English Spelling

English spelling is notoriously complex because it is influenced by multiple systems. Understanding these systems can help teachers explain spelling patterns and irregularities more effectively.

The Phonological System

The phonological system deals with the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and their corresponding letters or letter combinations (graphemes). While many other languages  – Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Swahili – are known for their phonetic consistency, English is not a purely phonetic language. In English, the same phoneme can be represented by different graphemes.


  • The sound /f/ can be spelled as “f” in “fun,” “ff” in “cliff,” “ph” in “phone,” and “gh” in “enough.”
  • The vowel sound /iː/ can be spelled as “e” in “me,” “ee” in “see,” “ea” in “eat,” and “ie” in “field.”

Less than 50% of English words are spelled phonetically.

The Morphological System

This is how the structure of words affects spelling. Morphemes include roots, prefixes and suffixes. The ability to recognise morphemes can help decode words.


  • The prefix “un-” remains consistent in spelling and meaning: “unhappy,” “undo,” “untie.”
  • Suffixes ‘ness’, ‘ity/ty’, ‘ment’, ‘tion/sion’ and ‘hood’ indicate noun forms. Can you

The challenge is that although morphemes are spelled consistently, their pronunciation may change.


  • The suffix “-ed” indicates past tense, but its pronunciation varies: “walked” (/t/), “played” (/d/), and “wanted” (/ɪd/).
  • The suffix “-s” indicates plural nouns, but can be pronounced in various ways: “cats” (/s/), “dogs” (/z/), and “horses” (/ɪz/)

The Etymological System

Throughout its history English has borrowed extensively from other langauges, which affects its spelling patterns.


  • Words from Old English: “knight” (with the silent “k”).
  • Words from Latin: “aquarium” (with the “qu” spelling).
  • Words from French: “ballet” (with the silent “t”).

The Lexical System

This focuses on spelling conventions in vocabulary usage and word meanings, including homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings) and homographs (words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, and sometimes, pronunciations), word families, idioms and collocations.


  • Homophones: “bare” and “bear,” “sea” and “see.”
  • Homographs: “lead” (to guide) and “lead” (a type of metal).

The lexical system highlights relationships between words of the same family.


  • The ‘g’ in the word ‘sign’ /saɪn/ indicates the word’s relationship to the word ‘signature’ /ˈsɪɡnətʃə/

The Graphemic System

This system involves sets of letters and rules governing their use, including letter combinations and positional constraints for reasons of orthographic consistency, historical preservation and/or aesthetic considerations. However, due to the interplay of different systems, there are many exceptions to any rules that can be made.


  • “ck” usually follows a short vowel sound: “duck,” “brick.”
  • ‘q’ is usually followed by a ‘u’.
  • We don’t end a word on a ‘v’.


The phonological and etymological systems are generally the most prevalent and difficult aspects of English spelling due to the inconsistencies and historical influences on spelling patterns. The morphological and graphemic systems, while still challenging, offer more predictable patterns. The lexical system adds a unique set of challenges because they require memorization, rather than decoding.

Understanding these systems of meaning, sound, origin, parts of words and typical letter patterns can help us teach students what to focus on when learning to spell.

Joanna Stirling writes a brilliant blog on English spelling and how to teach it: thespellingblog.blogspot.com