Dictionary of the British English Spelling System

If you love etymonline.com for exploring the history of words, here's another rich resource, a dictionary of British English spelling (one dialect only) arranged by phonemes with their corresponding graphemes (for spelling) and graphemes with their corresponding phonemes (for reading).

It's not a lightweight book and, like etymonline, contains more information than most people need, but it contains the knowledge required to help us make wise choices for and with our students when teaching spelling.

What are the most common ways to spell a sound?

What are the less common ways but in common words?

Which graphemes can be left until the need arises?

I use the dictionary to calm anxiety by highlighting the predictability of the English code for spelling. A teacher asked how phonics can help with spelling when there are so many ways to spell the same sound. She then offered the following options for spelling /f/:





It's a fair question and my answer was to turn to the dictionary and ask the group what they thought might be the frequency for those graphemes.

Have a go at the quiz below. Flip the box for a link to the answer as found in the dictionary.

Graphemes for /f/

Question 1
What are the three main ways to spell the /f/ sound in English?
What do imagine their frequency to be?

Graphemes for /f/

Question 2
How many less frequent spellings of /f/ can you think of?
Are they all essential for your students?

Those answers calmed the teachers' worries. There are lots of ways to spell /f/ but many of them don't need to be taught until the need arises or unless they appear in very common words like 'cough' or 'rough'. Teachers and students can decide together which of the obscure graphemes are most useful.

Everyone needs to know:

the three most common ways to spell the sound

the patterns for when and/or where those spellings are likely to appear

that there are other graphemes you can learn as you need them

Go here for a copy of the dictionary

4 Responses

  1. Catherine Lindsay

    Really enjoyed reading this blog and smiled when you recounted the story of the teacher asking about how many ways you can spell the sound /f/…… !!

    Thank you for opening my eyes to the delights of this dictionary….

    • TriciaMillar

      It was such a fun workshop! Lots of teachers ask similar questions but that was freshest in my mind.

  2. Kate Flynn

    Hi Tricia,
    Is the dictionary good for is in USA or would you recommend a different dictionary?
    Kate Flynn

    • Tricia Millar

      That’s a good question. I can use it well with my Canadian ears and I know Australians use it. The big differences will be in the vowels and /r/ controlled vowels. Some graphemes will be fine – you’ll just think a different sound for them. For instance, the air spelling represents only one phoneme but it will sound different to you than to speakers in England. The ar spelling represents different sounds for me than for speakers in England but not in Scotland. In the dictionary, ‘saw’ rhymes with ‘door’ but not in my accent. It might be close in Boston USA though!

      I’d download the free pdf version and have a look and discount what doesn’t work for your students’ accents.

      Sorry for lack of grapheme brackets; they interfere with the html!