Why Not to Teach the “I Before E” Rule, and What to Teach Instead

Spelling and Phonics

Say it with us, now: “i before e, except after c.” Or maybe you learned this variation: “i before e, except after c, or when sounded as ‘a,’ as in ‘neighbour’ or ‘weigh.'”

There’s a good chance you’ve retained and already passed on this phonics “rule” to your young speller. However, did you ever stop to think about the sheer number of /ie/ and /ei/ words that fall outside of this supposed “rule?”

It’s not too late to help your child understand the /ie/ and /ei/ phonograms. Here’s why not to bother with the “i before e” rhyme, and how to more effectively help your child read and spell words using /ie and /ei/.

“I Before E” Isn’t a Spelling Rule

As they say, the exception proves the rule, but when the exceptions outweigh the examples for the rule, is there truly a “rule” after all?

Merriam Webster famously summed up these exceptions in a not-so-rhyming version of the rhyme:

“I before e, except after c
Or when sounded as ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’
Unless the ‘c’ is part of a ‘sh’ sound as in ‘glacier’
Or it appears in comparatives and superlatives like ‘fancier’
And also except when the vowels are sounded as ‘e’ as in ‘seize’
Or ‘i’ as in ‘height’
Or also in ‘-ing’ inflections ending in ‘-e’ as in ‘cueing’
Or in compound words as in ‘albeit’
Or occasionally in technical words with strong etymological links to their parent languages as in ‘cuneiform’
Or in other numerous and random exceptions such as ‘science’, ‘forfeit’, and ‘weird’.”

There’s no chance you or your child are memorizing THAT rhyme! So let’s review the most effective way to differentiate between /ie/ and /ei/.

How to Read and Spell Words with /IE/ and /EI/  

When teaching spelling and reading at The Reading School, we introduce the /ie/ and /ei/ sounds as we do all others. Like all other phonograms, these letter combinations work together to represent a sound, or a few possible sounds. 

👉 Want to understand the science of phonograms, and how to help your child read everything from “cat” to “receipt?” Click here!

Through explicit instruction of the sounds and practice, your child will map the spellings of words containing /ei/ and /ie/ so they can be recalled and read swiftly, no rhyme required!

/IE/ makes one sound:

/ē/ (as in field)

While /EI/ makes three sounds:

/ē/ (as in field)

/ā/ (as in their)

/ī/ (as in heist)

What about words that end in “IE?”

Simple! Explain to your child that English words cannot end in I and must have a silent-E to cap them off. Similarly, words ending in /u/ or /v/ must also have a silent-E.

Want to remember these spelling conventions to help your child? Save this handy visual post!

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