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Setting Down the Spelling Rules

Some rules make life hard for your child. She wants to feel the soft grass under her toes, but the sign says to keep out, or she wants to bomb into the blue water, but the lifeguard warns her against any kind of jumping. Not so with spelling rules. Spelling rules help a great deal as long as you don't overload your child with them. Three or four rules cover pretty much all the important spelling factors that your child needs to know.

Rule One: Bossy e

You write Bossy e everywhere. That's why it's a great letter for your child to get to know. Here's the rule: Your child spells a word like mate by adding Bossy e to the end of mat. The e is bossy because it bosses the other vowel in the word to make a long sound or to shout out its name. Here are a few words that show Bossy e doing its thing: plate, mate, lake, Pete, scene, ride, hide, mine, rode, bone, hope, cute, mule and tune.

When a vowel makes a long sound, it's the same sound as its name. Bossy e makes the vowel (in the word it tags onto) have a long sound or shout out its name.

Rule Two: When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking

Here's a cute rhyme to help your child remember another way of spelling long vowel sounds. When spelling words like neat and boat, your child can go over the when-two-vowels-go-walking-the-first-one-does-the-talking rhyme. Most long-e sounds fit the two vowels rule. Long e is spelled either with ee, like in meet, seed, and weed, or ea, like in team, seat, and bead. The two vowels come side by side, but the first is the one that makes its long sound. A long-o sound is also often spelled with two vowels. The long o is spelled with oa like in boat, coat, and loan. A long-a sound can be spelled with side-by-side vowels, too. In words like pain and rain, your child spells the long-a sound with ai. See how the two vowels come together? Your child needs to start them with the long vowel that he hears and then remember the partnership.

Rule Three: y behaves like a vowel

Without a doubt, vowel sounds are tricky to spell. That's why these four spelling rules are about them. Every time your child hears a long-vowel sound, he must run through the options, which explains why he always needs to use scrap paper when trying to spell them. The third option mostly has to do with long-e or long-i sounds that your child hears on the ends of words. The y-behaving-as-a-vowel rule applies to vowel sounds on the end of words that are spelled with a y. In words like happy and sunny, your child uses y to sound like long e. In little words like by and shy, he uses it to sound like long i.

What about words like system, cyst, and gypsy? In those words, your child spells the short-i sound with a y. The words cyst and gypsy are soft-c and soft-g spellings (as well as spellings that use y to make the short-i sound) so.

You use y to make e or i sounds. When your child puts y on the ends of longer words (like happy), it makes a long-e sound, and when she puts y on the end of short words (like by), it makes a long-i sound. She uses y in the middle of some words (like gypsy) to make the short-i sound. When your child gets into the habit of jotting down her spelling options on scrap paper, she gets better and better at deciding whether to use y.

Rule Four: i before e except after c (when you hear ee)

All sorts of words have the long-e sound in them, and the i-before-e-except-after-c rule gives your child a fourth spelling option. The question becomes: Should your child write Bossy e like in Pete, or two vowels walking like in meat and meet, y as in happy, or ie as in niece? Whew. Where is that scrap paper? With ie spellings, be sure to help your child learn the first part of the rule — i before e except after c — before helping her discover the except-when-you-hear-"ay"-like-in-neighbor part. Practice on words like niece, piece, and receive, and after she's at ease with those, tackle the tough words like neighbor and weight. (You hear ay, so you don't put i before e.)

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