Anyone who has had to learn English as a second language knows how irregular and complex English spelling can be. Unlike other languages English has never had any kind of regulating authority and attempts to reform spelling have usually met with failure. Even amongst native speakers it is not uncommon for well-educated native speakers to have poor spelling.
One of the amusing side-effects of the chaos of English orthography is the number of poems that have been written to illustrate the many alternative spellings of different sounds. The following poem has made the rounds of school English text-books since the 1960s:
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!
Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004,
by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981,
and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.
What do you think – should English spelling be simplified? Would it ever work? The Spelling Society thinks so, and you can find several more poems like the one above on their site.
I rather like the irregularity of English spelling. Strange spelling often has something to say about the history of a word, where it came from, under what circumstances it was borrowed into the language. Memorising irregular spelling is good mental training for children, and helps with learning other languages. Without it there would be no Spelling Bees and no poems like the one above.
Using these poems for language learning: as a teacher
Create a gap fill dication where you blank out the words containing the particular irregular spellings that you want to focus on. Read the poem aloud and have learners fill in the blanks. Check the answers together.
OR make a recording of your own voice reading the poem (I would use Audacity). Then have learners make their own recording, and have them compare the two. They should highlight those words that they got wrong. This can be done using a language lab or as an asynchronous online activity.
…or as a learner
Read the poems aloud, and each time you see a word you are not sure of, underline it. Then use an audio dictionary to check the pronunciation. For this you could try WordReference or The Free Dictionary.
For more resources to help with English spelling:
Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4th Edition) (Words Their Way Series)
How to Spell Like a Champ