The English Sound System, Orthography and Approaches to Teaching Spelling

In their introduction to chapter 9, Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) assert that ESL instructors should “teach their learners (1) how to predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling and (2) how to come up with a plausible spelling for a word given its pronunciation” (p. 269). However, the authors provide no empirical support for the effectiveness of this orthography-based approach and apparently fail to consider the possibility that such an approach may do more harm than good. It has been my personal teaching experience that focusing on how words are spelled often interferes with the learner’s efforts to acquire correct English pronunciation. For example, I have taught more than one student who was able to produce a passable pronunciation for words like would and should until learning that such words are spelled with a “silent l,” at which point the learners insisted that they could hear a faint l-sound in the word. From that point on, the learners began to pronounce these words with an intrusive [l] and I could never manage to remedy that incorrect pronunciation. I have observed that this phenomenon is particularly common among English language learners whose native language is written with a fairly phonemic alphabetic writing system (such as Spanish).

One viable alternative to the orthography-based approach advocated by Celce-Murcia et al. is to teach students to conceptualize the spelling of each word as a single unit, paying more attention to the whole than to the individual letters and their often tenuous sound correspondences. This holistic reading approach, which may impose a great learning burden on students at the start, can provide long-term rewards in that it allows for a faster reading rate (research has shown that readers who have internalized words as single units can read faster than those who have learned to read words as a string of individual letters), is effective for slower learners, and may minimize the risk that the learner will adopt an incorrect spelling pronunciation given the generally non-phonemic nature of the English orthographic system. Moreover, many of the spelling “rules” presented by Celce-Murcia et al. (taken mainly from the work of Dickerson) are so complicated and abstruse that they may be of little use to the learner.

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