many English words containing ph originated from classical Greek words containing the Greek letter j  or phi.

English spelling has many important functions, of which representing spoken sounds is only one. Some letters provide meaning connections to other words, and others make the word consistent with rules and conventions, such as when to double a letter or add a silent final e. Think for a minute about the different meanings and structures of hop, hopped, hope and hoped.

Through the Wise Words program, we help struggling spellers hop over to hope. Almost all our 90 speech and language pathology students work with these pupils at some point during the program.

By working with the community beyond Western’s gates, we all develop a rich understanding of what words mean, how they are structured and why they are spelled the way they are.

Yes, we will be better spellers, but we will also be true logophiles. You might need to look that one up.

Lisa Archibald is a professor in the School of Communication Sciences & Disorders, and a Speech-Language Pathologist at the Child and Youth Development Clinic at Western. Find out more about the Wise Words program by calling 519-661-4257 or visit