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  • Julie Knight

English does have rules after all

I’ve heard over and over again in my time as a reading tutor that the English language is so hard because it doesn’t have any rules. And that this lack of rules makes spelling next to impossible!

This is simply not true. Reading and spelling can be decoded or encoded around 85% of the time by understanding the sounds that letters make, how to blend them together, and practicing some simple rules. And the news gets better from there. A further 12% of words have only one sound that does not follow phonetic rules, but are decodable by context or experience.

Students who learn to read using a systematic phonics and rules based approach will end up with some pretty heavyweight word acquisition skills:

  1. They will be able to recognise and understand printed words without memorising them. At any given time, they can automatically read a large fraction (97%) of the verbal (spoken) words they already know.

  2. They will be able to learn new printed words without any practice or even a conscious effort - they acquire written words "for free" at only slightly less than the rate at which they automatically acquire verbal words.

  3. As they get older, the word acquisition process works in reverse. If a student can figure out the meaning of a new word from the context in which it is used, then they can automatically add that word to their verbal vocabulary since they know its pronunciation. For example, a student who encounters a list of the chemical elements can add all of those elements' names to their verbal vocabulary without having to ask someone else to say their names.

So what are these rules that I am talking about? Some are as simple as learning the sounds that letters make together - sh, th,ch, for example. And some help us learn spelling and reading. Here’s one we teach students to help with the c sound:

Did you know that e, i and y are what we call watch out vowels? Students need to ‘watch out’ every time they come after the letter c, because they change the sound from a hard c (cat), to a soft c (cycle). It’s a rule we call Kiss the Cat. There’s another part that tells us about spelling using the letter K as well. My talented colleague Vicky put together this poster and colouring sheet for students to help remind them of this rule.

If you want to learn more about our evidence based approach to reading and spelling, please take a look at our website We have three experienced tutors, all based in Titirangi in Auckland, and work with most of the local primary schools to tutor during school hours, at school. Zoom lessons are also offered to students who are a little less local.

You can also find out more by emailing Julie on or calling her on 021 921112.

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