i before e except after c?... does that work for you?
Is the <i> before <e> rhyme really accurate or consistent? Why are there so many different sounds for these two vowel pairs? How do I teach <ie> and <ei>? These are questions I frequently hear from OG practitioners. Let’s dig deep into the etymology and morphology of <ie> and <ei> word families. Discovering where these words originated and how they became part of the English language prepares us to better equip our students with the knowledge they need to be stronger readers and spellers.
So where did the little mnemonic jingle i before e except after c come from anyway? This was first seen in the mid-1800s with the original author unknown and continues to be seen in texts today. It was later said that the rule worked for spelling when the pair (<ei>) was pronounced as /ē/. To conform to their needs, Ebeneser Cobham Brewer drafted additional verses; Or when sounded as /a/ as in neighbor and weigh. To this mnemonic, the naysayers encouraged the rule to be dropped as it was inconsistent and inaccurate in many situations. Even with the exception list exceeding the rule, this little ditty persists in classrooms everywhere.
Excerpt from Orthographic Aids or Mnemonics for Spelling and Exercises in Derivation by J. Michôd, 1855
In my research for this blog, I came across this additional mnemonic; personally, I had to think about this for it to make sense to me. I’m guessing others had the same problem as it didn’t seem to make spelling books!
The Manual of English Spelling by J.S. Laurie 1866
Word Lessons by Alonzo Reed A.M. 1884
These vowel combinations are perfect examples of how the Great Vowel Shift, between 1400-1700, influenced the spelling and pronunciation of many words, including <ei> and <ie>. The high vowel /ē/ often moved to /ī/ in words like nine (as did the actual name of the vowel in English), but other European languages continued to say /ē/. This explains the <ine> ending as in routine, which keeps the European pronunciation. Then somewhere along the way <e> started sounding like the diphthong /ā/, (think buffet). Then finally <e> moved to /ē/. This is a condensed explanation of why we hear so many different pronunciations for these two letters. I encourage you to read more on this.
When addressing this dynamic duo, I tend to teach them in groups. I first like to work with the group of words that actually follow the rule, without mentioning the rule, but inevitably the student has already heard it! These fall under the root family ceit, ceive, and capt, cept meaning to take or hold. I like tying morphology to my lesson, and this is an excellent way to work on the <cei> pattern. There are really only seven words, and we can lengthen the list by adding suffixes.
And then there is ceiling. According to Origins, by Eric Partridge, the word ceiling comes from Old French, meaning to overlay or to roof a room.
Using the Jam Board is a fun activity!
Now, what about all the other variations of <ei>? We have quite a few! I will list one word for each pronunciation but know there are more.
/ī/ feisty is a more recent 19th-century word, with possible origins to a Proto-Germanic word to break wind.
/ĭ/ forfeit comes to us from 14th-century Old French.
/ĕ/ heifer is Old English.
/air/ their has an interesting origin tied to the word the from Old English.
/ā/ rein <ei> and <ey> as /ā/ are closely related to <ai> and <ay>, but less frequent.
/ā/ eight reflects a lost Old English velar fricative (a consonant sound produced with the back part of the tongue) spelled either <g> or <h>, which is now silent.
/ē/ not after <c> as in either, neither, and caffeine. Words in this group vary greatly in origin.
Now that we covered <ei> what about <ie>? That vowel pair seems to have as many variations as its partner <ei>. When teaching this pattern, I tend to group them into families based on frequency, as I would with <ei>.
/ē/ I tend to teach this phoneme first in the spelling families. A large portion of <ie> words have French origins.
<ief/ieve> pairs belief/ believe
followed by the assortment of other words such as fiend and diesel.
/ē/ -ie cookie a diminutive suffix, origin unclear.
/ī/ lie the three-letter words in this group are a great example of the Short Word Rule. The constraints of English are such that words with two letters are function words as in to. The word lie and the others have an <e> at the end, despite the fact that as an open syllable li would still be pronounced /li/; however, we also know words in English do not tend to end in i, so we now have two constraints governing these words.
/ĭ/ mischief taken from Old French mischief.
/ĕ/ friend Old French from pri a Proto Indo European root meaning to love.
/iәr/ plier, which comes from the root ply meaning to fold and the suffix -er, the y rule has been applied. The word fiery took this spelling in the 1300s, which remained <ier> even when the noun fire was later normed as <ire>.
/ear/ pier from Old English, and there are more words with other origins, too.
I find the <ie/ei> combo the most difficult. I will frequently dictate like words together or do sorts with cards into spelling and sound patterns. My More Words wordbook has lists covering the sounds listed above. I also created a fun card game ei, ei, a that strengthens phonemic awareness as the students match sounds. I designed this game while working with an 8th-grade student; he loved it!
I hope this post helps clear up the confusion surrounding complex spelling patterns. I certainly don’t expect you to teach all of this to your students, but you can dip into your knowledge when the opportunity arises.
Happy times with <ie> and <ei>!
For more in-depth information on the Great Vowel Shift, check out this great podcast, History of English.
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