Went phishing and caught this ghish.

Spelling can be a problem at all ages. This is one for four to seven year olds. The good news is, there is a solution.

The Problem

/f/ can be spelled a few different ways. It’s (gh) in ‘enough’, ‘tough’ and ‘cough’ – (ph) in ancient Greek derived words like ‘physics’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘phenomenon’ and ‘phantom’. Four and five year olds don’t often encounter these complex (ph) words, but (gh) is everywhere. And it doesn’t always represent /f/. In ‘light’, ‘bright’ and ‘night’, it’s silent. So why don’t ‘cough’ and ‘bough’ rhyme? And why are they spelled so strangely?


‘Cough’ derives from the old German ‘kokh’ (to rhyme with the Scottish word ‘loch’). This sound is a spelling nightmare. English people can’t even pronounce it. So sometimes it’s written (ch) as we do in ‘loch’, even though it bears no resemblance to the more usual sound of the (ch) in ‘church’. Sometimes we write it with a (gh): and glide over it as if it weren’t there: as in ‘night’ – from the Anglo Saxon ‘niht’, now ‘nacht’ in modern German.

‘Bough’ is from Anglo Saxon ‘bog’. It’s hard to imagine how this ended up as an /au/ sound. So here’s how: first, the (o) was a long sound, like /au/. Second, in Anglo Saxon, the word ‘bog’ would normally be altered when used: to ‘bogas’ or ‘bogu’ – similar to when we alter ‘apple’ to ‘apples’.  Hence the sound would be more like ‘baugas’ or ‘baugu’, hence ‘bough’.

The Solution

So how can we help our kids get over (gh)? First we can teach them the common (igh) words. Make up a story like ‘the knights fight with lights in the bright night’. Then let them draw a picture of knights fighting with electric lamps. The crazier the better. Let them think how they’re going to draw a ‘bright night.’ Then let them write the words and colour over the letters (igh).

On another day, think up a story for the (ough) /uf/ sounds: ‘tough’, ‘enough’, ‘rough’ and ‘cough’. For the rarer /ay/ words, think of a picture to link words like ‘sleigh’, ‘neigh’, ‘weigh’ and ‘eight’. Then do ‘although’, ‘dough’ and ‘bough’ with a picture of bread on a branch, or a branch in bread or whatever they want. Let your child take charge and they’ll never forget.