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How to spell the most commonly used word in the English language

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

Prevent a reading roadblock before it happens

Everybody has their “thing,” their favorite subject, when it comes to school. Generally speaking, people fall into one of two camps: math or reading. People often love the one and despise the other. Each poses its own litany of intricacies to maneuver through. With the right building blocks and a dose of loving patience, though, kids can gain competency in both.

In the realm of reading, English can be tough! The language is full of exceptions. Just when you think you’ve got a rule down pat, here comes a rule breaker. And another and another. For beginning readers, probably chief among these rebels is the word “the.” Its spelling is all wrong, phonetically speaking. The letters T and H don’t blend like they’re supposed to, and the letter E doesn’t sound properly short or properly long. It can pose a real conundrum for kids who are learning to read, especially after they’ve grasped the rules of how TH and E are supposed to work. The trick is to head off this problem before it even appears. The solution? Red ink and a newspaper.

Write the word “the” neatly on a piece of paper, twice: once with all lowercase letters and once with a capital T. Then station your kindergartener at a table with a newspaper, a red-ink pen, and your “The, the” paper. Instruct your child to carefully scout the newspaper and circle every “the” or “The” that she sees. Granted, she’ll probably only catch five out of twenty-five occurrences, but that’s not the point. Give her about 15 minutes, and then admire her work. DO NOT point out any that she missed. DO praise her for all the ones she found. Like magic, this simple exercise will imprint the tricky word onto your child’s brain, making it a no-brainer as she learns to read.

There’s something about red ink that makes the assignment intriguing to youngsters. To a child, a newspaper looks like a sea of undecipherable black print. It takes mental focus to wade through all those squiggles and find the treasured word. When “the” is circled in red ink, it beams from the page like a sparkling ruby.

I have my brother-in-law’s Aunt Sarah to thank for this tip. She was a school teacher for many years and taught it to loads of pupils, including my nieces and nephew. When I learned about it from my sister, I passed the wisdom onto my kids. I have a vivid image of my daughter hunched over the kitchen counter, red pen in hand, as I made dinner. My son and daughter never, ever had any trouble with this word.

Your child’s sweet spot for this activity comes after they have a handle on the alphabet and before they really start learning to read. (Note: It’s never too late! This trick can work for older kids, too.)

Why does it work so well? This hunting exercise uses the same skill needed to find the differences between two look-alike drawings, another exercise my kids enjoyed doing. Educators will tell you that noting such differences in pictures is a preliminary step to reading. How do pictures translate into reading skills? It’s in noticing the details. Think about individual, printed letters. What’s the difference between a lowercase H and a lowercase N? How about the difference between a lowercase N and a lowercase M? Not much, eh? What about the lowercase versions of P, Q, and G? These are easy to mix up if you haven’t learned to spot the fine line variances. Likewise, if your child becomes adept at spotting such details as a polka dot pillow in the cartoon on the right vs. a striped pillow on the left, keeping similar letters straight will be that much easier.

So pull out the pictures, get that newspaper and red pen ready, and let the hunts begin! You’ll equip your budding learner and hopefully enable her to avoid a stumbling block before it ever emerges.


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