Beginning readers are often confused by silent letters. They have been taught that each letter has a corresponding sound or more than one sound. So, they are looking out for how to link letters to sounds as they read. The concept of silent letters goes against the first rule they have learnt. They need to be given direct instruction on the addendum to the rule.
Letters are silent for various reasons in English words. Mostly, it occurs based on the etymology of the word. A word may have been spelt in a particular way in Old English but as the years went by the pronunciations evolved. So, the way the word is said becomes different from the way it is spelt. For example, in Old English, the final ‘e’ which are now silent used to make a sound.
Also, some letters are silent in English because the original language from which the word is borrowed mutes the letter. French derivatives, for instance, treat the final letter ‘s’ in words silent. So, the word ‘chassis’ is pronounced /ˈ∫æsi/ and ‘rendezvous’ is pronounced /ˈrɒndɪvuː/
How to Teach Silent Letters
There is no rule as to what letter you should teach first when giving instruction on silent letters. What is important is that the learners understand what they are and how they are treated in the English language. ICCOM recommends that you start these lessons with words that the learners are familiar with. Teaching them how these everyday words are pronounced differently from how they are spelt, is a good way of introducing the concept.
However, the lessons on silent letters should be organized in such a way that learners do not find it confusing. Groups of words often follow certain rules. Therefore, the lessons should be arranged so that rules go from the easy to the complex. For example, the “Silent E” rule is one of the easiest to teach. It is also helpful in teaching long sounds. So, this is a good way to introduce the topic.
At the early stages, the concept of silent letters may also be taught using the topic “Sight Words”. These are words you learn how to read which do not follow the rules of linking letters to sounds. Sight words may not always contain letters that are silent. So, although they are a good way of introducing the topic, they are not the best or only way. Silent letters are best taught when the words are grouped by letter or by rule.
Some Rules to Teach
Here are some rules for silent letters which you may decide to use as content for your lesson:
- ‘gh’ is silent after ‘i’
- ‘b’ is silent after ‘m’ in words spelt ‘mb’
- ‘b’ is silent before ‘t’ in words spelt ‘bt’
- ‘k’ is silent before ‘n’ in words spelt ‘kn’
- ‘g’ is silent before ‘n’ in words spelt ‘gn’
Sample Lesson Plan
Step 1: Start the lesson with a riddle: what is always with us but which we never see. (Note that any answer the children provide and can defend is a correct answer. The purpose of the riddle is to impress on the minds of the learners that there are things they hear but cannot see).
Step 2: Introduce the topic, Silent Letters. Explain that silent letters are letters in words that are seen but not heard. Just as in our riddle, there are things always with us but we never see. Also, there are letters we see but don’t hear.
Step 3: Provide word examples that work for the topic you are taking. Ensure that there are no words included which either conflict with the rule or introduce another rule that might confuse the learners.