Part of our Spelling Series:

Five days a week I spend a large portion of each morning teaching spelling.  I watch children working, like ancient scribes, to represent their speech sounds with the symbols I am teaching them.  I do teach standard spelling.  I do not teach them to spell any way that feels right, but I encourage students to try to use the phonograms I have taught them rather than asking me to spell every word.  And I must say, it would be much easier if they were regularly hearing proper speech.

In a previous article I mentioned that the current spelling of many English words developed as scribes attempted to represent speech sounds with written symbols.  With the invention of the printing press, spelling began to be more and more standardized.  Pronunciation continued on its vulgar way, mostly leaving spelling to sit around wondering what had happened.  Nothing much can be done about that.  As difficult as it may be to learn or teach spelling now, with the hundreds of thousands of books in print, it would be much more difficult to try to periodically adjust spelling to current pronunciation.

I admit to having some embarrassingly bad speech habits.  I catch myself saying “I’munna” rather than “I am going to.”  I say “haftoo” instead of “have to” just like most people I know.  I know better, but I do it anyway.  But I don’t say those things when I’m teaching spelling and reading, or when I’m reading aloud.  Don’t children hear proper speech anywhere outside the classroom?  Isn’t anyone reading to them? Is anyone talking to them?

I have had this conversation with more than one student:

Student: “How do you spell haftoo?”

Me: “You don’t.  The words are have to.  We just had the word have as a spelling word last week, h-a-v-e.  Then t-o.”

Student: “No, I mean haftoo.”

Me: “Yes, I know what you mean.  The proper words are have to. Trust me.”

Student: Gives up, rolls eyes, spells the way I tell him to, then asks me the same questions a few days later.  


Now, I’m no language purist who thinks we should all speak like 1960s newscasters.  I understand that language won’t/can’t/shouldn’t remain static. I’m not advocating reverting to the Old English of Beowulf, Chaucer’s English, or even Shakespeare’s.  But I must make a plea for an attempt, some small attempt, at teaching our children better pronunciation of modern English.

Is it too much trouble to pronounce the letter t at the beginning of words?  Whence the habit of replacing it with ch or sh?  “The speeding chruck shtruck a chree.”  I hear this all the time on television from people who should know better.  Is it just a fad like using like for every other word?   

Where are children hearing sall instead of saw?  

I have recently corrected ust to and youst to (used to), accrost, and holbunch.  

Is it any wonder that a child who thinks the word drink sounds like gringk is having trouble learning to read?

I regularly hear otherwise intelligent people saying exspecially and excape.  Why?  How did this become normal and accepted?  Am I the only one who cares?

I am not just trying to be a Language Curmudgeon.  I don’t deny being one, I mean that isn’t my only motivation here.  One of my concerns is that, for several generations, English speaking students have had to be taught to understand Shakespeare, who wrote in the common speech of his day.  Very few people today can read the King James Bible with comprehension.  All right, that translation was written over 400 years ago, but nowadays we have the technology to spread bad habits much more quickly than ever before.  What if, in another generation or two, children need an interpreter for the excellent literature of the 19th and 20th centuries simply because we’re too lazy to speak properly today?  Are we finished with Treasure Island and Oliver Twist?  Stevenson and Dickens were writing perfectly intelligible English in their day, yet, they are becoming inaccessible to modern readers.  Our lazy, faddish pronunciation is only one reason for this, but it’s certainly one thing over which we do have some control.  Let’s shtart now!   

What can we do?  Children learn to speak by hearing others speak, of course.  Even adults will often pick up a bit of a regional accent when visiting an unfamiliar area.  The first step, I suppose, would be to listen.  Start by listening to yourself read.  How different is your reading pronunciation from your everyday speech?  Hmm, why would that be?

I was taken aback while listening to an audible book several months ago.  The reader had gone through most of the book skillfully reading the words as (I imagine) they were printed.  Then . . . surely I did not just hear him read “I’munna” for the words “I am going to!”  Why, oh why?

That tiny but striking (to me) example aside, listening to books being read well is probably one of the simplest ways, to make sure your children are hearing English properly pronounced.  This article also points out other advantages of audible books.

There are so many good reasons besides proper pronunciation for being intentional about what your children are hearing.  It is one of the ways we learn to think on true, good, lovely, and praiseworthy things, which we ought to be doing ourselves also.  We break bad habits by replacing them with good habits.

Several years ago, a teenaged relative lived with us for an extended period.  My husband and I objected to her calling us “Dude.”  We told her that she would have to put a quarter in a jar every time she did it.  We didn’t make much money off that one because she decided it was worth the effort to watch herself.  Perhaps you could identify one speech habit you would like to change and tell your family about it.  Your children would probably be happy to let you know when you fail.  Don’t forget to reward each other when you succeed.