English is one of the more difficult languages to learn to read because of all the overlapping spellings and pronunciations. Unfortunately, it's even more difficult to become a proficient speller of English words. The only way to learn the spellings of certain words is to use visual memory to recall the spelling. Take a simple word like learn, for example. Does a child spell it lern, lirn, lurn, or learn? Is the word journey to be spelled jerny, jirny, jurny, jearny, journy, jerney, jirney, jurney, jearney, or journey? The only way to know is to remember, and there really aren't any crutches available to rely upon to help recall the correct spelling in such cases.
In many cases, though, an auditory crutch is available, if a child is trained properly from the start.
Perfect Pronunciation of the Schwa Sound
The schwa sound is prevalent in English words. It is just the subtle /u/ sound that replaces a more precise vowel sound in unaccented syllables of a large percentage of multisyllable words. It also crops up in a few one-syllable words, like ton, son, month, a, was, and the. Examples in multisyllable words abound. For example the first sound of ago, around, away, along, and about, or in occur, oven and offend. The second vowel sound in each of the following words is a schwa as well: distant, challenge, limit, and second.
Note that in those last four words, the schwa is spelled with the letters a, e, i, and o, respectively. Each of those vowel letters occurs as a spelling of the schwa sound in hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of words. So what's the answer? Just rely on visual memory?
Well, no, fortunately we also have an auditory memory, and in the case of the schwa sound, it can be used quite effectively as an aid to spelling. The solution is to form a perfect pronunciation in auditory memory and then rely upon that to recall a spelling of a sound.
For example, take the word limit. Instead of recalling it as li-mut (as it sounds), recall it as li-mit auditorily. That is, pronounce it perfectly when spelling it. If that is done with sufficient repetition, correcting when needed, the auditory recall of li-mit soon becomes an efficient crutch upon which to rely in spelling the word.
The same procedure is followed with the occasional one-syllable word. Your child should not think of son as rhyming with sun (which it obviously does in normal speech), but instead should form a perfect pronunciation so that son rhymes with con or with the names Don and Ron. The same is true of the word ton.
And the words a and the should always be taught to rhyme with day and she, respectively, for spelling purposes. This might even prevent some children from habitually mixing them up when reading.
In short, the technique of forming a perfect pronunciation of a word becomes an indispensable aid to spelling of the schwa sound common to so many words.
Perfect Pronunciation of the Endings ant, ance, and age
These suffixes are quite common and the letter a is almost alway a schwa sound in normal speech. Examples are distant, elegant, distance, relevance, cabbage, and luggage.
Here, one answer is to mentally rhyme these words with the one-syllable words ant, dance, and age, respectively, so that the auditory channel can be relied upon for a perfect pronunciation when spelling these endings. This can be quite effective in differentiating these endings from endings such as ent, ence, and ege, each of which should be pronounced with a precise /e/ sound.
A second answer is to use the third sound of the letter a, the /o/ sound in want, whenever an ending (a suffix, that is) starts with the letter a. This works for the above three suffixes, as well as able (probable), ably (probably), and acy (democracy), because there are hardly any cases of words ending with the corresponding suffixes ont, once, oge, oble, obly and ocy. So, if you're saying an /o/ sound in one of these suffixes, use the letter a rather than the letter o. This method also has the advantage of making the perfect pronunciation be much closer to the actual pronunciation.
Perfect Pronunciation of the Endings al, el, il, and ol
Many multisyllable words end with one of the spellings al, el, il, or ol. Two of these are easy to handle from a perspective of making a perfect pronunciation. Simply rhyme words like cancel with bell, and rhyme words like stencil with bill.
The endings al and ol take a bit more thought. Because the ending of a word like total rhymes more closely with ball, than with pal, it makes sense to associate the third sound of the letter a with the al ending. However, this could conflict with the ol ending if words like symbol are thought of as rhyming with doll. The answer is to rhyme words ending with ol with roll. Summing up, rhyme as follows: al (ball), el (bell), il (bill), ol (roll).
And if none of these is held in auditory memory for a particular word, the ending is most likely spelled le, as with rustle, hassle, cattle, and hundreds of other words.
Perfect Pronunciation of The Endings or and ar
Similarly, words like sailor, mayor, tailor, actor, and author should always be recalled for spelling as auditorily rhyming with for, while words like dollar, collar, beggar, liar, and lunar should eventually be firmly embedded in auditory memory as rhyming with far.
And if neither of these is held in auditory memory for a particular word, the ending is probably the far more common spelling er.
Spelling Help from the First Exception
In the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method, the First Exception is: Add a doubled consonant to the chunk. For example, the word hammer is chunked hamm-er, using the First Exception.
Now, admittedly, the linguistic break in hammer is immediately after the vowel sound. It is much easier to say ha-mmer, than to say hamm-er. (Try repeating each a few times to see the difference.) However, this fact can used to help with spelling. Because it's somewhat awkward to say hamm-er, this raises the question of why it is being chunked that way in auditory memory. Why am I not just saying ha-mer? Well, the answer is that I would, if "hammer" had only one "m," but it has two and the First Exception is forcing me to chunk it hamm-er instead.
In other words, as long as I am able to recall, for spelling purposes now, the phrasing hamm-er from auditory memory, I will realize that it is a doubled mm that is driving that phrasing. Conversely, because I recall rapid as ra-pid, I know that there is only one p in that word.
Incidentally, it's also true that it's much easier to add a doubled consonant to the end of a word, or chunk, than to the beginning, because English words rarely begin with a doubled consonant such as bb, cc, dd, etc.
Spelling Help from the Second Exception
In the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method, the Second Exception is: Add a marker to the chunk. For example, the word locker is chunked lock-er, using the Second Exception.
Here, too, the linguistic break is just after the vowel sound, lo-cker, as opposed to lock-er. And, just as with the hamm-er example, the awkward phrasing drives the question of why it's being chunked that way. And here, too, the answer is that an Exception has been applied, and that the spelling of the marker, whether it be ck, x, tch or dg, should be used instead of alternative spelling for those sounds.
Spelling Help from the Third Exception
In the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method, the Third Exception is: Add a sound to the chunk if the next chunk is "hard to say." Here there is no conflict with the linguistic break. In fact, the linguistic break is the basis of the Exception itself.
However, because doubled consonants were actually invented to get two consonants after a vowel sound to serve as a diacritical marking of a First Vowel Sound, it stands to reason that when two consonants, even though different from one another, are already present, then no doubling is necessary. Therefore, whenever a word such as lobster is chunked appropriately as lob-ster, if your child has a good understanding of the Third Exception, he will realize that the letter b in lob is in no need of being doubled.
Dealing with a Leading Schwa Syllable
English has a large number of words that start with the syllable a pronounced as a schwa. Many of them cause no difficulty for spelling once the pattern is realized. The pattern is just that such a syllable is almost always spelled a. Words like around, about, along, abort, abundant, adoption, apartment, and ability cause little difficulty as long as they are chunked a-round, a-bout,...., a-part-ment, and a-bi-li-ty.
However, there are also a large number of words that start with the letter a, pronounced as a schwa sound, but followed by a doubled consonant. Here are just a few examples: abbreviate, accord, account, accuse, addicted, address, affair, affect, and aggresive. There are a lot. There are also a few that start with the letter o as a schwa such as occur.
This is the one place where applying the First Exception and perfect pronunciation becomes a bit more than just awkward. Doing so makes such words somewhat difficult to decode because the required perfect pronunciation combined with the Exception changes too much from the spoken word. Realizing this is the case is the first step to solving the decoding problem, so several examples should be discussed when it first becomes an issue.
Nevertheless, for spelling purposes, the awkwardness is worth it and such words can be profitably chunked as abb-re-vi-ate, acc-ord, acc-ount, acc-use, add-ic-ted, add-ress, aff-air, aff-ect, and agg-re-sive, pronouncing all the initial chunks as though they begin with the First Vowel Sound of the letter a.
If you study other reading curricula, you'll find that none of them have a good answer in this area. A young child will have as much difficulty blending "ac-count" as "acc-ount" (and maybe more difficulty), and chunking the word as "a-ccount" puts an awkward doubled "c" at the beginning of a chunk, making it difficult to recall the correct spelling. And remember, this page is about spelling tips, not decoding.
This concludes the presentation of the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method. Again, it's completely contained within the Advanced Code Phonics Workbook, along with all of the prerequisite material.
If you're a teacher of older students, and you think that many of them would benefit from learning the methods described here, take a look at the section Phonics for Older Students for a description of how you might work this method into a daily classroom schedule in the upper grades, including high school.
The remaining page in this section, Children's Book Suggestions, discusses the children's literature I typically used when working with struggling readers over the past decade.