The Misspelling <*saycl>: A Brilliant Mistake!

(If teachers are trained to know what to do with it)

Peter Bowers, February 2007

I recently taught a word study lesson in a Grade 1 class. I had decided to teach the pattern for when the grapheme <c> represents /s/ and when it represents /k/. While we were collecting words to reveal this consistent pattern, I asked for a volunteer to have a go at spelling the <cycle> which was chosen specifically since it uses <c> for both pronunciations. With great effort I restrained myself from showing any hesitation in writing exactly the letters as the youngster said them out loud: s-a-y-c-l.

The error with the <s> is simple enough to understand, but writing the letter <a> for what I knew was the <y> for the ‘long i’ seemed so far off the mark. I was starting to guess that this child must have real difficulty. Then, when her second letter was <y>, I realized what was going on. When she failed to provide the <e> of <cycle>, my joy at her brilliant mistake was complete.

What is going on here?

‘Sounds’ in spelling: phoneme or phone?

Analysing this child’s spelling error has to do with understanding the underlying issue of our typical lack of precision of what we mean about ‘sound’ in spelling. I remember my amazement when, during my first Real Spelling workshop, I learned a crucial fact about what we usually call the ‘long vowel sounds’ in schools. It turns out that, except for ‘long e’, all of the ‘long vowel sounds’ include two separate ‘sounds,’ which are technically called ‘phones’.

For example, if we were asked to count the ‘sounds’ in the word <bake>, many would count three: /b/a/k/. In a way this count is correct. These are the 3 ‘phonemes’ in <bake>, but if you look at an IPA transcription of the word <bake> you will find 4 symbols: /beɪk/. The IPA system works by using one symbol for each distinct unit of speech. If the IPA for a word has four symbols, that means it has four phones (units of speech). The ‘long a’ phoneme that is found in words such as: <say>, <main>, or <they> is actually the combination of two separate ‘sounds’. If you say the name of the letter <a> out loud, you will be able to feel your jaw more open at the beginning of the pronunciation for the /e/ part, then the pronunciation finishes with the /ɪ/ as your jaw closes, and your tongue moves into place.

This brings us to the brilliant mistake by our Grade 1 student. Her misspelling <*saycl> for <cycle> is almost like a phonetic transcription. The word <cycle> is transcribed by the IPA system as /saɪkəl/. Notice that our student has faithfully represented the first two ‘sounds’ /s/ and /a/. In place of the /ɪ/ symbol, she has very reasonably used the <y> grapheme, and then correctly represents the last consonant ‘sound’ with the <l>. (The upside down looking <e> in there is the shewa, or the neutral vowel sound that can be represented by any of the vowel letters.)

Background knowledge and responding to students’ errors

There are at least a couple of points that need to be emphasized here. First, we need to think about the source of this spelling error carefully, and second, we need to think about common assumptions teachers might have when they work with a child who has made a mistake like this. As I transcribed this child’s error, it was almost painful for me to write the letter <a> as the second letter in <cycle>. I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, this child is way off base. How could she choose the <a> for the ‘long i’ sound?” However, when she added the <y>, everything changed. I understood her thinking and how to help, but only because I have had training in the phonetics of spoken vowels. She was carefully sounding out <cycle> and representing each sound she heard, and thus correctly represented that there are two ‘sounds’ in the ‘long i’. There are at least a few other fascinating and productive concepts to touch on with this spelling mistake, but let me pause here for a moment.

Consider the teacher who has not been given this background in phonology and phonetics. How might they respond to this misspelling? If a child made this mistake in my grade 3 or 4 class before I studied Real Spelling, I would have assumed that this child had a serious difficulty in processing pronunciation (phonemic awareness), or that they were extremely weak at representing sounds with the letters with which they are supposed to correspond (phonics). It never would have occurred to me that this error shows a child with particularly acute sensitivity to pronunciation, and that they are quite capable at representing those units of speech with possible graphemes. This error doesn’t suggest a child with difficulties processing pronunciation. This type of error is simply a cue to the teacher that their class needs explicit instruction in the phonetics of the long vowel phonemes and the graphemes available to represent those phonemes. The real problem facing a child making this mistake is that few teachers are trained to be aware of the phonetics of the long vowel sounds.

What are the potential consequences of false spelling error analysis by teachers?

I am certain that I came to false conclusions of students’ ability to process pronunciation on countless occasions before I received proper training. Sadly, the potential consequences of the false analysis of this of error could be quite serious. What happens to children who faithfully represent every sound they hear, exactly as instructed, and then have teachers tell them that they have serious problems with sound-letter correspondences? This must be an extremely confusing and frustrating experience for children – and it is something that we do to students exactly at the point when they are developing their attitudes towards learning to read and write.

Contrast this experience to that of the child who makes the same mistake with a teacher who has a background in this aspect of phonology in spelling. For the teacher with appropriate training, this same error offers a great jumping off point for a number of productive lessons. Seeing that a child has noted the two parts of the ‘long i’ pronunciation, they can show the whole class how our mouth moves when we pronounce the ‘long i’ and congratulate our student for being so sharp as to notice these two sounds. By talking about the physical aspect of pronunciation, we can more easily show how many vowel phonemes are ‘glides’ of more than one phone. From that foundation we can get on with the job of teaching how to represent those phonemes with the right graphemes.

Other fascinating points about this spelling remain. Given that this student chose the <a> as the second letter, her choice of <s> is perceptive. It is quite possible that this child had an implicit sense of the pattern we were teaching at that very moment. If she had written a <c> and followed it with an <a>, her <c> would only be able to represent /k/ which is not possible for the pronunciation of the word <cycle>. This child’s error happened in a lesson showing that <c> is used for /k/ unless it is followed by an <e>, <i> or <y>! (Our teacher trained in phonology will understand and teach why the letter <c> in  <chip> is not an exception to this pattern.)

Also consider the missing final <e>. If this were the only error, the misspelling would be <*cycl>. The question we have to ask ourselves if we are going to teach this spelling is, do we know why there has to be an <e> at the end of <cycle>? It turns out that this spelling, along with many common words (e.g., candle, table, apple), needs the silent <e>, not to show a ‘long vowel sound,’ but simply to make sure that a spelling conforms to a basic spelling law: Every spoken syllable needs to contain at least one vowel letter when we represent it. The spelling <*cycl> is a misspelling because it would be a word with two syllables, but only one vowel letter. Again this mistake provides potential jumping off points for lessons on fundamental aspects of how phonology works in our writing system and informs understanding of countless other spellings.

There is a key point to emphasize here.  I was a conscientious, hard working teacher for ten years before I ran into Real Spelling. However, without the accurate orthographic training I received as a result of the happenstance of running into Real Spelling, I would not have had an understanding of how our spelling system works. Like so many teachers, I could only have responded inappropriately to a misspelling like <*saycl>. My main classroom experience is from Grades 3 to 6. I can’t speak for how much of this information is new to Grade 1 teachers. My experience, however, is that this kind of discussion is new to most. While it may seem complicated on first read, this type of knowledge seems rather crucial for teachers responsible for teaching children to read and write.

English orthography = morphology, etymology and phonology: An integrated system

One reason I share this story is that I often emphasize the role of morphology in written word instruction, and may unintentionally leave the impression that pronunciation is not so important. People often describe this impression of the Real Spelling materials as well. For this reason I want to emphasize that Real Spelling and WordWorks instruction treats phonology as an essential component of written word instruction. Melvyn Ramsden has long emphasized the integrated model of morphology, etymology and phonology in all his resources. One of my first pieces of writing on this topic was entitled, “The Analogy of Triangulation” as a way of clarifying the interrelated nature of these elements of English orthography. (Click here for a page that includes a pdf of “The Analogy of Triangulation”)

The first figure on the following page was taken from the last Real Spelling Residential course I attended (also where my chart of ‘diphthongs’ came from).  Melvyn used this model to show the core content of his course. Clearly the role of pronunciation is fundamental to the training provided by Real Spelling. Because all three elements interrelate, morphology, etymology and phonology are addressed in workshops, classroom teaching and one-on-one tutoring by WordWorks. The point is to teach how the writing system works, so the role of pronunciation (phonology) in English orthography is crucial. 

Especially since the Faculty of Education Library at Queen’s has just received its Real Spelling Toolbox, and because more schools in the Kingston area have access to these themes now, I have highlighted themes in the first four kits of the Real Spelling Toolbox that include an emphasis on phonology instruction (see next page). Notice that phonology is heavily integrated into each level from K to 3 (and it continues up to Kit 6). Themes focusing on morphology and etymology are also represented at every level. Even when morphology is the main emphasis of a theme, the role of phonology will be explicitly involved. For example, I haven’t highlighted theme Kit 3E on the bases <sign> and <sci>, but grapheme-phoneme correspondences are addressed here as well.

I hope that looking underneath some of what is to be learned about a brilliant, logical mistake like <*saycl> by a young student causes educators pause. My view is that this account provides evidence that educators need to think deeply about assumptions underlying typical teaching of the writing system. Teachers deserve to be armed with precise and accurate information about the structure and purpose of English orthography that Chomsky called “near optimal”. It is not a simple matter to learn how the writing system works, but with good resources, teachers can start to learn these kinds of details with their students as they teach. It might seem like a big mountain to tackle (why is that silent <e> there again?), but the only thing to do is to start hiking.


Themes from the first four kits of the Real Spelling Toolbox that emphasize the role of phonology in spelling

Learn more about the phoneme known as the ‘long i’ in schools in this movie by Melvyn Ramsden in response to Peter’s writing on the misspelling <*saycl>.

Listen to an audio clip where Melvyn discusses  how with time, we can learn ways to choose from the available graphemes for / /.

Misspelling <*saycl>:

A Brilliant Mistake!

Copyright Susan and Peter Bowers 2008

Some phonological resources from Real Spelling in response to Pete’s article: