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Why does Q almost always go with U?

Updated: Nov 10, 2023


The Literacy Hill

When teaching letters and sounds, a quick story about the 'why' can engage and enthuse most students. Why does Q almost always go with U? Children always want to know why. They are curious. We can harness that curiosity with engaging word stories.


Q is the seventeenth letter of the alphabet and is pretty much always found with its sidekick U.


Q is a letter that doesn't have its own sound and shares the /k/ sound with C and K. Q was a later addition to the alphabet, as many Old English words began with the letters CW. The word queen was spelled cwen and quick looked like cwic. QU replaced this spelling during the Norman Conquest. As Linguist Arika Okent says in her brilliant, wordy book, Highly Irregular, there is always someone to blame when it comes to spelling.


The French changed the spellings of the day to align with their French ways. The reason the French used the letter Q was because Latin did. In Latin, the letter Q represented the /k/ sound before the /w/ sound, and they used the letter C everywhere else. This works well as a spelling rule to follow for all QU words, but wait, it got complicated (as is often the case). The French stopped saying the /w/ sound, and their spelling never caught up with the pronunciation change, so words that entered English later, such as quiche, plaque, unique, and queue, have the /k/ pronunciation, not /kw/. To go further into the history of the spelling check out the fascinating video that goes with her book. Some words do use just a Q, and these are foreign loan words or a famous acronym. So the QU spelling pattern is a pretty good bet.


Many parents want to help with reading and spelling but lack the knowledge to do so effectively. In all my sessions, I leave notes for parents to help with home practice. This poster for parents is in the QU pack.



The letter Q is often included at the end of initial sound sequences taught in primary schools. It can be tricky for little ones. They have already had C and K with the same sound, and now there is Q. As we move on from initial sounds and initial spellings that are transparent — one sound goes with one letter ( except C, K, and, Q. X is a bit dodgy too! A tale for another day) QU as a spelling pattern can help students decode efficiently and opens the door to the wider world of spelling.


The letter U is an oddity for young students to get their heads around as it represents the consonant sound /w/. This has to be explicitly taught; otherwise, we will see a lot of spellings that look like they sound. This is an easy fix with the right instruction and plenty of repetition to consolidate the spelling.


So work on the QU spelling with just initial sounds first, next, include the digraphs CK, CH and SH in words such as quack, squelch and squish and leave words like quiche, queue and unique for another time.


QU can be a tricky spelling to master. A classroom I visit regularly uses a catchy rhyme to help it stick. They often sing it together in their explicit instruction sessions.

Q is married to U they stick together like glue."


I recently made them a poster, and it is included in my new QU decoding and spelling pack. I have already had requests for a widescreen version to use on whiteboards, so that will be added to the pack before the end of the term here.



This type of visual and rhyme can work well to help knowledge stick.


Learning to read and spell takes time. There is so much to learn in the first years of school.


It is a hill to climb, and some children need lots of instruction to get up the hill, some not so much. Many students will benefit from targeted games and activities that focus on the skills and knowledge previously taught. This offers all students repetition with variety.


Purposeful activities can act as a bridge between word and sentence levels so that students can repeat the skills and knowledge they have already been exposed to in a previous teaching session through playful learning opportunities.


Check out my new QU decoding and spelling resource. This bank of resources is perfect for after explicit instruction in the classroom, intervention, and sending home for repeated practice.



The pack is full of engaging activities and games to be used after explicit instruction and for repeated practice, intervention or home practice. Games can be a huge win in the home. And they don't even need printing — They could be used on an iPad!




I recently used the pack with an intervention group at school, and they loved the quick quiz sheets. The students had fun reading the words even when they had to sound them out to blend to read. A quiz is always a hit because some of the questions are a bit silly. The students were engaged and wanted to read the questions. We also had quite a philosophical debate about a few. There are four in the pack. I have students who will whizz through quiz-type activities but moan about a book. Each quiz has six questions to answer. Some of the questions are really silly, and this always brings a smile.



We use sentence strips in the same way. Flipping over the strips feels less work than a book. There is only one sentence to read on each strip, and it's not overwhelming. The strips can also be used for sentence instruction.




The sentence strips are also sentence cards to use with a track game so students can read the same sentences in a different activity. Many students need the same but different resources to engage in purposeful, effective repetition. If a student isn't engaged and they are not attending to the instruction and activity, the knowledge and skills are not sticking and developing. We must help students to engage and help them up the hill. it is our job to inspire and engage so they will want to do the hard work.


Games and engaging activities can consolidate previous learning.


All children must build the skill of blending to read with lots of exposure to spellings to develop fluent decoding. Games don't replace reading books. But if a child struggles to read and needs lots of extra practice, blending to read games fill the gap.



The pack contains three stories in three different layouts and two versions — the same but different! This way, our students can also read a whole story with lots of QU spellings to reinforce knowledge and skills. Rereading text develops fluency, but this can be a hard sell for many students. In the clinic, we read the same text several times. We use the text differently to engage the reader each time we read. We don't read the same text three times in a row without discussion or activity. The stories contain no pictures, and the student has to add pictures. They love that they are the illustrator of their own book. We always discuss that this is a job. You have a part to play to complete the book. It's not art class, the pictures don't have to take an age, but they do have to reflect the sentences just read. perfect for after explicit instruction as a guided group.



The act of drawing a picture while chatting about the story is a good time to build vocabulary and meaning. Each story comes with conversational starter questions to guide discussions as you read and draw. The questions are also a great way to involve parents and scaffold how they can help at home.


Draw together to build vocabulary, meaning and connection


The picture is also a good assessment of comprehension. I use these books as a homework activity. We read and discuss in the session and draw a picture or two. The others will be done at home.



My word building sheets are a favourite at the moment. We have been using them with my stack of QU Aussie animal books and others. The study of morphology can positively impact on decoding and spelling, but it can also be toxic and be of no use at all if it is taught poorly and there are no connections made to the spellings and words a student already knows. I love using resources with a variety of students to see how they work. This week I explored the word 'quick' with a year one class and the word squelch with a year two student.


Use words that your students are comfortable with. Creating new words and discussing what they mean and how to use them is complex. Both activities were at a level way below their decoding level, so they could access the session and respond to the content.


When teaching word building, we have to work at a lower level than students can already read because the act of building words is complex and complicated. There are spelling patterns to teach, and the meanings of words can be opaque or hard to understand if abstract.


Duck in the Truck is one of my favourite stories, and it works so well for so many teaching points. Jez Alborou h hit gold with this one! My copy is over 20 years old. Check out the new edition here.



Connecting spelling instruction to a known text will engage students. We have previously used this text for the CK spelling. So it was retrieval phonics practice plus spelling instruction as we discussed how the Y of squelchy turns into an I when we make the comparative adjective. We had great fun making up oral sentences for the duck and his friends.


"The duck is stuck in squelchy mud, but the frog is in the squelchiest mud of all, and the sheep has to quickly pull him out."


We added some words and sentences to a whiteboard in class, and my student will fill in the sheet for home practice. The little girl pops up on some sheets with spelling prompts on her sign.


Many students fail to make the progress needed because they don't get enough repetitions after explicit instruction. As a teacher or parent who can read and spell, engaging in lots of repetition may seem mundane, but becoming literate is similar to building any complex skill. It takes lots of repetition — the same but different. We have to engage and motivate students who need lots of repetition so they can climb the literacy hill and flourish in high school. If we treated learning to read the same as sport, Australia would have champion readers. Maybe it's time we put as much energy and investment into literacy as we do into sport.


They will help you teach spelling better.

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