SWI Inquiry: Spelling “Hear” vs “Heard”

My friend, Q., had a question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?” Hmm. I don’t know why! What an interesting question, Q. !!! What we do know is that “heard” is the past of “hear” and we know that it is not spelled hear + ed-> *heared.

What is the reasoning behind the spelling of <heard>?

First, let’s look at both words:



We note that although <hear> appears in both words, there is a stem vowel shift as we say the words aloud: “hear”/”heard” although they both contain the letter strings <hear>; the words are pronounced differently.

Might this signal that these words come from Old English? I know from my class with Rebecca Loveless that there are Old English-derived strong (showing an action or state of being or feeling) verbs that mark the past tense with a stem vowel shift, such as “eat/ate”; “run/ran”; “sing/sang” and “”grow/grew.”

I notice that, unlike the words above, “hear” and “heard” have a vowel shift but not a letter string or grapheme shift. Hmmm. There is another example of am Old English-derived strong verb that has a vowel sound shift without a letter string or grapheme shift:

Present tense: “read”/Past tense: “read”

So, I ponder what, if anything does the “hear/heard” and “read/read” pairings have in common? They are all homophones: read/reed; read/red; hear/here; heard/herd. So, it would have been important for the scribes long ago to follow the homophone principle: “where possible, words that are pronounced the same, but are unrelated, will have different spellings to mark the differences in meaning.”

So, it would have been important to have graphemes in <heard> that would signal the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>.

Now, with those thoughts in mind, I will investigate <heard> and <hear> using the 4 questions of Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) to determine if any other new understandings come to light:

So, after considering all my current understandings, my answer to Q.’s question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?”, my hypothesis is that <heard>, as an Old English-derived strong verb, is spelled that way in order to show the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>. I will continue to refine my hypothesis as I learn. Thank you, Q., for a very thought-provoking question!

Update: I wasn’t feeling confident about my analysis about why <heard> is spelled that way so I continued to do research. I came across Dr. Peter Bowers’ wonderful exploration of <say> and <said> here. His analysis taught me something new: <-d> is a non-productive suffix ( a suffix that is not currently being used to generate new words). In his etymological investigation, <saith> was historically replaced by <say> and he is aware of the OE suffix -th (-th, according to Gina Cooke, is a verbal inflection that has been replaced by the <-s> in says. It has an <-eth> variant, like in <prayeth>) so

saith-> sai + th

If <sai> is an earlier version of <say> and <-d> is an earlier, now non-productive, suffix then

sai + d-> said

Dr. Bowers concludes, “our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <say> and <said> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root secgan. “

That makes me update my hypothesis that <heard> is spelled that way as a result of <hear> + the now unproductive -d suffix hence

hear + d->heard

Based on my updated hypothesis and my current understanding, our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <hear> and <heard> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root heran.

Thank you, Dr. Bowers, for your illuminative analysis of <said> and for all your scholarship related to spelling and Structured Word Inquiry.

Note from Real Spellers Toolkit (Theme 2D):

  • We know that the homophones < hear > and < here > have different meanings because they are spelled differently. The one that is to do with listening shares a spelling with < ear > because that’s what we listen with.

The other word is the one to do with place: < here >. It shares a spelling with the other words that are clearly about place: < there > and < where >, even though the pronunciation is different.


Peter Bowers, Structured Word Inquiry

Rebecca Loveless

Etymology Online

The Noun Project

Neil Ramsden’s Mini-Matrix Maker

Real Spellers Forum and Toolbox

Gina Cooke and Lex Exchange

Oxford Dictionary

Embedding “Structured Word Inquiry” Within a Reading Lesson

After a text has been presented and discussed, ask students to select a word that interests them from a text.  Guide students through the following 4 questions using the Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) Framework.  (Note: This does not have to be explored during one sitting.)

  1. Meaning?
  2. Relatives? (Etymology)
  3. Structure?  (Morphology)
  4. Pronunciation? (Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence)

Sample Text:

“Sorry, But It Was Beautiful” by Andrew Vecchione (6th Grade Student of Kenneth Koch)

This is just to say

Sorry I took your money

And burned it.

But it looked like the world falling apart 

When it crackled and burned.

So I think it was worth it.

After all

You can’t see the world fall apart every day.

See the following SWI Thinksheet for a guided exploration of the student-selected word, “crackle“:

SWI ThinkSheet:

One of the notable understandings for this investigation is that the suffix <-le>” is represented by the grapheme<l>marker <e> and the phonemes /ə/ and /l/.

After the exploration, ask students for their lingering questions or provide extension activities for further study. In this case, an exploration of the -le suffix in the Oxford Dictionary showed that one meaning of this suffix is “a repetitive action.” As one collects words with the -le suffix, it was noted that many of those words refer to repetitive sounds. This resulted in a sort of the words with an -le suffix (or ending, as we determined some of the words had <le> as part of the base, not as part of the suffix) into two groups: -le words that referred to repetitive sounds and those that did not.

As a result of this investigation, there was heightened understanding of the -le suffix and future investigations to explore the -le suffix in English as it seems to have evolved (Latin -el?) or be connected to the -el suffix.

From Etymology Online, entry for -el:

-el (3)

derivational suffix, also -le, used mostly with verbs but originally also with nouns, “often denoting diminutive, repetitive, or intensive actions or events” [The Middle English Compendium], from Old English. Compare brastlian alongside berstan (see burst); nestlian (see nestle) alongside nistan). It is likely also in wrestletrampledragglestruggletwinkle, also noddle “to make frequent nods” (1733). New formations in Middle English might be native formations (jostle from joust) with this or borrowings from Dutch.

I am wondering, for example, if a word sum for <prattle> (from the Middle Dutch praten, “to chatter“) which would be expected to be prattle-> prat+le-> *pratle except that is not correct. The “Etymology Online” site notes in the entry for -el that in Modern English the -el suffix is represented by -el. Note that prat(t)+el->*prattel would explain the doubling but is not the correct spelling. At this point I will just consider <prattle> a base based on my current understanding but I will research the -el/-le connection. (As I feel the pronunciation of the -le suffix, I realize that the first phoneme I hear is the schwa, which is a vowel. Is there any doubling rule that takes into account a suffix that starts with a vowel sound even though the suffix does not start with a vowel?) (Update: After examining the etymology of the words below here, I became aware of a class of verbs called frequentatives with in English marks its verbs with an -le or -er ending and refers to words that show some sort of small or intense repeated action. Read here and here and here. My latest understanding says that for a verb to be frequentative, it must be derived from another word with the addition of the suffix. That doesn’t explain why a word like <prattle> which is most likely frequentative and arising from <prate> does not follow the rules for doubling. More to ponder and explore!)(Update #2: I just saw this on Gina Cooke’s site:

“Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.”

Based on my new understanding of <le> as a vestigial suffix that functions as a vowel suffix, we can use that information to understand how many of the words were historically built.

Embedding Structured Word Inquiry within a reading lesson offers many opportunities for generative learning. Using the basic framework of Structured Word Inquiry is appropriate for whole class instruction with follow-up activities that can be designed to address individual needs. After a SWI lesson, some students may use a matrix to write word sums while another student may illustrate the meaning of words in the word family (crackle, firecracker, cracked) while still another may do further research on words with -le in the suffix or the base.

Most of all, Structured Word Inquiry allows for a joyous exploration of understanding how our spelling system actually works. An educator does not have to have perfect understanding of the spelling system to embark on the journey, just an openness to learning as you (and your students) go along. Let your questions guide your learning within a true inquiry experience. I encourage you to conduct your own inquiries as part of your reading lessons. Feel free to email me at movoelkel@me.com if you have any questions.

Update 12/5/20: After a careful study of the Real Spelling Toolbox (Kit 4; Theme J), my latest understanding is that there is NOT an <le> suffix, although it may seem to act as a suffix in some words like <crackle>. There was a historic -el suffix and we see the vestiges in word but in present-day English, there is too much variability for it to be considered a suffix. Real Spelling describes the present day final syllabic <le> as an “element-forming ‘particle’ that has combined with a base or root at some point in history to form a new and separate Modern English base. One of its commoner functions was that of a ‘frequentative verb-forming particle.’ It formed words denoting continuous or repeated action. Sometimes we can recognize the stem (wrestle, sparkle, trample, dazzle). Often, though, with these ‘frequentative verbs, the stem has no relatives that we now know of (giggle, fiddle, ogle, dawdle, bubble).” I am so very grateful for the scholarship of Real Spelling because the Real Spelling description continues to describe the historical connections that impact our present-day words. At this point, it makes sense to me to not consider <le> a suffix so that means I should redo my matrix. I am also reconsidering if the phoneme for <le> should be represented as /l/ or /(ə)l/ or what Michel of Real Spelling calls the “dark” <l>. This will be a question for my “Fun with Phonetics” instructor, Patti Bravo-Bottino!

My updated matrix:

For further information:

Dr. Peter Bowers: http://www.wordworkskingston.com/WordWorks/Home.html

Mary Beth Stevens: https://mbsteven.edublogs.org

Rebecca Loveless: https://rebeccaloveless.com

Gina Cooke: LEX

Noted from Real Spellers Toolbox:

-Screenshot from Real Spellers Toolbox (Theme 1D, “Final <e> that is not single” <coffee>)