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This question is based on English, but many other languages might have equivalent issues (if, perhaps, less frequent).

My almost-five year old is learning to read (has learnt, really), and is a very bright guy. He's picked up on the various basic rules of phonetics fairly well, and is roughly at the Easy Reader Level 2-3 level.

When sounding out words with me, he'll often ask me why a particular word is spelled or pronounced the way it is, pointing out that it doesn't have X characteristic that it normally would - something as simple as why the y in "by" is a long y sound, while in "blobby" it is a long e sound, often (vowel sounds in English being some of the most confusing). I'm not someone who is an expert on pronunciation, so my answer is often "I don't know, it just is." I try to give tips for recognizing other similar words (such as, when it's a "short" word it's more likely to be long, like by or be, while if it's in a longer word it's more likely to be shorter), but I definitely don't know the why about most of it.

Reading this question made me realize that the why often is determinable, but of course I'm not going to become an expert in english pronunciation fast enough for my son (probably not for my 3 year old, at the rate I learn these things).

This leads me to my question:

How can I answer my son's questions about why syllables are spelled and pronounced as they are in a way that both helps him learn, and stokes his curiosity to continue learning? What elements are most helpful to cover, both for myself (to be able to answer his questions) and for him?

In particular, I imagine there are several approaches I could take:

  • Language of origin (Greek, Latinate, Germanic, etc.)
  • Word construction ('c' is hard when followed by 'o' or 'a', soft before 'i' or 'e')
  • Rhythm/spoken language reasons (the example question, as to why "christ" is long but "christmas" is short)

Are any of these better to focus on, given I cannot learn all of any of them not to mention all of all of them? For a young child, in particular, which will be more effective (or other approaches I have not listed)? He does understand other languages exist (and knows some Spanish) and has some concept of other countries and cultures.

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    I don't know if this is the right place for this question vs. English Language & Usage or similar - I welcome a migration if it's a good/better fit for that site. – Joe Jun 3 '16 at 18:21
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    After looking this over a bit more, I think you would get better answers over on English Language & Usage. Their on-topic list includes pronunciation and spelling. I would wager that they are more likely to know the most common "weirdnesses" and their explanations than we will. The only thing I'd be cautious about is it being too broad. Trying to explain all of the English language would be a daunting task. Since I'm not familiar with their community, I'm not sure where they draw the line for too broad. – Becuzz Jun 3 '16 at 19:38
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    I laughed pretty hard when I read this. I recently was teaching my 4 year old to sound out words, and decided to look at every "o" in this book we were reading. The first three words we came across each made "o" sound different, and my kiddo just looked at me like, "Daddy, you have no idea what you are doing do you." It was pretty funny :) – Jeff.Clark Jun 6 '16 at 15:22
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I would keep it simple and accurate: first of all 1) the language we use wasn't designed, nobody sat down and invented it, and 2) it's a hodge-podge/mongrel/mixture from a lot of different sources (other languages) over a lot of different time periods, thousands of years. If you need an illustration, you might locate some examples of "Olde Englishe" before spelling had been standardized and show him that. He sounds smart enough to get the idea -- language is a semi-orderly mess.

  • The idea behind my question is to get beyond that, though. He's quite smart, and I don't like to put him off with overly simplistic answers to reasonable questions, especially when I can help him learn by giving him a better answer. He understands that it's a mess - I'd like to help him navigate that mess. – Joe Jun 3 '16 at 19:13
  • @Joe Then I'd recommend getting him a book on the subject. Or let him read through an article such as this one: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spelling_pronunciation – Jeff Y Jun 3 '16 at 19:25
  • This is actually the best answer. @Joe, rather than looking at this answer as too simplistic for your son, look at this as something that makes English particularly interesting, and complicated. You have 3 great ideas in your question for responding to his interests, but when you don't have the answer, or aren't creative enough in that moment to give him the ideal answer, "English is complicated, with diverse origins, and includes ideas from so many people from all around the world. Let's learn about that together, but it will take some time." is actually a pretty great response for him. – matty Jun 5 '16 at 13:54
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If he is smart enough to enjoy "why", then a really good approach I'd recommend would be to go through the various invasions of England (Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes etc) and tie the various words back to language.

Once you know the source, you can make very good guesses as to the rules for words you don't know.

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First, English is weird. From talking to a few people I know who had to learn English as a second language, it's pretty hard, especially compared to some others for the reasons your son has identified. Pronunciation rules aren't consistent. Spelling isn't consistent. Other languages (like Spanish, for instance) have well-defined rules about how spelling and pronunciation work. English is kind of a mash-up of a lot of different languages with different roots and different spelling/pronunciation rules. Because of that, there's no real consistency.

Second, many people who speak English have different accents, which further screws with pronunciation. How would you say "Louisiana"? I grew up in the southern US where that is pronounced "Loos-ey-ana". The people we referred to as Yankees pronounced that "Loo-ees-ee-annah". I still hate to hear it pronounced like that (because it's wrong, ask anyone from Louisiana :) ). But it goes to show how even two different people can say a word very differently. And when a language evolves over hundreds of years, those differences shape how the language is spoken and spelled (for example, see British vs. American spellings of certain words, like color vs. colour).

Finally, the answer to some of your son's questions might be "That's just how it is. English is weird sometimes."

  • Yes, sometimes it might be, but as I noticed when I read the question on English Language & Usage I mention above - sometimes there are useful rules to explain the inconsistencies. That's what I'm getting at here - I want to know what rules are most useful to teach him, and how. – Joe Jun 3 '16 at 19:24

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