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.