Instead of peeking through the curtain, open the window and really take in the view.

Someone asked a really great question in a Facebook group the other day.  They specifically wondered why the word ‘chocolate’ didn’t follow the “a_e” rule.  In other words, the pronunciation of the last three letters isn’t what is expected.  (Just in case you are unfamiliar with this rule,  many phonics programs refer to this as the “split vowel magic e rule” or the “split digraph magic e rule”.  The underscore represents a consonant. When students see this pattern and the ‘e’ is silent, the ‘a’ will have its long pronunciation.)

The first two people responded with saying that ‘chocolate’ isn’t a word from English, so it won’t follow English conventions.  That idea is generally true.  Recognizing that a word is not following English spelling conventions is actually a way to spot that a word is probably a loan word.  I’m thinking of words like kiwi, ski, khaki, and bikini that have a final ‘i.’  Typically complete English words won’t have an ‘i’ final.    They won’t typically have a final ‘u’ either.  Examples of words from other languages that don’t follow this English convention are bayou, haiku, tofu, tutu, caribou, and plateau.

While stating that chocolate is a loan word so it won’t follow English spelling rules isn’t false, it won’t help much when a student asks about fortunate, delicate, accurate, or desperate.  In my mind, the question broadens to become, “Why aren’t these other words (and perhaps ‘chocolate’ as well) following this rule?”  Other people commenting on the post identified words such as I have listed as exceptions.  That is unfortunate.

Let’s think for a moment about labeling a word as an exception.  What happens then?  Nothing.  The door shuts on that word.  No one tries any further to understand what else might be affecting that word’s ability to follow the rule.  (Or to consider that the “rule” might be worthy of critical contemplation.)  Students are expected to accept that “exception” is the only understanding they will receive.  They will need to remember which words follow the rule and which words are exceptions to that rule.

What I have always taught students is, “Just because I don’t know something about a certain spelling doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for it.”  With that kind of thinking, we are opening the door again on any word that others label as an exception.  We are free to think further and collect evidence so we have something to consider.  Who knows?  We may garner an understanding that will help with remembering a word’s spelling in a way that calling it an exception just doesn’t.

Let’s take a further look at these words considered to be exceptions.  I went to Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher to quickly find words that had the same ending pronunciation as ‘chocolate.’

With a list this long, it seems a burden to ask students to remember that these are exceptions to the “a_e” rule.  If they don’t remember, and spell the words according to how they pronounce them, they are likely to use ‘it’ or ‘ite’ at the end of each of these words.  To add to this, I found words in which the final <ate> can be pronounced in two ways, depending on how the word is used in a sentence.  Notice how the pronunciation of the same word changes as it changes its grammatical function  (adjective or noun to verb).

Again, this seems like another burden for students who will now be taught that sometimes a word will be an exception and sometimes it will not.  There just has to be a more elegant explanation that will truly help our students.  What is it that is different in the pronunciation of animate and chocolate?  It is the pronunciation of the final ‘ate.’  We’ve known that from the start.  But what governs the pronunciation of that final part of the word?  Stress.  In all of the discussions about spelling “rules” that I see online, very few ever address stress.  Stress is one of those things about our language that sets it apart from other languages.  It is also one of the things that makes learning our language and speaking it as a native would difficult for many.

Our language is stress timed.  If you’re not familiar with that idea (as I wasn’t when I began studying English spelling), you might be wondering what that even means.  Simply put, it means that when we speak, we put the main stress or emphasis on one of the syllabic beats in a word.  If a word has only one syllabic beat, then that is where we place the stress.  Examples of words with one syllabic beat are frog, bed, mask, and light.  When you announce those words, you put emphasis on the beginning of the word.

Now consider a word with two syllabic beats such as open, garden, begin, and exposed.  Think about where we put the stress when we pronounce those words.  Do we say “Open the door,” or do we say, “oPEN the door?”  We put the stress on the first beat in that word.  It is the same with ‘garden.’  We say GARden instead of garDEN.  What about ‘begin?’  With this word, we actually put the main stress on the second syllabic beat.  Think about it.  Do we say “BEgin your work,” or “beGIN your work?”  We put the stress on the second syllabic beat.  It is the same with ‘exposed.’  Test it for yourself.  Do you say EXposed or exPOSED?  My guess is you say it with the stress on the second beat.

In polysyllabic words, one syllabic beat will have the main stress.  We may raise our pitch as we announce it and we may hold it longer than we hold other syllables.  Sometimes other beats have stress as well – just not has heavy.  That is called secondary stress.  But the remaining syllabic beats in those words?  They are unstressed.  And when a syllabic beat is unstressed, the vowel in that particular beat will become reduced to the point that we call it a schwa.

When I have introduced IPA and the idea of stress to my students, I did so by showing them the IPA symbols that correspond to the graphemes in their names, including the stress marks.  One year I had boys whose names were Jaydin, Jackson, Aidan, and Kayden.  When you say those names, you will notice that you put the main stress on the first syllabic beat of each name.  That means that the second syllabic beat of each name is unstressed.  With these names, it doesn’t matter which vowel letter we see in front of the final <n>.  They are all pronounced the same because they all are unstressed and therefore are reduced in their quality enough to be considered a schwa.  When I pointed this out to my students, they thought it was pretty cool.  They always wondered why the pronunciation of the second part of their names was the same even though the spelling wasn’t.  Here’s a small video clip of two students talking about having learned IPA.

The second student in the video is named Ava.  Now that she understands that there is stress on the first syllabic beat in her name, but not on the second, she understands why the two a’s are not pronounced the same!  I know that many teachers talk about the schwa sound with students, but I don’t believe that many talk about stress in words or stress in sentences.  My guess is that they don’t spend time talking about it because they didn’t learn about it themselves.  Because of that, they don’t know quite what to say.

There is a great resource for people who fall into the category of not knowing how to talk about stress seeing as how it was never explicitly taught to them.  It’s called Rachel’s English.  She has a series of videos that are actually there to help non-native English speakers sound more like native English speakers.  One of the things someone learning English probably struggles with is stress – especially if their native language is a syllable timed language like French, Italian, Korean, or Spanish.  In those languages, each syllable has the same amount of emphasis. No part of the word or sentence stands out in the same way that they do in English.

When I was first trying to wrap my head around this idea of our language being stress timed, I watched several of these videos.  Here is another one that I found to be very helpful.

In the second video, Rachel demonstrates stress with the sentence, “I saw her at the meeting.”  When she says it, the primary stress is on the verb ‘saw’ and the secondary stress is on the first syllabic beat of ‘meeting.’  One of the joys of English is that we can change the meaning of a simple sentence like this by changing where we put the stress.  I can imagine reading this sentence with the primary stress on ‘I’ and meaning something different than if I put that stress on ‘her.’  The two function words in this sentence (at, the) would probably not carry the primary stress in this sentence very often.

Her next example sentence illustrates that the words in a sentence that are not stressed are reduced.  The sentence she uses is, “I got this for you.”  It is the function word ‘for’ that is reduced and announced more like ‘frr.’  Can you picture a student who is saying that sentence to themselves as they write it, spelling the word ‘for’ as ‘fer?’  Me too.  It makes me wonder about the students I have had who misspelled a word different ways in a single writing.  Could it be that the placement of stress in those sentences affected the way the student pronounced the word in that sentence?  And if a student is taught to sound out words in order to spell them, they might indeed spell a word one way in one sentence and another way in another sentence.

The next video I’m including is longer than the first two, but continues on with this idea of what we do as we speak.  I am fascinated watching these videos of Rachel’s.  When we don’t introduce stress to students either at the word level or at the sentence level, we are leaving out such a crucial piece!  This kind of discussion could help students understand why they are misspelling some words.  It could also lead to a discussion that spelling based solely on pronunciation is prone to error.  There are just too many contributing factors.  Spelling based on morphemes, on the other hand, leads to spelling accuracy and a built-in understanding of a word’s sense and meaning.

Now that you have a better idea of how inherent stress is to our speech and how important it is to our understanding of spelling, I’d like to return to the words that were mentioned at the beginning of this post.  Below I’ve given you the opportunity to compare the graphemes to the phonemes in each word including stress marks.  I used toPhonetics to get a spelling to IPA transcription.  What do you now notice?

Every one of these words has its primary stress on the very first syllabic beat.  That means that the other syllables in each word are unstressed.  This explains why the first <e> in ‘delicate’ is representing the phoneme /ɛ/, but the following <i> and <a> graphemes are both representing the phoneme /ə/.  The same thing happens in ‘fortunate’, ‘accurate’, and ‘chocolate.’

The words ‘chocolate’ and ‘desperate’ have something else in common.  Each looks like it would have three written syllabic beats, but when spoken, there would only be two.  Notice the greyed ‘o’ in ‘chocolate’ and the greyed medial ‘e’ in ‘desperate.’  They are greyed because they are not graphemes representing phonemes.  Those two particular letters in those particular spellings are so unstressed in the pronunciations of those words that they have been zeroed!  The other greyed letters in this collection of words are all the single final non-syllabic ‘e’ that is also not a grapheme.  It is there as part of the <ate> suffix.  It may mark the pronunciation of the ‘a’ in the suffix when we see it in another member of the word family (desperation), but not necessarily.  The <ate> suffix is usually seen on nouns and adjectives whose base derived from Latin.  It is the stress placement in the word that determines the pronunciation of the <a> in that suffix.

Above, I gave you examples of words with this <ate> suffix that can be used in two ways.  Below I compare the IPA and stress marks on two of those words when the words are used in the two ways.

The difference, as you can see, is that when the word is used as an adjective or noun, there is only one primary stress in the word.  That leaves the remaining syllables unstressed and the pronunciation will reflect that by way of reducing the pronunciation of the vowels until they are a schwa.  When the same word is functioning as a verb, you can see that the word now has two stress marks.  One is primary (ˈ) and one is secondary (ˌ).  In both words, there are two syllabic beats that are stressed and one that is not.  That unstressed syllable is where we see the schwa.


If you are telling your students that sometimes a vowel is pronounced as a schwa, but you’re not telling them why, then you’re not helping them see the logic of English spelling.  Without meaning to, you are contributing to the misconception that spelling is weird and hard to understand.   How confusing must it be for a student to hear that sometimes vowels are reduced and can all sound similar, but then not to be told when this might happen.  This assignment of a schwa must feel very random to a student when in fact it is not.  Not at all.

English is a stress-timed language.  It is not syllable-timed.  Yet, many children are exposed to hours and hours of work with syllables and syllable types and little to no time spent understanding how the stress-timing of our language affects our speech.  It is time to recognize the problems created by looking at English spelling with such a superficial lens as pronunciation.  It is time to prepare the students for words they are encountering now and the words they will encounter in the future.  To do that, we must teach how the English spelling system works.  And to do that we must include instruction on morphology, etymology, and phonology (including stress).  Trying to explain a spelling without considering stress, morphemes, or etymology is like trying to explain how a plant gets its nutrients by only looking at the surface of a leaf.  If you want to understand the system, you have to be aware of all of the components and see how they work together.  You can’t peek through the curtain and expect to see the full view.  You must open the window and really take in the view.

Another wall of confusion comes crashing down!

For the second year in a row, I began the school year by showing my students how their names would be represented in IPA symbols.  The name tags on their desks were IPA representations of their names as well as the name tags on their notebooks.  When they came into my room at Open House (five days before the start of the school year), they were a bit bewildered.  They didn’t know how to find their desk.  I just greeted them with a smile and said that what they were looking at was not a spelling, but rather how pronunciation is represented.  “That is the pronunciation of your name,” I said.

Then I showed them which desk was theirs.  Most smiled and nodded.  A few said nothing, but held perplexed looks on their faces.  The parents who asked about it were very intrigued and jokingly asked if they could come and learn too.

Then in preparation for the first day, I made a large poster that included IPA representations of all 64 fifth grade names.  I hung it on my Smartboard so that my white board (adjacent) was available to write on.  I thought that having that many names in IPA might give the students more opportunity to see certain IPA symbols in many familiar names.  Then we could talk about the graphemes we use to represent those pronunciations.  Here is the large poster:

Even though it was the first day and I usually begin by introducing myself and the subjects I teach, the students were fired up to start with this.  As they came in they looked this poster over and began asking questions.

“Mrs. Steven, I see my name, but that isn’t how I spell it.”
“What language is this?”
“Why do we have to learn this?  It looks hard.”

I explained that these are not alphabet letters, even though some of them look exactly like the letters they are used to.  These are symbols used to represent pronunciations.  They are part of the International Phonetic Association’s system of symbols.  The word ‘International’ is there because these symbols are not just used to represent the pronunciation of English words.  Many languages can use this system.  Some of the symbols might look familiar, but some of them probably don’t.

Then I asked someone to point out a symbol and to say the pronunciation they think it might be representing.  Sam was the first to raise his hand and ask about the symbol that looked like an ‘a’ and an ‘e’ all smooshed together.  I explained that the symbol æ was once a letter in Old English.  It was called ash.  It is pronounced like the <a> in <ash>.  We recognized that pronunciation in Sam, Maddie, Maggie, Samantha, Addison, Travis, Hannah, Calli, Natalie, Danny, and Addy.  Having so many names in IPA was truly helpful.

Next it was Tommy who was curious about the <i> at the end of his name.  I told him that it wasn’t the letter <i> that we use in spelling.  This symbol represents /i/ and that in his name that pronunciation is spelled with the grapheme <y>.  I asked the students to see if that symbol was part of anyone else’s IPA representation.  They named Cally, Maggie, Casey, Cassy, Remi, Misty, Addy, and Danny.  Then we noticed that /i/ wasn’t always represented with the grapheme <y>.  In Remi’s name it was represented with a single <i>, in Casey’s name it was represented by the digraph <ey>, and in Maggie’s name it was the digraph <ie>.

The next to speak up was Scarlet.  She said, “You put a <k> in my name, but it is spelled with a <c>.”  So I explained that while that IPA symbol looks like a <k>, it isn’t.  These symbols are not the alphabet letters we spell with.

“The symbol represents /k/.  Is that how you pronounce the <c> in your name?”

I wrote the letter <c> on the board.  I asked if anyone could tell me how to pronounce it.  Scarlet immediately said /k/.

“Have you ever seen this letter in a word in which it was not pronounced /k/ but something different?”
Finley raised his hand and said, “What about in city?  There it is /s/.”
“Exactly.  Using a symbol that we recognize as <c> wouldn’t work in IPA, because we wouldn’t know which pronunciation to use.”

Then we spotted the names Cora, Cally, Carter, Frankie, Christian, Cal, Kai, and Casey that all had /k/ in their pronunciation.  I asked about Christian.  “Is it just the <c> or is it the <ch> that is represented by the /k/?”  Someone recognized that <ch> is pronounced /k/ in chemistry too.

Finley pointed out the symbol that looked like a capital ‘i’.  We only found that pronunciation is two other names – Misty and Marissa.

Then someone asked about the weird symbol that was in Christian’s name.  In anticipation, I wrote /tʃ/ on the board and pronounced it.  I wrote the spelling of his name on the board and asked, “Now which letter in the spelling of his name represents that pronunciation?”  Students answered with several guesses, but no one guessed <t> by itself.  So I covered up the <ian> part of the spelling and asked how the letter <t> would be pronounced.  Everyone said /t/.  I asked them to notice how the pronunciation of that <t> changed when it was followed by the <ian>.  We then brainstormed the words creature and mention where the letter <t> is also pronounced /tʃ/.  “I bet you never thought a <t> could represent anything but /t/.  But here is evidence that it can.  As we learn more about spelling and pronunciation, you will learn that the letter <t> represents at least one other pronunciation as well!

When the next group of fifth graders came in (we rotate three groups and spend 90 minutes with each group), I erased the board and started an examination of IPA  with them.   Jacob wondered about the symbol at the beginning of his name.  I wrote and then pronounced /dʒ/ on the board.  Then I spelled his name next to it.  “In your name, what letter represents /dʒ/?”  He answered that it was the <j>.  “Is that the only spelling that can be pronounced that way?”  He quickly answered yes.  “Can anyone think of a word with that pronunciation in it?”  That’s when the name of our village came up – Cambridge.  “In this word, what letter or letters represent /dʒ/?”  Lauren recognized it was the <dge> combination.   (I’m jumping ahead to what happened with the third group of students when someone recognized that their last name had that pronunciation and it was represented by the grapheme <g>!  Look for it in the next picture!)

Next it was time to look at the two symbols (functioning as one) with a pronunciation of /oʊ/ and represented as the letter <o> in the name Dakota.  The students wondered why there were two symbols for this one pronunciation, so I asked everyone to pronounce it.  Then I said, “Get ready to pronounce the letter <o>.  Freeze.  Notice the position of your mouth.  Now pronounce it.  As I heard them finishing, I asked them to freeze again and notice that their mouth was not in exactly the same position.   We did this a few more times so that everyone could feel that our mouth glides to a new position as we pronounce the letter <o>.  This is called a vowel glide.  Now you can see why the two IPA symbols are used as one to represent the pronunciation of this letter.  We looked around to see if other names had this pronunciation.  We found Oden, Noah, and Owain.

Ava was the next one to raise her hand.  “My name begins with an <a> and ends with an <a>, yet each <a> has a different IPA symbol.  Why is that?”
“Well, do we pronounce them the same way?”
“No, we don’t,” she replied.

We focused first on the the first pronunciation in her name.  I asked everyone to say the letter <a>.  Just as we did with <o>, I asked them to notice the way our mouths begin in one position and finish in another.  “This is another vowel glide.  We see this one pronunciation represented by an IPA symbol that looks like two symbols.  Who else has this pronunciation in their name?”

The students found Adrianna, Casey, Taylor, Grayson, Aiden, Xaiver, Mason, and Jacob.  It was interesting to note the graphemes and digraphs that represented this pronunciation in the students’ names.

I pointed out the stress marks in each name and we noted that not everyone had a stress mark at the beginning of their name.  We practiced saying the names and feeling the stress.  We noted the difference in pronunciation between /məˈkɛnə/ and /ˈmɑkɛnə/.  Even though noticing stress is completely new to these students, this was a first step, and they recognized how it made a difference in Makenna’s name.

As we continued, the students kept using their own names and the names of their classmates to decipher the IPA symbols and the pronunciations they represented.  Along the way we talked about the symbol known as schwa.  We found this pronunciation symbol in many names including Norah, Addison, Sylvia, Alyssa, Natalie, Ian, Scarlet, Hannah, Shiras, Darien, and Shanna.  Again, we noticed that this pronunciation could be represented by several graphemes and digraphs.  I shared with them that the schwa is unstressed in a pronunciation.  It does not get the punch that a stressed vowel would get.  We compared the /ʌ/ in Hunter to the  /ə/ in Cora, and tried to feel the difference between that pronunciation being stressed in Hunter and unstressed in Cora.

By the end of the day, there were very few symbols that had not been discussed.  The students left the room abuzz with their new understanding.  I told them I would combine the observations from each class and make a key that we could all use to understand these IPA symbols as we move forward in our learning.  My!  It was a good day!

The next day I wanted to revisit what we had talked about and then take it a step further.  I modeled writing a spelling of someone’s name on the board and then putting the IPA symbols underneath.  But as I did so, I used one color to represent the grapheme and the corresponding IPA symbol that represented that grapheme.  I used another color to pair up the next grapheme (or digraph) with the IPA symbol that represented it.  I kept going, switching colors, until the name was spelled and the pronunciation was represented.  Then I asked the students to do the same thing with their own name in their notebooks.   When I had checked it, they wrote it out on larger paper so we could hang these in the hallway and share what we are learning!

As the first students finished, they asked me what they should do next.  I sent them to the large poster and had them practice pronouncing everyone’s name.  They were so proud that they could do it now!  We finished up with a discussion about the fact that spelling doesn’t usually help us know how to pronounce a word.  We used several names including Aaron’s as an example of that.  But now we understand IPA!  We have a reliable system that will represent pronunciation!  That means that we can look to spelling to represent a word’s meaning!

*****Right now those are words crafted into a statement that doesn’t mean much to my students.  I know that.  But in these two days we put some solid bricks in the foundation of our understanding of the English spelling system.  The rest will come.  It takes presenting evidence over and over for them to finally get that each word has a story and that it reveals that story and its meaning through its spelling.  One day at a time.  Our understanding has begun!

Below are the pictures of our hallway display.  We have seen many people stop to take a look.  That makes us happy!