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Bomb, Comb, Tomb – why strugglers need to know how English works

posted in: Dyslexia, Spelling

Yesterday I followed a link from Twitter to an interesting article talking about British Dyslexia Association training from the perspective of a phonics expert, Elizabeth Nonweiler.

In the Spelling Course section (page 8 in the linked document) under the heading, “Why Is English So Difficult?”, is the following point:

If we say they can get by with pure phonics, we are telling them a lie, because of words such as “tomb”, “comb” and “bomb”.

The important truth of this sentence is that “pure phonics”, which I take to mean assigning one sound to one letter, does not address the complexity of English. That is completely correct. Simplistic “a buh cuh” phonics has failed our strugglers who long ago stopped bothering to associate sounds with letters because it simply doesn’t work. “c”  “h”  “a”  “i”  “r” will never get you to chair.

However, I’d like to add, with real respect for the work of the BDA, three “buts” to that sentence:

  • While “c-a-t says cat” is completely inadequte to capture the complexity of the English code, linguistic phonics addresses this issue in such a way that the language becomes, for the struggler, limited and learnable.
  • The existence of groups of words like bomb/comb/tomb illustrates why we should encourage struggling readers to use code knowledge rather than whole word memorisation when trying to differentiate between confusingly similar spellings.
  • The bomb/comb/tomb example is found in the BDA’s spelling course but, the fact that there are several ways to pronounce the single letter <o> is more important for reading than for spelling. There are issues for spelling these words, especially tomb, but they don’t include the fact that that there are several ways to pronounce a letter <o>.

So how do we deal with bomb/comb/tomb in TRT?    


That Reading Thing uses “Look the Same – Sound Different” lessons to help our learners understand that quite a few spellings in English have several potential pronunciations but that some are more common than others. A TRT learner reading bomb or comb will get to the correct word easily by trying the most common sounds first and checking for meaning (always, always, always checking for meaning):

  • Pete drew the “com” slowly through his hair. Oh – comb. Pete drew the comb slowly through his hair.
  • The sniffer dog was trained to find bombs. First try because that’s simply the most common pronunciation of a single letter <o>.

Tomb might be more difficult because it’s an unusual word with a less common sound for a single letter <o>,  even though we find it in very common words like do, to, lose & move. If the learner knows the word when it’s said out loud, then they will get to the right word by trying all the sounds and checking meaning in context. If the learner doesn’t know the word at all – doesn’t recognise it when it’s spoken out loud – then the TRT tutor simply tells them.

There is no  miracle cure for a tiny vocabulary, just lots of reading and hard work. Eventually, when these words have been encountered over and over, they will become part of that reader’s “sight vocabulary”.

Older strugglers come with a variety of “sets” of English words which have confused them for years. The most common are know/now, where/were, quit/quite/quiet, and was/saw.

The first two can be sorted by encouraging them to “Try it the other way”.  He didn’t “now” the girl…. oh he didn’t know the girl who sent the text.

The second two require pointing at the first sound and saying, “Start here and go that way” and “Say the sounds”.  The 16 year old who couldn’t tell was from saw was utterly astounded by the fact that you could work it out by starting at the left and reading to the right.


Spelling English is tough and there’s no getting around it. I agree with all the other things that the BDA points out as to why the language is difficult to spell:

  • history and influences of different languages
  • opaque compared with transparent code
  • large number of letters in some syllables (e.g. “strengths” – one syllable, 9 letters)

However, it’s not total chaos and we need to let our learners discover that there are patterns and best choices to be made. Rather than saying, “I can’t spell tomb”, I want them saying, “I can’t remember how to spell the ‘oo’ sound in tomb”.

In TRT, we have Sound the Same – Look Different lessons.

The <o> in bomb is by far the most common way to spell the short “o” sound. You won’t meet too many who want to put bamb (watch), boumb (cough), boamb (broad) or bemb (ensemble). The fact that those are all possible doesn’t in the least confuse our learners. They have pretty good instincts about which of those spellings make the most sense.

The <o> in comb is also the most common spelling for the long “oe” sound and, again, the other options don’t seem too plausible except maybe combe (tone). The others are cowmb (mow), coamb (boat), coumb (soul), coemb (toe), coughmb (though), ceaumb (bureau). It’s important that learners discover all the options and see if they can sort the spelling wheat from the spelling chaff for themselves. The one who thinks boughmb looks great needs a lot more work, but most will have quite a good gut feeling for which spelling is correct.

The <o> in tomb has an unusual pronunciation but <o> is not an unusual spelling for the sound “oo”. It’s one of the top few out of ten possible spellings but I think this is where  our learners would really have to apply their memories. It’s tomb, not toomb – no matter how much you’d like it to be the latter and how good it looks. I like it better too but that doesn’t make me right.

So that’s the whole point of linguistic phonics – not denying the complexity of the English code – but letting learners understand:

  • how the language works. That we read left to right, saying all the sounds and listening for a familiar word. That there are many ways to pronounce some letters and groups of letters and that there are many ways to spell some sounds. However, those choices are limited and learnable.
  • that they can build on what they’re confident about, know what they know and use their memories productively, not to remember whole words but to remember the more difficult bits. That means they hardly have to think about the “o” in reading bomb and comb and the <o> for spelling bomb and comb. However, they have to concentrate and make good use of their memories for tomb which has an unusual pronunciation of the <o> and a likely preferred spelling (<oo>) for the sound “oo”. They also have to remember that there are a few words in English which end in the “m” sound spelled <mb>. Check out morewords.com for a full list.
  • that reading and spelling don’t improve because you do That Reading Thing. They improve because you learn some stuff in That Reading Thing then you apply it again and again and again in reading and spelling.

2 Responses

  1. Raymond S. Puzio

    Maybe a better way of thinking of the situation and explaining it to beginners is to regard spoken language and written language as two closely related but distinct symbol systems. Spoken language can vary quite a bit in space and time. For instance, a person living in Oxford, Mississippi and a person living in Oxford, England both use the same words to communicate, but pronounce them quite differently. However, they both write down those words using the same spellings. If you listen to an old movie or radio show from the Jazz Age, the pronounciation differs from what one hears on a video or podcast today, but we use the same spellings as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    Thus, while phonetic spelling is possible, this possibility is limited to a single dialect in a single historical period. This means that there will have to be some compromise between phonetic spelling and common spelling across space and time. Different language communities make different compromises with different trade-offs–some choose to privilege an official dialect and some reform spelling periodically–but everyone has to make some compromise because of the nature of language.

  2. Tricia

    Hi Raymond. Thanks for taking the time to comment. The brilliant thing about linguistic (speech to print) phonics is that you start with the student’s own voice/accent/dialect rather than some perceived as ‘correct’ way of speaking. There are many ways to say ‘word’ (I’m a Canadian living the UK so speak very differently from my Liverpool neighbours) but we all need to know that the grapheme spells whatever sound we say in the middle of ‘word’. English is complex but it’s limited and learnable from our phonics (as opposed to phonetics) perspective. You might be interested in our companion spelling book. It’s called That Spelling Thing and is available from Amazon around the world.

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