The strange case of the word ‘yacht’. This old chestnut comes up on a fairly regular basis and is cited as an example of how not all English words are decodable.
In truth, the word presents us with more of a challenge than many others. However, holding to the notion that every word incorporated into the English language is comprised of sounds and that all sounds have been assigned spellings, ‘yacht’ contains three sounds /y/ /o/ and /t/. How then can sounds be linked to spellings in a way that would enable young learners to remember how to spell it?
Well, the word came up in the round in a school I was working with a few years ago. We 'embarked' on an exercise in seeing how best to link the sounds of the word to the way it is spelled. I asked the class, a Year 4 who had been doing a good quality phonics programme since they had begun school, to work in small groups and to see what they could come up with. They proposed two choices: first, y ach t; and, y a cht. They then voted on which of the two they preferred. The answer was the second choice. [My vote went to the first!] This was, they argued logically, because the sound /o/ can be represented by the spelling a in lots and lots of words, when it follows the sound /w/. Having completed this short exercise, to implant it into their memories, they all wrote it and said all the sounds, before reading it back again. [This little activity should be repeated a week or so later.]
Of course I wouldn’t expect a young child to be able to read or spell the word without some support. And, if it came across the bows during a lesson, I’d deal with it there and then, or, if it proved to be too intrusive, save it to discuss later. This is how best to extend code knowledge in KS2/3/and 4.
Talking of it coming across the bows, where does the word come from? In actual fact, it is derived from Dutch. In early modern Dutch, a ‘jachtschip’ was a pirate ship. Readers of German might also recognise the word from ‘jӓger’ or ‘hunter’. In Dutch, the word sounds remarkably like the English word, except that the ch represents a separate sound, which sounds a bit to my ear like some Liverpudlians would say /k/ in the middle or at the ends of words: thus, /y/ /a/ /k+/ /t/.
So, what’s my point? Well, I have two actually. The first is that not only is the word decodable and encodable, it is also an example of how, even at a bit of a stretch, English is comprehensive. That is to say that it can easily incorporate pretty much any loan word from any language even when the loan word is a challenge for us to pronounce and, as a result, forces us to anglicise it. My second point is that, having analysed the word in the way suggested above, children are far more likely to remember how to spell it in the future. And, if as a teacher you find that you're stumped as to the derivation of a word, ask the children to look it up online.