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What are good methods of explaining to my four-year-old son why "color" is not how he should spell "colour", even though it is spelt that way in many of the books he's reading? (Also "realize", "favorite", etc).

Similarly, although less importantly, that he should pronounce "z" as "zed" ("dance", "tomato", etc), but the characters on TV that say "zee" are right too.

He understands that there are multiple words for the same thing in other languages (e.g. counting in Māori or Spanish), but US English is so close to English that it's confusing that there are these minor differences.

I'm not saying that US English is "wrong", but at school he will be expected to spell in NZ English, and there using US spelling will be "wrong" in that it will be corrected. When he is older, he'll be able to learn why regional variants of languages exist, but for someone just learning to read/spell, that's a bit complicated.

In maths, we first learn that the square root of 4 is 2, and that is the "correct" answer in school - once we understand more we learn that it's ±2. For now, what matters is knowing that if he is asked to spell "colour" that the answer that is expected has a "u"; learning how to write in US English can be done when he's older.

I'd like suggestions as to know how I can explain what's expected, while acknowledging that the variants are (for the author) correct, without overwhelming his four-year-old brain.

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did you look in English.SE too? I imagine this must've been asked there already. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 23 '11 at 11:16
@torbengb Not as far as I can tell. It isn't really an English question (I know why there are differences and what there are), it's a parenting question (how to explain this to a pre-schooler). I'd like advice from parents, not language experts (for this particular question). – Tony Meyer May 23 '11 at 12:58
+1 to this. We live in The Philippines, the stuff on the shelves might have come from any given country. AGH! – Tim Post May 23 '11 at 18:14
I dunno, I've always considered "Mom" and "Mum" to be different words - they're not alternate spellings, but different things you can call your mother, just like "Ma" or "Mama". – Martha May 28 '11 at 0:06
For the mom example, mom and mum are different words with different pronunciations, although with the same meaning and IIRC a parallel or closely branched etymology. You could have both in a sentence and they would both be spelled correctly. Color and colour are better examples, and ironically enough the latter 'ou' spelling is taken from Old French, while the previous matches both a more modern Anglicization and the original latin. – Peter DeWeese Jul 1 '11 at 19:00

10 Answers 10

Perhaps you should start by changing your stance that one way is "right" and the other "wrong". Even if the schools operate by this expectation, it is difficult to explain to a 4-year-old (as you no doubt have witnessed, else you wouldn't be asking the question).

Instead, simply explain that the US spellings and pronunciations are considered "unusual" in your area, and that "people who live far away" sometimes do things a little different.

There's nothing wrong with an American who spells "color" as "colour". At worst, it might seem a trifle eccentric. It certainly isn't "wrong". Any teacher who would mark such a thing "wrong" is more concerned with teaching a lesson about following instructions rather than proper spelling, and you may or may not agree with teaching children that doing what is expected of them is more important than understanding why it is expected of them.

If you're having trouble explaining these concepts to a 4 year old, then you might simply have to wait until he's a bit older. In the meantime, you can just make an effort to expose him to more examples of the English variations, so that the US versions appear to be more of a minority. When he is actually in school, all of the examples presented will be the English variations, which should make it easier for him to decide which to use. If there is still any confusion, you can simply guide him to spell or pronounce it the way the teachers do.

I am still not clear from the conflicting comments if children in NZ are expected to be writing words like "colour" by the time they are 4, but it seems that they probably are not. You do have time for your son to develop a bit more, and in as little as a year it may be much easier for him to grasp the concept.

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@everybody, I've said this before, so I'll be a bit less polite today: Please do not use comments for long back-and-forth sessions; this is a Q&A site, not a chat. If you don't have access to the parenting chat from work, then chat from home. If you feel the need to declare your perspective in detail, do so in your own answer. I have saved the comments. If anyone is interested, ask me in the chat! – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 23 '11 at 15:49
@everybody, I will continue to delete comments as long as you're just using them to bicker. Please everyone, contribute your thoughts in separate answers. Demonstrate your good parenting skills by showing tolerance and respect toward each other. Remember the FAQ says be nice. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 23 '11 at 19:16

You can use it as an introduction to World Cultures, English while spoken in places like America, Britain, Australia and in Canada all have different spellings and pronunciations. Even in a individual countries you get regional dialects that make words sound different, that might even be a starting point.

Wrong and right may not be the best way to phrase it, but maybe expectations are. In the book your son is reading, because its from a different place, has spellings that are different but your son will still be expected to spell the words in the way he is taught.

Language is a wonderful and changing thing, although lots of these complexities might be too much for a 4 year old but it doesn't hurt to lay the groundwork for the future.

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Thanks. His understanding of geography is significantly behind his reading, so that doesn't really help. Using this as a reason to try and improve that is a good suggestion. – Tony Meyer May 23 '11 at 12:59
I like the point about wrong and right vs. expectations. It reminds me of some excellent (if humorous) advice I once heard: "There are two answers to every question in school. The right answer, and the answer your teacher wants to hear. I expect you to know them both." – Bill Clark May 24 '11 at 15:53
You could take a US book with "color" and a NZ book with "colour" and place them side-by-side. Ask him why they're different, and explain that one book was made "here" and the other is from a "different country" (based on your comment about his understanding of geography -- you can elaborate further if he can understand it). If he has any sense of patriotism or loyalty, he will probably want to imitate the "here" book rather than the "other." – GentlePurpleRain yesterday

At my grammar school you were allowed to spell either way: US English or British English - you just had to choose one and stick with it.

You need to explain that there exists different written dialects of English much like there are different accents. A Scotsman speaking English sounds much different from a Cockney speaking English (if they actually do speak English, that is. I'm still not convinced.) But neither of them are pronouncing anything 'wrong' per se, just in their own dialect.

If he uses the US spelling, gently correct him with the comment, "Remember, we spell 'X' differently than they do. Their spelling isn't WRONG, it's just not how WE spell it here."

If he gets familiar with both forms of spelling, it's just a bonus IMO. That way there isn't any agonising over colors or neighbourhoods or how to check your cheque.

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Cockney uses rhyming slang, which is a bastardisation of english, so isn't really the same at all. In Scotland, like in the US, they actually use different words, for the same things, so the same rules can be applied. I'd also say, for us, it is wrong, so I will always teach my children there is a wrong and right way to spell things. We call the english Americans speak American English and approach it as a different language, as such. – Hairy May 23 '11 at 13:19
1: I'd just like to add I'm female. 2: Even American English has different dialects. Bostonian vs. Georgia Peach vs. Wisconsinite. What's a Tonic to me, is a Coke the other and a Pop to the third, even if it's a Pepsi we're all drinking. Does it make it wrong? No. Both a Scotsman and a Cockney (or a Welshman) can speak English to each other and be understood (most of the time, accent joking aside). The same way a Dane from Copenhagen can understand a Dane from Sønderjylland. Different dialects, with some different regional expressions and spellings, but both 'right' in their own sense. – Darwy May 23 '11 at 15:17
@Darwy Apologies on the gender! I'd edit if I could.... – Beofett May 23 '11 at 15:20
Dialect Map of the United States: – Darwy May 23 '11 at 15:24
...and finally, the discussion was about spelling. In England, if you spell Colour as color, you will be marked as incorrect, at ALL academic institutions; teaching a child it isn't wrong, will not only confuse them, especially at an early age, it will be misleading them, for it is wrong. – Hairy May 23 '11 at 15:59

If I were you, I'd do the following.

  1. Find some great examples of some very funny English accents. You could take some from Australia, the American South, Africa, India, but the locations should be where they speak English natively.
  2. Explain that people speak slightly differently in different locations, and they also write words somewhat differently, even if the word is pronounced the same way.
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I would have thought simplest would be to say it is wrong in NZ English or British English. Treat it as a different language that has most words the same as proper English (by proper I mean for your region) - as I would certainly hope the school would mark answers as incorrect if they use spelling from a different language.

It is American English, and thus wrong for you.

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The issue is that he has trouble understanding how they are different languages when 90%+ is exactly the same (unlike, e.g. Spanish or Māori). – Tony Meyer May 24 '11 at 0:36
There are other groups of languages that are also similar-yet-different. The German group of German/Austrian/Swiss German; the Scandinavian group of Danish/Swedish/Norwegian. Or even (less helpful to a U.S. 4yo) Japanese that uses many Chinese kanji characters that sometimes have different meaning but same reading (pronunciation), and sometimes different reading but same meaning. I think US/UK/AU/NZ English is closer than all of these though, so it's no wonder that it's difficult to learn, and probably also hard to teach! – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 24 '11 at 6:41
Which is probably why it is a very good idea to make it very clear to a child, who is learning a language, that there is a right and wrong way to spell, speak it. Any variance can be introduced at a later date when they are ready, intellectually, for it. – Hairy May 24 '11 at 7:19

Before you read a book, put a pin on a world map for where the author is from and/or the setting of the story. Then explain to your child that different people from different places speak and write differently. Without distracting their reading too much, mention phrases/idioms, animals, spelling, architecture, etc. that is unique to that author or story setting. You may have to scan the book beforehand to be prepared.

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A nice suggestion, although a lot of work :) We read four books each night, so that would add quite a lot of prep and execution time, although most books are from NZ/UK/US, so there would be a lot of overlap I guess. – Tony Meyer May 24 '11 at 0:34
You don't have to do it with every book.. – Javid Jamae May 24 '11 at 1:22
+1 for the idea of having a world map. I grew up with a huge world map on the wall, and I'm providing the same to my son. I believe it's important to understand that you're just a small part of something much much bigger. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 24 '11 at 6:15
I agree torben; we have a huge map in the eldests bedroom and she pins it in each country we've visited with green pins and red pins for any country she wants to go to. We also have a lot of maps as jigsaws. I come from a mixed background, and want the kids to know they too shouldn't limit themselves by geographical bounds; maps are great. – Hairy May 24 '11 at 6:44

Children at the age of four are not and should not be generally expected to sit still or spell complicated words correctly and certainly not understand why spelling it "color" is wrong when Kermit spells it like that.

So it's a mistake to use the terms "right" and "wrong" in this case. In fact, it's a mistake in any case as one spelling isn't right or wrong. English spelling is just a mostly arbitrary selection between options, there aren't any spelling rules per se, just tradition, and tradition differs in different countries.

Hence, instead of explaining that "color" is wrong, you should explain that "color" is alright, but in NZ we usually have a u before the r, making it "colour". This will be an excellent opportunity for your kid to learn both that there may not always be a right and wrong answer. If "here in New Zealand" is too complicated, just say "color" is correct, but "colour" is even better. Personally I'd wait with that until he starts school, though.

With regards to the claims that NZ and UK schools do claim that there is a right and wrong spelling, this is hardly done with 4-years olds, and if it is, a word with the teacher to tone down the "you are doing it wrong!" with 4-year olds is probably appropriate. It's obviously different once they are a bit older, but telling a 4-year old they are doing it wrong when he/she is writing "I have a calico colored cat" is perhaps less pedagogical than could be desired.

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As an Englishman living in the US, this is a never ending topic of interest, intrigue and amusement for my 2 young daughters.

Conceptually, there are quite a few different angles that one can take this from (probably depending on age) that can make pretty interesting explanations & discussions.

Historical - it's pretty fun to explain how over the last several hundred years people have moved around the world, and in this case how the expansion (and subsequent contraction) of the British Empire has led to dispersement of the language.

Evolutionary - Given the dispersement, explain how things can diverge over time (spelling, pronunciation and so forth). This is a nice way to explain the beauty of language and how it can be different and yet but the same. Also a nice lead in to other evolutionary concepts.

Differences - How any differences across cultures, geographies, countries etc. present these interesting and fun situations.

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Spelling was very unstandardized at one point and phonetic encodings differed considerably. English seemed to hit the perfect storm for un-standardization as compared to most other european languages. Very interesting cultural study. – Peter DeWeese Jul 1 '11 at 18:52

When I was a child, I read books from the UK, and my mom just made a little arch over the "u" in "Mum" to make it "Mom." Sometimes little corrections like that may be necessary.

By the time I was 12, I read books my dad brought back from his trips to the UK, and loved learning a different way of spelling. To this day, however, I spell some things "wrong" for the US, and don't realize it until spellcheck corrects me.

At the same time, the internet has no borders and many jobs nowadays require knowledge of, and sensitivity to, other countries' means of spelling. It's a fine line to walk, and 4 years old is definitely an age to "keep it simple, stupid." I'd try to avoid conflicting English for now (even if you have to edit your child's books), and whenever you can't avoid it, try to turn it into a very short, very simple geography or history lesson. Bear in mind that sometimes adults overly complicate things; a simple "people spell things differently in other countries, but we should get used to the way we do it here first" might suffice.

You can always expand this into teaching more about the grey (or gray) areas of life later.

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I've encountered this problem often in Canada, due to the huge amount of media imported from the US.

With young children, I find it occurs most often with the alphabet song. They will be watching a show, and the characters start singing the alphabet song, almost invariably ending with "zee."

One approach I've had some success with is to feign astonishment, and pretend to my children that the characters on TV don't even know their alphabet! "What did they say? ZEE? Everyone knows that it's 'zed', not 'zee'! That's just silly!"

There will come a time when they learn that both are acceptable regional spellings/pronunciations, but for a young brain, I find it's easiest to just teach them that all the "wrong" spellings are "mistakes", until they're able to understand the regional differences.

You could do the same when you encounter a "wrong" spelling in a book. "Uh-oh! It looks like they spelled 'colour' wrong again! People really have a lot of trouble with that word!"

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