Someone recently asked me this question:
How do I know how to pronounce words that end in “ough?”
This is a GREAT question, so I decided to take some time to create something that offers the most elegant thinking that I have heard or read from a few literacy specialists using Structured Word Inquiry and English Orthography.
It is essential to realize there isn’t a book of answers for English orthography. It is there to be analyzed. One’s ability to analyze spellings improves over time with intensive study and practice. Therefore, you will see MANY different ideas about the writing system, and it is up to you to decide which one offers the most “elegant,” or precise, and most simple explanation.
First, we must move away from prioritizing pronunciation above everything else when making sense of English orthography. Our writing system is based on meaning and structure first; then, the “sounds” fall into line.
When you look at the spellings:
<rough> <though> <through> <thought> <caught> <taught>
What do you notice they all have in common?
Therefore, the question becomes, “ What is the < ugh > trigraph doing in these spellings?”
I bet you can see that it is doing more than one thing!
Sometimes < ugh > represents /f/ in the final position of a base.
Others, < ugh > is a trigraph that isn’t pronounced at all.
You might have just thought, “What!? Then why is it there?“ And that is a very good question as well.
When < ugh > isn’t pronounced it is called an “ etymological marker (EM).”
The function of an EM is to connect it to its language of origin. In this case, the language of origin is Old English. Long ago, they actually pronounced these graphemes with a “throaty,” or velar phoneme that we no longer use in Modern Day English.
Now you might ask, Why does it matter?
Well, it makes it easier for children to learn. When you lead with an analysis and discussion of the spelling, the learning is no longer merely a task of memorization by sound, it lowers the effort placed on the working memory of our students.
The demand on working memory is also mitigated by giving the children fewer units to learn.
There is no need for “ough“, “augh,” and the many possible pronunciations that follows. The only grapheme spelling a vowel sound ( phoneme) is the vowel before the < ugh >!
Let’s analyze the grapheme-phoneme correspondence for < through >
Yes, < o > can represent [u] as we see it does right here!
The < o > is representing the same phoneme in other spellings such as < do > and < move >.
Since we learn to read and spell the words we already know and use it makes sense to analyze what is there. I think many have realized that attempting to sound words out doesn’t work for most words. If it did, the world wouldn’t have a literacy crisis.