[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1983 p10-12]
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[Emmett Betts: see Anthology, Bulletins.]

Word-Perception Skills: III Probability Learning,

by Emmett A. Betts, Ph.D, LL.D.

Word perception involves probability learning. It also includes category learning, cue learning, generalization learning, relationship learning, and mediated response learning. First, a spelling (phonogram) may represent different sounds in stressed syllables, as in:
a /a/ hat, /ä/ wand, fall, /e/ many, /ā/ made.
c /s/ cent, /k/ cut, /sh/ ocean.
o /ä/ hop, /o/ lost, /ə/ front, /ō/ both, /u/ wolf.
The spelling pattern cat-bag-tap is fairly consistent; it has variations, as in want. For the nose-hole-woke-rode pattern there are exceptions, as noise-poise (to which the cue is oi /oi/) and since-prince (to which the cue is ince).

Second, a sound may be represented by different spellings in stressed syllables as in:
/ər/ bird-circus, word-world, hurt-burn, earth-search.
/ü/ moon-spoon, soup, chew-jewel, fruit, true, juniper.
/ā/ mate, they, say, weigh, maid, crazy.

/ä/ not, wand, knowledge, calm.
/sh/ sure, shore, Chicago, nation, ocean.
/s/ sent, cent, scene.

Basic Assumptions.

Five basic assumptions are made for probability learning:

1. General need. The pupil asks for help on a word during his silent reading - when the written word is under consideration.

2. Specific need. The teacher helps the pupil to pinpoint his need by asking, "What part do you need help on?"

3. Application. If the pupil has learned the skill and, therefore, needs help in applying it (feedback spoken word), the teacher asks, "What is the usual sound of ----?" (e.g. ar in farther). Or, "Which of the two usual sounds do you think it stands for? (e.g. /u/ for oo in look versus /u/ for oo in moon).

4. New Skills. If the pupil has not learned the skill, the teacher tells the pupil the sound (not the word) and asks, "What is the word?" Following the silent reading, the new skill is taught effectively because it is based on the pupil's awareness of a need.

5. Probabilities. When new skills are taught the pupil is alerted to probabilities. First, analogies between soon-moon-noon, car-jar-dark, head-bread-dead, old-cold-bold, and so on, are discovered. Second, contrastive vowel sounds between look-took and moon-soon, out-round, and brought-thought, are revealed. Contrastive spelling patterns, of course, are studied systematically, as at versus eat versus ate.

Probability Learning. Categories.

This outline of probability learning in word perception deals with two categories of probabilities: 1. Usual sound with rare exceptions, and 2. Usual sound with alternatives

1. Usual sound with rare exceptions:
The usual sound of the common phonogram ir, for example, is the elementary sound /ər/, as in third, sir. This is a very high probability situation.

The phonogram or does represent different sounds. But or preceded by w as in word, work, world, worm, worse, worth - has a very high probability of representing /ər/. The one common exception is worn. For this reason, the (w)or situation is classified under "1. Usual sound with rare exception" and the regular or situation is classified under 2.

2. Usual sound with alternatives:
The classification "1. Usual sound with care exception" includes high frequency situations, as ur for /ər/. It includes the consistent but rare phonograms, as /iər/ in queer, peer, seer, beer, jeer, leer, veer - even though few of these appear in listings of common words.

Finally, this classification includes consistent but limited phonograms, as ire, for /ir/ as in aspire, attire, entire, fired, inquire, inspire, require, retire, sire, spirit, squire, tire.

Probability Learning: Reading.

In teaching the pupil to deal with probability, two types of probabilities are considered:
1. Usual sound with high probability (rare exception). In silent reading situations, the pupil asks for help on the written word. When the pupil asks for help on the identification of a word, the teacher's first step is to teach the pupil to pin-point his need by asking, "What part of the word do you need help on?"

The next step is to help the pupil apply the previously learned skill. If it is a high probability situation - as the ur in curtain the teacher asks, "What is the usual sound of ur?" If the pupil has not studied this situation, then the teacher tells him the sound - not the word - by saying, "The ur stands for the sound /ər/." Then, the skill is taught immediately after the silent reading - when the pupil is highly aware of his need.

Of course, the two final steps include:
"What is the word?" (curtain)

"Reread the sentence to make sure you have the right word."

2. Usual sound with Alternate Spellings (phonogram). If the pupil asks for help on a word in which there is a high probability that the spelling (phonogram) is by far the more common - as ou in trout - the teacher asks, "What is the usual sound of ou?" The spelling ou sometimes represents other sounds -as /o/ in bought, /ō/ in shoulder, /ü/ in group, /u/ in would, and /ə/ in rough, which happen to make minor variant patterns. But if the pupil asks for help on ou in pout, cloud, thousand, mountain, or any one of dozens of other words in which ou represents /au/, there is no need at this point to clutter the application of this skill to this very common situation by considering alternatives. Of course, another situation arises when the pupil is dealing with ou in bought or thought (to which the cue is, ought), in should, would, or could (to which the cue is ould); or in rough or tough (to which the cue is ough). (See "Word Perception: Cue Learning.")

A word of caution.

There is a significant number of words: in which two adjacent vowels are in two different syllables, as the ia in giant /ji-ənt/. (See material on Syllabication). These situations require systematic introduction and development.

Here are some examples,
i-a /ī-ə/ compliant
/ē-ə, ē-a/
i-a/ē-ā/ ingratiate


(musical instrument)

1. Usual sound with rare exceptions



bird, circle Exceptions: mirror
fire, hire, tire (limited)
be, he, me, she, we, female, fever
(very limited but highly consistent)
by, my, fly, shy, why, defy, notify, reply, verify A significant number of words in this category, and highly consistent, but some variants, very, pretty


boat, oat, road, coach, roast
Usually in monosyllables.
broad (rare)
main, remain, slain (very useful)
aisle (rare)
again, against (rare)
ai is quite consistently /a/ in stressed syllables.
Of course, in unstressed syllables,
ain is /-n/ as in mountain.


air, lair, stair, fairy, affair, despair,
(limited but highly consistent)
boil, coil, coin, poison, moisture
Exceptions: coincidence, in which
o and i are in different syllables.
Noise, poise, choice, voice, etc.
do not fit final e pattern, hence,
this situation requires cue learning.
(See Word Perception: Cue Learning.)
boy, Joy, toy, destroy, loyal
they, obey, whey, grey, prey, purvey
 /ē/key, money, monkey (rare)


buy, guy (rare)
gray, hay, pay, mayor, birthday
This is an "open" syllable situation.
pause, daughter, autumn, because
Exception: bauble 'bo-bəl, bab-əl/,
gauge, laugh, yaupon, draught, chauvinism
draw, crawled, claw, jaw
bee, speeding, freedom
Exception: been
talk, walk, chalk
halt, alternate, falter
old, cold, told, bold

This is a variant pattern of not-hop. (Limited)
ight/īt/ bright, light, night, delighted, lightning (quite useful)
ind/īnd/ find, kind, remind, behind (rare) Exception: wind (noun), tinder and other words of this type within the (C)VC Pattern.
ong/ong/ along, gong, song, strong, prong, thong, tong, wrong

Note: The last ten or so items above are classified as "Word Perception: Cue Learning." These usually are exceptions to spelling patterns.

2. Usual sound and alternatives.

a. Two usual sounds with alternatives.
ea /ē/
bead, repeat, means, steaming (usual)
bread, thread, breakfast
(alternative, often embedded)
 /ā/ break, great (rare)
In the word idea, the ea represents two syllables.


receive, leisure, deceive, seize, ceiling,
Of course, either has two pronunciations.
freight, neighbor, sleigh, reindeer (rare)
boots, raccoon, roots, zoo (frequent)
hook, shook, wool, crooked, understood (useful),
(crooked has one or two syllables).
 /ə/ blood, flood (rare)
tower, frown, growl, howl (usual)
blow, grow, row, low A significant number of those stressed open syllables as /gro/, /lo/ etc. own, flown, blown, grown, bowl (rare)
fellow (unstressed) There is a significant number of words with unstressed syllables in which the syllable ow in /lō/.
poor (limited)
floor (limited)

b. One usual sound with alternatives.
ou /au/


pound, thousand, mouth, aloud (usual)
shoulder, boulder, although (rare)
ought, brought, thought, wrought (limited variant pattern. Teach as ought pattern.)
cousin, touch, troubled
(limited variant pattern)
group, souvenir (rare)
would, should, could (rare)

crew, flew, grew, drew, slew, strew
few, new, mew (rare)
dew, new, knew, stew


ball, call, fall, hall, gall, wall, salt, Walter,
always, almost, already, waltz, altogether
shall, shallow, shallop, sallow, sally, tally, tallow, tallent
This fits a spelling pattern.
swallow, wallow, wallop


far, market, car (very useful)
Exceptions: arr,
embarrass, arrow, barrel, barren
parent, arid, charity
reward, quarrel, warm, wharf, quarter, arm, wart
ie/ē/ chief, yield, believe, field, thief, achieve, relief, shriek (limited)
 /ī/ lie, replied (rare)
In diet, the letters are in 2 syllables.
y/i/ gym, mystery, physical, rhythm, gypsy, pretty There is a significant number of these words in which y /i/ is sounded in the it-lip pattern.
 /ī/ type, scythe These few words have the sound in the kite-write pattern
 /ī/ by, my, why, notify There is a significant number of these words.
rye, stye (or sty) (rare)

shoe (rare)
hoe, toe, floe (rare)
does (rare, and a homograph)
or (stressed), for (stressed), cord, corner, important
glory, forge, support, forum
word, world, worship
In these words, or preceded by w has very rare exceptions, as in wort /'wərt, 'wort/, sword.

fare, square, flare, wares
care, scarf, share
near, rear, gear, fearful, disappear, spear
wear, pear, bear
heart, hearth (rare)
early, heard, earn, learn, yearn

Spelling Patterns.

Usual sound
e/e/ egg, yet Highly consistent. Exception: Peter
Usual sound with alternatives
a /a/

at, tap Fairly consistent. Exceptions: want, swamp, salt, hall, what, wash, water
it, lip
High variability
blind, find, kind
child, mild, wild
knight, tight, fight, right, sight, tight, might
o/ä/ hop, not, stop, block, pond High variability
wolf (rare)
women (rare)
bold, cold, both, most, post
above, glove, love, shove
Exceptions: stove, compass, month, won, one, wonder, from, front, cover, done, none, brother, other, mother
 /o/ boss, loss, toss, cross, floss, moss, lost, off, cost, frost, coffee, soft, strong, song, wrong
u/ə/ but, nut, us, hut, buds, gulf, pump, stuck, August, jungle
 /ü/ cruel, ruby, truth, salute (final e), rule (final e) crew, drew, flew, grew
 /yü ü/
duty, dune
uniform, duel, fuel, mule
business, busy,

(C)VC plus e.
Usual sound.
e/ē/ complete, these Rare with few exceptions. else, edge, eye
i/i/ like, mine, time Highly consistent Exceptions: convince, Prince, since, live, police, machine
Usual sound with alternatives
a/ā/ ate, made - Fairly consistent. Exceptions: dance, chance, prance, trance
o/ō/ nose, whole Some variability. Exceptions: lose, move, some, glove
u/yü/ use, fume Rare with significant exceptions: crude, feud, judge
(C)V Usual sound
he, me, she, recipe, sesame
by, my, why,
Usual sound with rare alternatives
o /ō/
go, no, so, pony, hotel, obey
do, to, who
(C)VVC Usual sound
ai/ā/ pain, wait Highly consistent. Exceptions: aisle, against
oa/ō/ boat, oat, road Highly consistent. Exceptions: broad
ee/ē/ feet, seem Highly consistent. Exception: been
Usual sound with alternatives
ea/ē/ beat, eat, wheat About 50/50 probability. Exceptions: bread, treasure, already, head

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