top of page

What's the deal with queue?

What's the deal with queue the literacy hill

The word queue has a strange spelling and an interesting story to tell. The word has four vowels in a row that don't look as if they do much! When we say the word queue, most of us say the letter name 'Q', but that isn't a word we can put down on paper — it's just a letter. The same can be said of the letter 'U' and the word 'you'. These letters are often used in phone text messages, but language changes slowly, and standard spelling is stable due to the dictionary, so we will not be seeing these letters represent standard words any time soon.

So what's with this spelling, and how can storytelling help decoding and spelling instruction stick?

If we look at the history and structure of the word, many interesting facts can engage and inspire. Until recently, I split it up like this, 'que' 'ue', but a student asked me about the spelling, which made me look into the history to answer his question. He wanted to know why queue had a different sound at the beginning to words like quick and quack, and I didn't know. So, I told him I'd get back to him the following week. I always get great questions from students, and when I go to find the answer, I always learn something too.

Queue entered English in the 15th Century via French and was used to refer to animal tails in the 16th Century. The French word originally comes from the Latin word coda, which also means tail. Occasionally, a queue might remind us of an animal's tail, like a snake moving back and forth, like a line of people in the post office. We also might talk of queue like a snake of people. I'd never thought of a snake having a tail, but they do. The tail is the part of the body behind the cloaca (the reproduction/ excretion opening), which means most snakes have relatively short tails.

queue the literacy hill

The word 'queue' to refer to a line of people dates back to 1837, and by 1924, the word had also been adopted as a verb and defined as standing in a queue.

When teaching how to decode and spell, it is easiest to split words up into small chunks, such as letter-sound correspondences or syllables in longer words, as this helps students develop the skill of blending to read as they link the letters and letter strings on the page to the sounds they say when they read. In the early days, reading is not a quiet activity. We want to hear students read so we can give corrective feedback so they don't pick up bad habits.

The word queue is challenging to split into spellings, and one of those words that works best if we look back in history to show how the letters link to the sounds in the word.

'Q' is the 17th letter of the alphabet and is almost

always found with U.

The spelling QU replaced the Old English spelling CW in many words after the Norman Conquest. The French changed the English spellings of the day to align with their ways. As with all things spelling, the French changed their pronunciation and stopped pronouncing the /w/ sound, so what they once said as /kw/ changed to just /k/, but their spelling never caught up with the pronunciation change. Words that entered English later, such as quiche, plaque, unique and queue have the /k/ pronunciation, not /kw/. When words end QUE, it is easy to discuss that those three letters represent the /k/ sound. Many French words that end in E are grammatically feminine. This is one of the reasons for the E at the end of some words we now have in English. The E at the end of queue tells the same story.

So the QU at the beginning represents /k/

The E at the end tells us it is a feminine word, so this is the job of E in this word. This E is silent but busy showing us that the word is grammatically feminine. English doesn't work like this, so it can look a bit strange if we don't know the story.

The EU in the middle is the spelling for the /ue/ sound. The U spelling of old changed to EU.

what's the deal with the word queue?

The pack contains a parent poster, plus many resources and activities for explicit instruction and repeated practice.


bottom of page