The Borrowers: Part Five – The Letter Q(u)

When you think of the letter ‘q’, what sound do you think of this letter making?  Are you able to think of a word that doesn’t have a ‘u’ directly following the ‘q’? Pretty difficult, huh? Most words that exist in English with a ‘q’ and no ‘u’ are derived from Semitic languages and are considered loanwords (a word adopted from one language and incorporated into another language without translation – for example, “Iraq”, “Qur’an”, and “Qatar”). The digraph (a digraph is a combination of two letters that create one sound) ‘qu’ has a lot of history to it, and to fully understand why so many words need a ‘u’ following the ‘q’ in the English language, one has to understand the origins of letter ‘q’ and the original functions associated with this letter.

It is no secret that the English language has been influenced by a variety of other languages. While English is not a Romance language like French or Spanish (which are heavily influenced by Latin), English takes a lot of different concepts from those two in addition to German, Latin, and many more.  The letter ‘q’ in particular is derived from Ancient Greece, specifically the Greek letter Koppa -pictured in a few forms below – and as you can see, ‘Q/q’ resembles the same shape as Koppa.


The Ancient Greeks used Koppa to represent the sounds /k/ and /g/, but only when those sounds were followed by a round vowel sound (a sound that, when said, creates a roundness in the lips; ex. /oe/ in “note”, or /oo/ in “fool”).  There was another letter to represent the same /k/ and /g/ sounds with other sound pairings in Ancient Greece: the letter ‘c’.  As those sounds became represented more and more frequently with the letter ‘c’, the letter ‘q’ became dependent on being followed by the letter ‘u’ to express any sound at all.

The other major influence of ‘qu’ in the English language has to do with the Norman invasion of England in 1066.  Once the Frenchmen invaded England and took control, they began changing the spelling of words within English that were spelled with ‘cw’ to ‘qu’.  For example, the word ‘queen’ was originally spelled as ‘cwen’ in old English.  There are also words that we use in English that are derived directly from the French language and are expressed with the addition of ‘e’ to ‘qu’ which reverts this digraph back to the original sound for the letter ‘q’: /k/.  This spelling only comes at the ends of words in English. Consider the words: ‘unique’, ‘bisque’, and ‘antique’.

Now that we’ve had a brief history lesson on the origins of the ‘qu’ diagraph, let’s talk about how we can break down this combination to better understand the functions and uses of ‘qu’ within the English language. Standing alone, the letter ‘q’ makes a /k/ sound.  Pair that with the letter ‘u’ (/u/), and the sound that is created is /kw/, hence why we refer to this ‘rule’ as a ‘borrower’.  Consider the words: ‘queen’, ‘quiz’, and ‘equal’; whether at the beginning or in the middle of the word, the ‘qu’ sound does not change.  Then, we talk about how, when ‘qu’ falls at the end of a word, the letter ‘e’ is required so that the sound then becomes /k/.

By breaking down the understanding of the letter ‘q’ with the addition of ‘u’ and then ‘e’, students are better able to decode unknown words with this tricky digraph. Phonics is essentially the system behind how letters function on their own and with other letters, and is an invaluable tool for students who struggle due to Dyslexia. Below is an example dialogue for introducing this concept.

Tutor: “Q is an interesting letter in our language.  It happens to be the only letter that cannot exist on its own.  Do you know what letter always follows Q?”

Student: “U”

Tutor: “Correct!  Q must always be followed by U.  Just like with borrowers X and Y, Qu borrows different sounds depending on where it is located in the word. So, what are the 3 places Qu could be found in a word?”

Student: “Beginning, middle or end.”

Tutor: “Are you a mind reader?  Right again!  Can you think of any words that begin with Qu?”

Student: “Quiz, queen, and quarrel.”

Tutor: “Perfect!  Now, let’s think about what we hear at the beginning of each of those words.  What sounds was Qu borrowing in each?”

Student: “KW”

Tutor:  “You got it!  Anytime Qu is at the beginning of a word, it will say /KW/.”

The tutor will repeat this process for the middle and end, being very careful to emphasize that no words end with –qu, so we have to use –que instead. Also, note that the ‘e’ does not jump over a vowel to make it say its name.

Tutor: “Now let’s look at some nonsense words and real words that use Qu.”


The Borrowers: Part Four – The Letter X

Let’s be honest: thinking of a letter borrowing something is pretty absurd.  Especially when the thing it’s borrowing is another letter’s sound. This concept is even more strange for students who are just beginning to learn about the English language and how letters function on their own and within individual words.  Pair that with affixes, endings, and tense changes and it’s no wonder students and nonstudents alike struggle all over the world to grasp the basics of English. By breaking down some of the trickier letters in the English language, students are able to use this newfound understanding to approach unknown words that may utilize these tricky letters.

One of those letters that is better understood with the ‘borrower’ concept is the letter ‘x’.  On its own, letter ‘x’ doesn’t actually have a sound.  Well it does, but that sound is the combination of two other letters’ sounds from the English alphabet: ‘k’ and ‘s’ which, combined says /ks/.  Read these two words and see how this applies: ‘fax’ versus ‘faks’.   They sound the exact same even with obvious spelling differences.  To make things even more difficult, the /ks/ sound that ‘x’ makes only applies when ‘x’ falls in the middle of the word or at the end of a word, and even then, there are rules to know to clarify exactly when that sound will occur.

Before diving into that, think about a word with ‘x’ at the beginning, and the word ‘X-ray’ does not count.  Here’s a few: ‘Xerox’, ‘xylophone’, and (look up words with ‘x’ at beginning). Those words are not said with a /ks/ sound for the ‘x’; they are said with a /z/ sound. As of right now, we have two separate sounds for the letter ‘x’ using three different letters (‘k’, ‘s’, ‘z’), and there is still one more sound to consider.

Now, read these words: ‘example’, ‘exit’, ‘exemplary’.  Do you hear a /ks/ sound?  What about a /z/ sound? Hopefully you answered yes to the second question, but also realize that it isn’t as simple as a single /z/ sound.  In the previous three words, look at the letters that come directly after the ‘x’ – all of them are vowels.  When a vowel comes after an ‘x’ in the middle of a word, the /ks/ sound that would normally occur changes to a /gz/ sound because a person’s vocal cords are now being used immediately following the ‘x’, thus the sound of the ‘x’ changes as well.  Compare that to a word where the ‘x’ is followed by a consonant (ex. ‘explain’, ‘explicit’, and ‘excellent’), and the difference in that ‘x’ sound becomes more apparent.

At this point, in total, the letter ‘x’ uses a combination of four other letters’ sounds: ‘k’, ‘s’, ‘z’, and ‘g’.  Being able to understand why and when this happens within the English language gives students, struggling or not, a better grasp on how to read words they are unfamiliar with that use ‘x’.  Not only that, but students can also apply this rule to spelling when they are writing and using words that have ‘x’ in them. By having these ‘borrowing’ concepts explained, the surprise of varying sounds from individual letters is better understood and allows the student to be prepared rather than caught off guard or unsure. Below is an example dialogue for introducing this concept.

Tutor: “The next borrower we are going to learn is X.  Borrower X is a lot like Y in that it borrows different sounds depending on where it is in the word.  So once again, what are the 3 places X could be at in a word?”

Student: “Beginning, middle and end.”

Tutor: “You got it!  So I am going to draw a card with three boxes on it.  One for X at the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end.  Can you think of any words that begin with X?”

Student: “X-Ray”

Tutor: “That’s a word I thought of too.  But here is the problem.  X-ray is spelled with a hyphen, so it truly doesn’t begin with the letter X.  And besides, do consonants ever get to say their name?”

Student: “I suppose they don’t.”

Tutor: “Let’s think of a word like xylophone.  What sound is X borrowing in that word?”

Student: “Z”

Tutor: “You’re right!  At the beginning of a word, X will borrow the /z/ sound.  Was it kind of hard to think of words that begin with X?”

Student: “It was unbearably difficult.”

Tutor: “The reason is that X is very rare at the beginnings of words. (The tutor may opt to show the student just how few words there are in the dictionary that begin with X.)  However, many more words have X in the middle….”

The tutor should now repeat this process for words that have X in the middle and end.



The Borrowers: Part Three – The Letter G

After a student has learned Borrower C, we introduce Borrower G. The visual aid for this rule is also a train track. During the introduction, the tutor should point out the similarities and differences between the diagrams for ‘C’ and ‘G’.

Tutor: Believe it or not, there is another borrower rule that is related to Borrower C.  It is Borrower G.

Student: Don’t we already have a sound for ‘G’?

Tutor: You’re right, we do. ‘G’ is unlike the other borrowers because it DOES have a sound of its own – /g/. But, ‘G’ is greedy.  Not only does ‘G’ like to say his own sound, he also likes to take the sound of another letter.  Do you know what other sound ‘G’ can make?

Student: /j/?

Tutor: That’s right! Just like in giraffe or page.  So our job is to predict when ‘G’ will make its own sound, or when it could borrow the sound of ‘J’ instead.  To do this, we need another train!

Tutor: Let’s take a look at the Borrower C picture so you can see how these two trains are the same and the important ways they’re different. Just like the ‘C’-train, it is the same three magic letters that make ‘G’ change – ‘I’ ‘E’ and ‘Y.’ However, what difference do you see when the ‘G’-train comes to the sign post?

Student: It looks like the train has a choice.

Tutor: Exactly! Because ‘G’ has a sound of its own, it always has a choice of keeping it.  The problem is that there is no way to predict whether the ‘G’ will say /g/ or /j/.  It is up to us to decide which way is correct.  Take for instance the word gem.  There are actually two ways of saying this word.  If I make the ‘G’ say /g/, it would sound almost like saying gum: gem.  Does that sound like a word to you?

Student: No way!

Tutor: Right. So we would say in this case that the ‘G’ is going to say /j/ instead: jem.  Now that is a word I know!  Any time ‘G’ has an ‘I,’ ‘E,’ or ‘Y’ behind it the ‘G’ has a CHOICE of whether it says /g/ or /j/ and it always up to the reader to decide which way is correct.

Student: I think I get it!

Tutor: But, there is one time we take ‘G’s choice away. When we have the letters ‘–ge’ at the END of a word, we force the ‘G’ to say /j/.  Why do you think that is?

Student: Hmmm. I don’t know.

Tutor: Believe it or not, if I went through the entire dictionary, I wouldn’t be able to find one word that ends with the letter ‘J.’  We just don’t use ‘J’s at the end of a word.  So, if I can’t use the letter ‘J’ at the end, what is the only other way to spell that sound?

Student: ‘-ge.’

Tutor:  Yes!  And that is why ‘–ge’ at the end can’t have a choice.  There just isn’t any other way to spell that sound at the end of a word.  Now let’s look at some nonsense words and real words that use BorrowerG.

The Borrowers: Part Two – The Letter C

Because the English language is based upon many different languages from different times and places, some letters and sounds overlap. We call these letters “borrowers” and we seek to teach them to our students in memorable ways. The letter ‘C’ is the first of 5 borrowers in our program. It can be pronounced two different ways. The most common is the /k/ sound, as in “cat.” It can also be pronounced /s/, as in “cent.”  This concept is introduced using the visual memory aid of train tracks.

Tutor: Borrower C makes different sounds based on what letter comes after it. We will use a picture of a train to help us remember the rule. Trains run on tracks, but the ‘C’-train runs on tracks with letters.  What sound do you think ‘C’ makes most of the time?

Student: /k/!

Tutor: You’re correct!  (point to ‘K’s on main track.) But just like any other train, the ‘C’-train can change tracks.  When it does this, it has to borrow a new sound.  What other sound can ‘C’ make?

Student: /s/

Tutor: Super job!  (point to ‘S’s on track)  Now, whenever a train changes tracks, there needs to be a sign that tells the engineer where they’re going.  Most sign posts have numbers, but as you’ve probably guessed, the ‘C’-train’s track has letters!  There are three magic letters that allow ‘C’ to change tracks.  They are ‘I,’ ‘E,’ and ‘Y’. Whenever one of the magic letters is behind ’C,’ the ‘C’ changes from the /k/ track to the /s/ track.  (Demonstrate a few sample words, such as city, cycle, cent.)

Tutor: In each case, the ‘C’ made the /s/ sound because it had one of the three magic letters behind it.  Now let’s look at some nonsense words and real words that use Borrower C.

The Borrowers: Part One -The Letter Y

There are several letters used in English that have no consistent sound association, which we call ‘Borrowers.’ This helps to convey the idea that they are ‘borrowing’ sounds from other letters.

The first of these is the infamous ‘Y.’ The ‘Y’ makes different sounds depending on where it is in a word. Contrary to popular opinion, the ‘Y’ does not say “yuh” (/ee-uh/) all the time. Like many superheroes, the ‘Y’ has an elaborate origin story dating back to Greek to Latin, and then Old English to our modern usage. Because of this, it wears many hats.



The ‘Y’ can reside in the beginning, middle, or end of a word. In the beginning of a word, the ‘Y’ is functioning as a consonant making the lightly voiced /ee/ sound, like in ‘yes’ or ‘yams’. This sound can be found in the German name Johann. Because English already had a hard ‘J’ sound (/jay/ like in John) represented by the letter j, another letter needed to be introduced for this sound. Since the ‘y’ was available on typeset, do to its function as a vowel in the middle and end of words, voila!

Its function as a vowel can be traced back to Greek and Latin. The letter Y in Spanish (as descended form Latin) is ‘I griega,” which translates to ‘Greek I’ or the Greek letter upsilon. From there its use spread from Greek to Latin an on.

In the middle of words, the ‘Y’ functions basically as the vowel ‘i’ as in “myth” or “system.” However, just like the letter ‘i’ it must follow the ‘final e’ long vowel rule as in words such as “type” and “byte.”

At the ends of words, the ‘Y’ plays double duty. If ‘Y’ is functioning as the only vowel at the end of a one syllable word, it will make the /ie/ sound, as in “sky” or “fly.” However, if ‘Y’ ends a multi-syllable word (if there is another vowel), then the ‘Y’ makes the /ee/ long vowel sound, such as in “happy” or “identity.” An easy way to visually represent this concept to a student is demonstrated below.

Before introducing borrower Y, it is helpful to discuss the concept of “borrowing” with the student.  This helps the student understand that Y is taking the sound of other letters because it doesn’t have a sound of its own.

Tutor: “You may have noticed that when we talked about the vowels we left a letter out.  That letter is Y.  You may remember that your teacher said the vowels were A, E, I, O, U and SOMETIMES Y.  The truth is that Y doesn’t have a sound of its own and has to use the sounds of other letters instead.  The way we figure out what sound Y will make is by looking at where it is in the word.  What are the three places Y could be at in a word?”

Student: “Beginning, middle and end.”

Tutor: “You’re right!  Now, can you think of any words that begin with ‘y’?”

Student: “Yell, yowl and Y am I here?”

Tutor: “Let’s use the first two.  Now, what sound to you hear the Y making in the beginning of “yell” or “yowl?”

Student: “/ee/”

Tutor: “You’re right.  That’s because Y says ‘ee’ at the beginning of words.”

The tutor will now repeat this process for Y at the middle and ends of words.  Using example words will assist the student in discovering the sound that Y borrows in each instance.

Tutor: “Now let’s look at some nonsense words and real words that use borrower Y.”