Fifth grade spelling list groups words with silent consonants
A fifth grade spelling list in Annie’s gifted class in Fishers Indiana accomplishes two things at the same time. It’s a spelling lesson with ten words of the week, but it also introduces the concept of the silent consonant. The words are: Autumn, aisle, column, doubt, handkerchief, hymn, knowledge, numb, plumber, solemn.
Finding the silent consonant
Annie was asked to make flash cards with the spelling word on one side of the card, then pick out which consonant is silent, and write that on the back of the card. Annie got them all right until she came to the word knowledge which at first seemed to have two silent consonants.
knowledge, k and w?
Does knowledge have two silent consonants? “K’ and “w?” No, because the “w” follows a vowel without starting a new syllable (as in bewitch.) So the “w” doesn’t count as a consonant because it combines with “o” to make a sound.
Memorizing words with silent consonants
Annie practiced by spelling the words until she had them memorized.
English words with silent consonants seem arbitrary, which makes them hard to remember. Is there any reasoning behind a consonant being included that makes no sound? Sometimes, yes. For instance, Annie found out that the silent “d” in handkerchief is a clue to the meaning of the word, which is basically a kerchief for the hand. Knowing that makes it much easier to remember. We tried to figure out reasons for some of the other silent consonants that would serve as memory tricks.
In the case of knowledge, the first part is just like the word know. Many “kn” words have a silent “k” which was originally pronounced back when people still spoke old English. It was dropped later because it seemed cumbersome to pronounce. Also, if you take off the “k” from know you have “now” which is already a word.
Silent consonants that aren’t silent in other words.
Some silent consonants are included because they are in a related word where they do make noise. The silent “n” in hymn makes a noise in the word hymnal, just as the “n” in autumn makes noise in autumnal.
There is a silent “b” in numb, and in number when you are more numb, but the “b” does make noise in number when it is enumerating things. I decided not to remind Annie about that, but instead about all the words with a silent “b” on the end. Bomb, climb, crumb, comb, dumb, lamb, limb, thumb, tomb, womb. Plumber has a silent “b” as well, just as plumb does, unless it’s the fruit.
Silent consonants that would be tricky to pronounce if they made noise.
The silent “n” in column and solemn doesn’t seem to serve much purpose, just like the “b” in doubt and the “s” in aisle. But it is a good thing they are silent, as you will see if you try to pronounce them.
We all know English has a few tricks up its sleeve which complicate spelling and comprehension, and silent consonants are among the trickiest. Whenever possible, coming up with a mnemonic device helps. That’s what my favorite fifth grader, Annie, has learned to do. (OK, what’s the silent consonant in mnemonic?)