First it is useful to have an understanding of the etymology of the words containing the unpronounced ‘w’.
An unpronounced ‘w’ is most commonly followed by the letter ‘r’ (wrap, wrist, wrestle, write, wring). These words usually refer to twisting or distorting. To ‘wrap’ is to twist paper, your ‘wrist’ can twist, ‘writing’ is twisting the shape of letters, to ‘wreck’ is to distort or twist an item out of shape. One activity you could do with students is to discuss how the ‘wr’ words relate to twisting or distorting.
The ‘w’ in the ‘wr’ used to be pronounced. Most ‘wr’ words are Germanic in origin in which both of these letters are pronounced (although the ‘w’ sounds more like /v/). Although we have retained the ‘wr’ spelling in English, we stopped pronouncing the ‘w’ around the 1450s to 1700s, except in some dialects.
A useful teaching strategy is to have students research words containing ‘wr’ and then to combine the most frequently occurring words into a story picture. For example: The wrestler wrapped his wrist around the wriggling …….
The ‘w’ is also unpronounced in the word ‘two’. This word comes from the Old English ‘twa’ and twegen (then twain), in which the ‘w’ was pronounced. The ‘w’ in two shows its connection to other words meaning two – twin, twice, twenty (two lots of 10), twofold, twelve (10 plus two more) and between (in the middle of two). A quirky strategy I use for my students to help remember this word is that the ‘w’ stops the ‘t’ and ‘o’ from fighting. When you put your hands up on either side of your body as if you are stopping two people from fighting it looks a little like a ‘w’.
The ‘w’ is also unpronounced in a very small number of words when the next letter is ‘h’ (who, whom, whose, whole). In the Middle English period when rounded vowels were introduced (e.g., /o/ and /u/), there was a tendency for the sound /h/ to sound like /hw/. Consequently, some words which were historically pronounced as /h/ came to be written as ‘wh’ (e.g., whole). Around the same time, some ‘wh’ words followed by a round vowel were reduced to /h/ even though they continued to be spelled ‘wh’ (e.g., who, whom).
Two other words in which you find an unpronounced ‘w’ are ‘sword’ and ‘answer’. The word ‘answer’ is derived from the Old English ‘andswaru’ meaning a response or a reply to a question. The prefix ‘and’ (from ‘ant’) means ‘against’ and the root word ‘swaru’ comes from ‘swerian’ meaning to ‘swear’, suggesting that the original meaning of the word ‘andswaru’ was a ‘sworn statement rebutting a charge’. It is interesting to discuss this information with students and the link to ‘swear’ suggests that at some time the ‘w’ in answer was pronounced. However, from a teaching perspective, I find it useful to have my students to pronounce the ‘w’ when they are trying to learn to spell the word (ans-wer).
Similar to ‘wr’, the word ‘sword’ has its origins in Old High German (swert – related to ‘sweran’ meaning to hurt) in which the ‘w’ was pronounced. Again, from a teaching perspective, given this is just a single word, it is useful to just have student pronounce the ‘w’ when they are learning the spelling (s-word).