/k/ can be tricky!


Let’s talk about these three spellings of /k/. When do we use <c> and <k>, and what is the pattern followed for <ck>? Do you struggle with what to tell your students when they ask, “Should I use a <c> or a <k>?” How do we teach these spellings without getting into too much cognitive overload for our struggling readers and spellers?

Before diving into the “how I do it,” I want to examine the history behind these three spellings.       

<k> is one of the oldest letters of our modern-day English language; it can be traced back to Egyptian hieroglyphics as a representation of a hand holding a palm leaf.  The Phoenician alphabet consisted of 22 consonants and did not include any vowels. One of these consonants was called "kaph," representing a sound similar to the modern <k> we use today.  The Greeks adopted it to their alphabet; it was then taken by the Romans and referred to as Kappa. During the Middle Ages, a time when French was the language of choice, it fell out of favor and was replaced by the letter <c>. By the 16th Century, <k> made a comeback and was used in borrowed words. Now, I think this is where it gets complicated.  When the Romans adopted the Greek alphabet, they modified "gamma" to represent both the /g/ and /k/ sounds, depending on their position in a word. The letter <c> eventually emerged from the Roman adaptation of "gamma," representing the /k/ sound before <a>, <o>, and <u> and the /s/ sound before <e> and<i> I wrote more about this in my soft <c>and <g>  article

The consonant cluster -ck can be traced back to Middle English when spelling norms were emerging. It was used to indicate a preceding short vowel. So be careful not to tell your student it comes at the end of the word! Words such as chicken, buckle, and pocket are great examples where it is not a final sound! But more about -ck in another blog post!

As spelling instructors, the more background we have, the better equipped we are to help our students. Let’s now take a peek at the regularities we see in the spelling of /k/.

About <c> as /k/

<c> is about five times as common as <k>

<c> found in free or bound bases  can, caput- (meaning head), capitals (a bound base), and cat (a free base)

<c> appears in the initial, medial, or final position cup, panic. decoy

<c> can be alone or in consonant clusters in the initial position and final cluster -ct crab, clap, deduct

<c> is regularly before <a>, <o>, <<u> cat, cot, cut

<c> is rare in the final position of a free base, always before a consonant or short vowel lilac, zinc. When a word does end in <c>, it is most often in the suffix -ic or -ac syllabic, cardiac.

About <k> as /k/

<k> is found only in free bases keen

<k> in initial or final cluster <sk> skit, ask

<k> is regularly before <e>, <i> , <y> kit, kelp, sky

<k> in final position follows a long vowel or consonant peak, fork, tank, silk

<k> is rare after short vowel sounds book

About <ck>

<ck> is found after a short vowel stick, pocket, chicken

<ck> is used as <k> insertion to avoid soft <c> panicking

<ck> the only true holdout is trek

So now that we are on solid ground with /k/, let’s talk about how I teach when to use <c> or <k> when teaching CVC words. I have heard a lot of talk about the cat/kite rule. First, I have to admit I have been using OG for twenty years, and just recently, I saw my first cat/kite poster. My gut reaction was, “Really? Another ‘rule’ for a student to memorize?” Calling everything a “rule” rubs me the wrong way. I ask myself whether this student will understand this generalization or is it cognitive overload? 

You may wonder how I avoid my students memorizing the “cat/kite rule”? When introducing short vowels, I use the sequence a, i, o, u, e. Short i is the first time picking the right /k/ grapheme becomes an issue. Instead of making them memorize the cat/kite rule, it may go like this with word dictation:

me: cat

student writes: kat

me: what is that first sound? 

student: /k/

me: what’s another way to write /k/?

student says: c

me: use that; write it again.


me: kin

student writes: cin

me: what is that first sound? 

student: /k/

me: what’s another way to write /k/?

student: k

me: use that; write it again.

Another option is to keep those ki words as read-only at this point. However, I would like to point out that after I introduced soft c, I like to dictate words like skill and kept. 

Now, after saying all of that about the cat/kite rule, I want to share what my friend, Fellow Karen Sonday, said about this topic! Karen said that, like me, she doesn’t teach it as a rule; however, with students who have more capacity for understanding, she does tell them that if there is an <e>, <i>, or <y>, use <k>. 

I guess this is the beauty of Orton Gillingham; we can weigh out what works or doesn’t work for both you and your student. Always be conscious of the load we are placing on the student's short-term memory. Limit the number of rules you expect them to memorize, and notice the times you say, “That’s an exception to the rule.” Not everything needs to be a rule! 

I want to hear how you deal with the /k/ issue! 

Please comment below! 

Happy /k/ lessons! 

Still here? 

Are you looking for great word lists? Check out my wordbook for great -ck, -nk, ke lists, Or those sk-, k-, lists are here!

How about a fun game with -nk, -ke, and -ck? 

And, if you use code /k/, you get 15% off those products.

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Annie Powell Stone - October 19, 2023

Great blog post, Pam! And I love that Karen weighed in, too. I’m always impressed by your deep knowledge of etymology and appreciate the insights. I also like that you emphasized that “not everything needs to be a rule,” leaving more room for learning and understanding with less of an emphasis on memorizing. I think that helps tutors AND students relax and lean into curiosity :)
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Thank you, Annie, for commenting! I find myself in deep rabbit holes regularly; it is always great to have Karen to bounce thoughts off of. I am undoubtedly concerned about the trend of calling everything a rule and expecting the student to memorize “the rule.” I am so happy you appreciate the blog posts; thanks for reading!

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