I have just finished reading an interesting and informative book by David Crystal titled ‘Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling’.
David devotes a chapter to arguing that the teaching of spelling rules fails to work because of the exceptions and uses the ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ rule as an example to prove his point.
However, the reason rules often ‘don’t work’ is because only half the rule is taught. So in the ‘i’ before ‘e’ example, people are quick to point out the numerous exceptions to the rules such as neighbour, height or sovereign. Yet, if the remainder of the rule was taught (i.e., when the sound is /ee/), many of these so called ‘exceptions’ would no longer exist. In fact, I would argue that there are actually few exceptions to the whole rule.
It is interesting to look at this argument from a teaching perspective. If you consider the common graphemes (letters or letter combinations) that represent the /ee/ sound, you find that they begin with the letter ‘e’ (ee-tree, ea-leaf, e-e athlete, e-me, ey-key, eo-people*). Logically it would make sense that when using an ‘e’ and an ‘i’ to represent the /ee/ sound that the ‘e’ would also be written first before the ‘i’ (ei). This is why students who are poor spellers often write ‘theif’, acheive or deisel. These students need some way of remembering that it is the ‘i’ and not the ‘e’ that is written first for the /ee/ sound in the majority of words (except after ‘c’ when the order is reversed ‘ei’, but remember that this is for the /ee/ sound).
David then looks at words that contain the graphemes ‘ci’, ‘si’ and ‘ti’. These letters when followed by a vowel most commonly represent /sh/. In some words, the vowel following these graphemes will be the letter ‘e’ (e.g., sufficient, patient) which results in an ‘ie’ letter pattern. However, again, this is not an exception to the rule ‘i before e except after c when the sound is /ee/’ because the sound in these words is not /ee/.
Several paragraphs consider the formation of suffixes from words ending in ‘y’. When a word ends in ‘y’ you need to change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’ or the suffix, except when ‘y’ follows a vowel or when adding ‘ing’ (e.g., study – studies, studied, studying, stay-stays, stayed, staying). When the ‘y’ is changed to ‘i’ for several suffixes it results in an ‘ie’ pattern (e.g., studies, studied). When we pronounce these words the ‘ie’ is pronounced as /ee/, so again, these are not exceptions.
It is important to acknowledge that ‘ie’ can be pronounced in several ways (e.g., thief, pie, flies, friend, leisure). Yet, this is still not a problem within the context of the whole rule because the rule is referring to spelling words with the /ee/ sound.
* The other common ways of representing /ee/ are y-sunny, i-e police, ay-quay, i-casino.