During school-visit interactive readings of May I Have a Word? I ask students to act out the character of the letter K, who is jealous and frustrated with the letter C for taking all the “good words.” I feed them their lines and encourage them to muster up as much melodrama as possible.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” they quote and then let out a collective and wonderfully pitiful sigh.
“In fact, I— don’t—want—to—talk—at—all!”
I narrate the next line, “K fell silent.”
The students take the cue; fling their hands over their mouths, slump, and slide into their chairs, shake their heads back and forth, as they create a dramatic moment of silence.
Then N enters into the book, to ask K, “May I have a word with you?”
We pause to talk about how sometimes in American English there are letters that are silent, for example, when K is next to the letter N, we only hear the N sound.
“What is the N sound?” I ask.
“NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!” The students call out. Then we read the story K and N come up with together about a Knight and his knotted knitting.
The students shoulders often loosen in relief as we talk how spelling is wonderful but can be quite confusing since matters such as silent letters and blends need memorization, dictionaries, teachers, erasers and do-overs to learn and use. Of course, I often get the question: Why do we have a silent K?
I wish I had known more about the evolution of silent K and other silent letters as part of my own spelling education because knowing just a little bit about the mystery has turned my frustration into curiosity. Scholars have pointed out that silent letters represent the history of our language: they may be indicators of words that have come to us from other languages, and their presence give us a way to keep track of a words origin and relationship to other words.
Silent letters, might not speak, but they have stories.
Not all children like to speak out loud all the time (or at all) either.
One day, for example, there was a silent K moment in a student support group I help facilitate. A new student had joined the group. In the individual meetings I’d had with this student he had been quite verbally forthcoming about feelings, questions, telling me about their beloved pet, and the big questions he had about the challenging event he’d experienced. But as the group went around for introductions there was a big silence when it came to this student, whom I’ll call G (another letter that in English can act silently.) I was at first nervous the other students would be impatient, perhaps say something to make G feel more self conscious. But instead, they waited. In silence.
There is much to be found in silence.
The chattiest member of our support group was unsurprisingly the one to speak into the waiting silence that day, but she chose her words slowly, thoughtfully. “Sometimes people can be shy, or have a shy moment. And you have to, you know, respect that. It just might take longer to hear from them. That’s all.”
So the group waited a moment more. Patiently, supportively.
And then G ventured into the silence to introduce himself with a whisper, a shaking knee, and a giant smile. Later on, G was busy drawing images that he found inspiring and comforting, and showing them to the new friends sitting by his side.
Silent students might not speak, but they have stories.
This silent student and his empathic classmates inspired me to add a new question to my author visits. When we reach the K & N scene in May I Have A Word? I can also ask kids, when are times or reasons a friend might choose to be silent? What are some ways, we can tell stories, be friends, together without speaking?
“You don’t have to make a sound,” says N in May I Have a Word? "Just let me stand here next to you.”
Sometimes a letter, or a person, just needs permission to be quiet in order to find their voice. And sometimes as in the case with silent K, that voice does not have to speak at all. Sometimes the presence of a silent K is the most important sound in the room.