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Six Fun Facts About Spelling to Share With Your Class

The English language is sometimes a little silly. As a teacher – you’ve probably noticed. When you’re not busy trying to explain to Hannah what a palindrome is, there’s a good chance you’re explaining to your students why they’re at risk of mixing up there and their. Whoever invented this language didn’t make it easy.

At Sumdog, we really love spelling. So we wanted to spell out for you and your class some of the strange English words and funny spellings that make students laugh (and teachers cry!). Here are six weird and wonderful ways English is keeping us on our toes, with some handy questions included to get your students involved.

Fact 1: Spelling didn’t use to be ‘incorrect’

Did you know that the first English-language dictionary to include common and everyday words was only introduced in the 18th Century?

Before these dictionaries were introduced, people commonly used different spellings for the same word. Famous English playwright William Shakespeare would spell his own name in several different ways, and this was not considered to be wrong at the time.

It was only when common dictionaries came into use in the 18th Century that English words were considered to be ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’.

Ask your students: Which word do you find the hardest to spell? Try and spell it now.

Fact 2: Some words are spelled the same, but have opposite meanings

It’s tough enough trying to spell words and remember what they mean most of the time. But it’s even worse with some words in English that we call ‘contronyms’.

‘Contronym’ is a complicated way of referring to words that are written the same, even sound the same when you say them, but have completely opposite meanings. Here’s a quick list of some everyday contronyms:

  • Oversight: This word can mean ‘watching over something’ and also ‘not noticing something’
  • Screen: This word can mean ‘showing something to others’ or ‘hiding it from others’
  • Cleave: This word can mean ‘cutting something up’ but also ‘stick closely to something’

Ask your students: Can you think of any other words that have two opposite meanings?

Ask your students: What type of words are screen, oversight, and cleave in this context? Are they a verb, an adjective, or a noun?

Fact 3: There are more than 600,000 words in the dictionary!

There are over 600,000 English words recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary, and we use just 26 letters to make every single one of them!

The first ever single-language English dictionary was published in 1604, and was designed to help readers understand the most difficult words in English at the time. It included just 3,000 words.

Ask your students: Can you guess what the first word in the dictionary is?

The first word in the dictionary is ‘A’.

The last word in the dictionary is ‘Zyzzyva’. Confused? You should be! It’s a special type of beetle found in tropical areas of South America.

Ask your students: What’s your favourite word, and why?

Fact 4: Some words can be read upside down!

The word ‘SWIMS’ is an example of a word that can be read upside down, and keep the same meaning! It’s what is known as an ‘ambigram’, meaning you can read the word and understand what it says even if you look at it the other way round!

Ask your students: Can you think of any other words that you can still read upside down? Why not try writing some down.

Fact 5: The word ‘therein’ contains ten words!

Therein is a word which means ‘within a particular place or thing’. It isn’t really very interesting when you put it like that. But when you break it up and take it apart, you discover that the word ‘therein’ includes ten recognisable words!

Ask your students: The longest words as part of ‘therein’ are ‘herein’ and ‘therein’. Which are very similar words. Can you find the other eight words?

The answers are: the, he, ere, in, there, rein, her, here, therein, herein.

Fact 6: The spelling ‘o-u-g-h’ can be pronounced in ten different ways!

The spelling ‘o-u-g-h’ can be pronounced in ten completely different ways. Not sure you believe us? Why don’t you give it a try with these ten ‘ough’ sounds:

– cough
– rough
– lough
– plough
– through
– slough
– though
– hiccough
– bought
– thorough

Ask your students: Can you think of other words that end in ‘ough’?

Bonus Fact for Teachers: F and V may be the result of our diet

A final favour for teachers with our bonus fact! Analysis published in the journal Science in early 2019 suggests that the sound for ‘f’ and ‘v’ may have only evolved into the human language as a result of diet changes during the agricultural revolution.

The introduction of softer foods into our staple diet may have resulted in changes to our jaws, allowing the ability to form labiodental sounds – those which require the lower lip to be placed on the upper teeth – to develop.

The study isn’t without its objectors, but at Sumdog we love the idea that if it wasn’t for all that bread we eat, you might only have 24 letters to teach.