Is it ee or ea?


and other facts you didn’t know you needed to know!

The question of when to use these two spellings of /ē/ is never-ending. Why do we have two so closely related spellings of /ē/?

These two spellings of /ē/ are a culmination of the convergence of various pronunciations and spellings.  In Middle and Early Modern English, there were two long vowel sounds: /ā/ as in “tame” and a stretched short <e>, which resembled the <a> in “mare” according to my research. By the end of the Great Vowel Shift, the two sounds came together as the single sound /ē/ that we recognize today.  

But wait, two other groups actually form: one being the short <e> sound, as in “bread,”  which was consistently spelled <ea> and the other group taking the /ā/, as in “great,” “steak,” and “break.” Interestingly, <ea> as /ĕ/ often appears before consonant clusters, whereas <ea> as /ē/ does not. 




Now back to <ea> and <ee> as /ē/

So, recalling the long vowel sounds of the past, <ee> evolved from the Middle English spelling of /ā/. I am simplifying the explanation, of course, as there were other Old English influences with the modern-day <ee> as /ē/.

<ee> and <ea> occur in the initial and medial positions

<ee> often occurs in the final position, <ea> much less often  agree sea

<ea> is before <st> feast

<ee> more common with CLe words beetle

<ea> is more common before Ce heave please (also note the plural constraint with <s> and <v> not ending English words.) 

In multisyllabic words, <ea> precedes CV  pattern more frequently. feasible demeanor

There are so many homophones with <ee> and <ea>! This brings us to another critical piece: meaning matters. Consider the Simple View of Reading:

Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

 When teaching <ea>, I like to use the homophones in sentence dictation so I know my students understand the various meanings. For some students, I use a quick slideshow with pictures to illustrate the words.

 Often, people will group words into categories. I have heard words with <ea>  have to do with water or food and while that may be true for several words, it certainly isn’t enough to delegate a new “rule.” I don’t teach that way, from the simplest or most common spelling to the most complex. I limit my explanations and structure my lessons according to the students' abilities; keeping “rules” to a minimum prevents cognitive overload.

I will introduce <ee> first, then later address <ea> as /ē/, followed by <ea> as /ĕ/, and finally cover the irregular words "great," "steak," and "break," always emphasizing their meanings. 

It cannot go without saying that <ee> can be found at the end of hundreds of multisyllabic words. I will teach these types of words when I am working with affixes and morphology. The suffix <ee> is added to the end of words, often verbs and occasionally nouns,  to signify a person who performs an action or indicate a diminutive. absentee, refugee, employee

While there are few tricks when teaching these similar spellings, I have found keeping the /ē/ skills apart and the frequency of exposure is key to mastery! I would love to hear what works for you! 

Happy /ē/ with <ee> and <ea>

Are you now wondering about <ie> and <ei> as /ē/? Fear not, I have a blog post on that too! 

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Devorah Schtz - March 3, 2024

Thank you for this wonderful blog post on vs. !
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Devorah, I am happy you enjoyed the information! Also, I appreciate that you took the time to leave a comment. Thanks, Pam

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Dorothy - March 3, 2024

Thank you for additional information on these two graphemes!
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Dorothy, thank you so much for taking the time to read the post and leave a comment! Pam

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