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'I before E' rule: file it under 'U' for Useless

Government advice on spelling technique claims time-honoured mantra is no longer worth teaching

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Government advice on spelling technique claims time-honoured mantra is no longer worth teaching

It has been a mantra for generations, but new spelling guidance from the National Primary Strategy says the "i before e except after c" rule is not worth teaching.

The new document, Support for Spelling, will be distributed to primary schools and includes 124 pages of ideas on how to teach the "rich" English spelling system (see box).

These include analysing TV listings for compound words, changing the tense of a poem to practise irregular verbs, and learning about homophones through jokes such as: How many socks in a pair? None - because you eat a pear."

It says there are many useful spelling conventions that pupils should learn, but "i before e except after c" has so many exceptions that it is easier to learn the few words for which it does apply "cei" - receivereceipt, conceiveconceit, deceivedeceit, perceive and ceiling.

Greg Brooks, a literacy expert formerly of the University of Sheffield, applauds the move. He said the rule was thoroughly misleading because it only applies to words in which the "ie" or "ei" stands for a clear "ee" sound.

Without that extra knowledge, the rule breaks down, so "eight", "feisty", "foreign" and "anxiety" are all spelt "ei", although there is no "c" in sight.

And even with the additional line "where the vowel sound rhymes with bee", there are still words where "i" does not come before "e", even though there is no "c", as in "heinous", "protein" and "seize".

Then there is the word "species".

Masha Bell, who has campaigned for English spelling to be simplified, said: "`I' before `e' is not a good rule. But people like it because it's a kind of silly rhyme.

"There are other sayings that are more useful, like `one collar, two socks' for `necessary'.

"But, basically, children are having to fill their heads with this rubbish - because spelling is rubbish.

"Personally, I think the spelling system should be reformed, I don't suggest doing it all in one go, but we could get rid of the silliest anomalies, such as the redundant `e' on (the end of) `give' and `have'."

But Judy Parkinson, author of the bestselling book I Before E (Except After C), which sold 450,000 copies in the UK, said teachers should be able to make up their own minds about how useful it is.

Ms Parkinson, who produces programmes for Teachers TV and has written for The TES, said: "It's an extremely well-known phrase, easy to remember, and it obviously struck a chord.

"There are words that it doesn't fit, but I think teachers could always get a discussion going about the `i before e' rule, and the peculiarities of the English language, and have fun with it. That's the best way to learn."

Support for Spelling is for use by teachers in Years 2-6, as pupils are moving on from phonics lessons.

It says short, lively sessions are more effective than an occasional skills session, and suggests 10 sessions of 15 minutes spread over each half term.

Five lessons should focus on a specific spelling objective, such as irregular tense changes, and the rest on the direct teaching of spelling strategies, such as splitting long words into syllables or using mnemonics such as "people" - people eat orange peel like elephants.

It also recommends that all children should keep a spelling journal to record their progress.

Here's how: split digraphs and `ur' sounds

Alternatives to `i before e':

  • When adding suffixes, if a base word ends in `e' that is part of a split digraph, drop the `e' if the suffix begins with a vowel: for example in `hope' - `hoping'. Keep the `e' if the suffix begins with a consonant, as in `hope' - `hopeful'.
  • When adding suffixes, if the root word ends in a single consonant letter preceded by a single vowel letter and the suffix begins with a vowel, double the consonant, as in `run' - `running'.
  • When an `ur' sound follows the letter `w' (but not `qu'), it is usually spelt `or' (for example, `worm'). The important exception is `were'.

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