Five Principles Underpinning English Orthography

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Initial spelling begins with an understanding of how the sounds within a word are represented in print using letters and letter combinations. However, due to the complexity of English, as students’ literacy skills develop, a knowledge of etymology (the history of words), rules and spelling pattern conventions, syntax (parts of speech) and morphology (an understanding of the meaningful parts of words) become increasingly important.

Melville (2024) provides an overview of the five key principles underpinning English orthography as outlined below:

Phoneme-grapheme correspondences

  • In order to spell, students need to understand and acquire a knowledge of the alphabetic principle.
  • Students need to be able to firstly identify the phonemes (sounds) in a word and then learn the grapheme(s) (letters or letter combinations used to represent those sounds).

Sound patterns and the position of sounds within words

  • Many phonemes can be represented using more than one grapheme. However, the correct grapheme is often related to either the position of the phoneme in the word (e.g. ‘ay’ is most commonly used at the end of base words but not in the middle or at the beginning) or the phonemes that come before or after a particular phoneme (e.g., ‘ck’ is used after a short vowel sound).

Rules regarding letter combinations, sequences and the use of particular graphemes.

  • A number of spelling conventions have arisen independently of a phonemes position (e.g., consonant digraphs such as ‘sh’, ‘ch’ and ‘ng’ represent a single phoneme and are not doubled; ‘v’, ‘j’ and ‘q’ never appear at the end of words).
  • The letter ‘e’ at the end of words has multiple ‘roles’ (e.g., changes a short vowel into a long vowel hop-hope, changes the ‘g’ from /g/ into /j/ and the ‘c’ from /k/ into /s/, added to words ending in ‘s’ when it doesn’t occur after a short vowel so it doesn’t appear as the plural, etc.).


  • English has developed across three distinct periods with each period influenced by different languages (Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Scandinavian, Greek and French-Norman), resulting in different spelling patterns and conventions and at times multiple meanings for the same word.
  • An understanding of etymology can not only spark students’ interest in words, but also often explain seemingly unusual spelling patterns.


  • English words are spelled based on morphemes (the smallest meaningful unit).
  • Morphemes add to or change the meaning of words (e.g., the prefix ‘un’ means not) and express grammatical aspects of speech (e.g., the suffix ‘ed’ indicates past tense).
  • The pronunciation of prefixes, suffixes and stems often change, but a knowledge of morphology can assist in determining the correct spelling (e.g., ‘ed’ can be pronounced as /d/, /t/ or /əd/; the pronunciation of the stem ‘late’ changes depending on the suffix – relation vs relative).

A spelling program, especially from an intervention perspective, needs to include all these elements. From an intervention perspective, students also need to apply this knowledge independent of a ‘pattern approach’ whereby every word has the same structure.


Melville, K. (2024). Year 3-6 spelling and word study – A new and exciting approach to instruction. The Bulletin, 60, 2-5.