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  • Writer's pictureAnn Sullivan

Silent letters. Why can't I hear the others then?

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

I am not currently teaching due to Covid-19 and I am missing it. Not least because I am unable to indulge myself and inflict my reading ‘jokes’ on my pupils.

One I am particularly proud of and generally wheel out to all my older pupils, is when, during the course of our work, they inevitably point at a word and say… “That’s a silent letter.” Oh, how I love to look quizzically at the writing, dramatically pick up the piece of paper, hold it hopefully to my ear and shake vigorously as if to stir the printed letters into action. And then comes the punchline… I exclaim dramatically that if some letters are silent then that means others must be making noises and I have never heard them! What have I been doing wrong all these years??

Ok, ok not exactly going to get me top billing at the O2 but it keeps me amused (in a very small but necessary way).

The point I try to make is that all letters are silent – we give them a voice, bring them to life when we read them out loud or in our internal ‘thinking voice’. In fact the word ‘silent’ is not accurate in the sense that it is used; in this context it refers to there being something different about those letters – it refers to the fact that they are considered redundant, having no purpose or function within the word. In fact, all letters have a place and function within words – every single letter is either a sound spelling on its own or is part of sound spelling – every letter can be accounted for. We just might not be used to thinking about things this way.

Let’s look at some classic examples:

kn represents the sound /n/ in knight knife know knot knuckle knead knock knit knee

wr represents the sound /r/ in write wrong wrap wren writ wrought wrinkle wreck

mb represents the sound /m/ in lamb dumb numb limb comb crumb climb womb bomb

These examples show that, contrary to popular belief, there is regularity in how sounds are represented in English words – there aren’t hundreds of random, bizarre spellings for each sound. Remember there are only approx. 170 sound spellings for all 44ish sounds (all depends where you live and your local accent). Our job, as teachers, is to be aware of these relationships between sounds and sound spellings and demonstrate to our pupils how it all works.

So if we are working on the sound /n/ or we come across a word like 'know' in our reading then we can explain to our pupils that kn is just one of the ways we can represent the sound /n/ in words. Simple as that.

Here are some more for you to think about:

bt debt sc scene gn sign mn autumn ps psychology st listen bu build gu guitar sw answer

Do feel free to use my joke if the opportunity arises with your pupils. Don’t expect belly laughs though – that's not something I ever achieved.

#silent letters

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