Lauren Hegarty’s Updates

A History of the English Language from Words Their Way

This week at school, one of my tasks was to research and compare different resources for Word Work. In doing so, I came across a section in the word study book Words Their Way that outlined the history of the English language and how that history influenced the phonetics and spelling patterns in today's Standard English.

There are three layers to English orthography that come from the historical evolution of English spelling: the alphabet layer, the pattern layer, and the meaning layer. These three layers also correspond with students' developmental progressions as they learn to write and spell in English.

The alphabetic layer is based on the fact that letters or pairs of letters in the English language represent different sounds. This layer was established during the historical period of Old English which began around 500 A.D. and ended around the 1100 A.D. Old English sounds and vocabulary had a strong Germanic influence due to Germanic invasions in England during the time period. Letter-sound correlation was very consistent in Old English unlike in Modern English. Sat and chin are examples of words from this phonetically consistent era. Students who are just beginning to read and write rely heavily on this alphabetic layer of English orthography. They apply their basic knowledge of letter-sound relationships to words they are trying to read or write. 

Sample of Old English from the first page of Beowulf (image from

The pattern layer of English orthography stems from the large-scale arrival of French words, pronunciations, and spellings to the English language after the Norman Conquest of 1066 in England. This era gave birth to the proliferation of different vowel sounds spelled with many different patterns in the English language. Cape, bead, and light are examples of words that emerged during this historical period. Though spelling and pronunciation of these words is more complex, the patterns are actually quite consistent. The pattern layer of English orthography lies on top of the alphabetic layer because students must have a good foundation in the alphabetic layer to explore and understand rules in the pattern layer. 

English orthography's third layer - the meaning layer - refers to the fact that groups of letters in English can represent meaning directly, as is the case with prefixes, suffixes, Greek roots, and Latin stems. The Renaissance period inspired this influx of words and word parts tied to meaning. During the Renaissance, a rapid expansion of knowledge and culture required new vocabulary to accommodate the learning that occurred. Roots and stems from the classical Greek and Latin languages, combined with prefixes and suffixes, fulfilled the demand for new words that reflected meaning. This period in history accounts for words like photograph and photographer, compose and composition.  Though the pronunciation of these words with related word parts varies, their spelling stays the same since it is tied to meaning rather than phonics. As students move through the intermediate grades and beyond, they build greater understanding of the meaning layer of English orthography and vocabulary and spelling instruction becomes more intertwined. 

This historical background of the English language from Words Their Way, helped me to better understand why Modern English is the way it is and how students learn how to spell according to different developmental stages that correspond with the three layers of English orthography. 


Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M. A., Templeton, S. R., & Johnston, F. A. (2011). Chapter 1: Developmental word knowledge. In Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (5th ed., pp. 4-7). Pearson.

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