Teaching Silent Letters
Silent letters can be tricky to grasp for young students. One way of introducing them to students is to show that those letters aren’t always silent. They can be heard in similar words. For example, the b may be silent in debt, but it’s heard in debit. Similarly, the g in sign is silent, but it is not in signal. Other examples include, crumb and crumble, column and columnist, and resign and resignation. If students can make the connection, it can help them remember how to spell the word with the silent letter.
Assuring students that there are not infinite possibilities of silent letters can also help those with spelling woes. For example, if a word begins with the /n/ sound, but not the letter n, then there are three possibilities of spellings: gn, kn, and pn. Since pn words are commonly medical terms such as, pneumonia, students will likely not encounter words beginning with a silent p.
As for words that begin with a silent g, there are a few common possibilities: gnome, gnat, gnu, gnarl, gnash, and gnaw (and their extensions e.g., gnarly, etc). The other words are less common: gneiss, gnomon (a marker on a sundial), gnostic, gnocci, gnotobiotic, and gnosis.
There are however, over 200 words that begin with a silent k. Some examples are: knack, knife, knight, knob, etc. Assigning students the task of finding as many kn words as possible can help further their understanding of silent letters. They need not find all the possibilities. Rather, this exercise will help students understand that if they are searching for a word that begins with an /n/ sound, but not the letter n, they should try searching out kn words first.
Once students are comfortable with silent letters at the beginning of words, they can move onto silent letters in the middle. They may also find it interesting that during the Renaissance, scholars actually added silent letters to words to connect them to their Latin roots. A b was added to det (debt) to link to it debitum and a p to receit (receipt) to match recipere, which means to receive. Unfortunately, ordinary people continued to pronounce the words the same way, ignoring the newly added letters, and effectively silencing them for centuries to come.