Up and down the country, parents and teachers can be heard bemoaning the fact that children are struggling with spelling. There are many reasons why children and adults alike tend to find spelling difficult, but the main reason is that English is a language full of borrowed words: we have taken vocabulary from over 300 languages.
Because we have borrowed so heavily from other languages, our spelling ‘rules’ tend to be more advisory than concrete. “I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c” is a prime example – this is a rule which doesn’t apply to your weird, caffeinated, beige neighbour, Keith, who watches foreign weightlifters!
While spelling patterns and rules have their place, we should be careful about using them with children. The above rule has so many exceptions, it’s not fair that we should teach this is a given: a recent study has shown that this rule is incorrect 75% of the time.
So, how does etymology help?
Let’s take the word ‘doubt’. A child may try sounding this one out and get 80% of the way there but miss out the crucial silent ‘b’. Looking at the etymology behind it may help the child remember the correct spelling.
Let’s start with Latin: the word ‘dubitare’ means ‘to doubt’. Over time, it was adopted into French as ‘doute’ and the English borrowed it from our European neighbours. English scribes who also spoke Latin recognised that the root word was ‘dubitare’ and so dropped the ‘b’ back into the word to make links between the word ‘doubt’ and its cousins, such as ‘dubious’ and ‘indubitably’.
There is also a common link between the word ‘doubt’ and the word ‘double. When we doubt something, we second guess it: we are in two minds – we are double-minded. This makes it much easier to understand why there is that silent ‘b’ in the word, and helps with remembering the spelling.
Now, we’re not suggesting that a child should research the etymology behind every single word on their weekly spelling list, but when there are those words that just can’t stay in your mind, why not have a look back at the history of the language and see if you can make any links which stick?