The spelling rule "Use I before E, except after C, and when it says A as in neighbor and weigh" is one of the most commonly known English rules. Unfortunately this rule generates as many rule breakers as rule followers.
Many programs that use the 70 Orton based phonograms have kept the "I before E rule." These programs also teach the phonograms IE and EI. In a previous post we considered the phonogram IE. In this post we will consider the phonogram EI.
EI is commonly taught as having three sounds: long /a/, long /e/, and short /i/.
Let's consider each of these sounds beginning with long /a/. EI says long /a/ in only thirteen commonly known base words:
It also says long /a/ in a variant pronunciation of sheik.
EI says the long /e/ sound in only twelve commonly known base words:
EI also says the long /e/ sound after C in seven common base words. Since these are the only words that use CEI they are best taught as a group. The Logic of English teaches CEI as a phonogram in order to help provide clarity for spelling.
EI says the short /i/ sound in five commonly known base words. [Update: In these words, the phonogram EI is used in an unstressed syllable and says one of the two English schwa sounds, so the pronunciation of these words actually follows our spelling rule about schwa, Spelling Rule 31, which we began teaching in 2014.]
It also says short /i/ in a variant pronunciation of cuneiform, though in standard pronunciations of this word the E and I say separate sounds.
Programs with only the three sounds long /a/, long /e/, and short /i/ for EI do not account for the words where EI says long /i/. EI says its long /i/ sound in twenty-four common base words.
EI says long /i/ in some dialects' pronunciations of neither, either, and Holstein.
So what do we gain from these word lists? First, clearly the long /i/ sound should be included in the sounds of the EI phonogram. It is in fact more common than the short /i/ sound. Logic of English teaches the phonogram EI as having three sounds: long /a/ as in beige, long /e/ as in protein, and long /i/ as in feisty. Second, there are a limited number of words that use the EI phonogram and many of these words are more advanced vocabulary.
Though confusion has reigned for decades about where to use EI vs. IE, there are some simple steps that can be taken to ensure the correct spelling. Knowing the sounds of the phonograms EI and IE is far more important than the common spelling rule, because when we hear the long /a/, short /i/ or long /i/ sounds we know it must be spelled EI, not IE. Second, to alleviate confusion, CEI is best learned as an independent phonogram saying /sē/, and all seven words which use this phonogram may be learned as a group. Third, this means only the words that overlap with the pronunciation long /e/ must be memorized. Though there is not a "trick," it may be helpful to memorize the list of twelve base words where EI spells the long /e/ sound. All remaining words will be spelled IE.
You can learn more about the Phonograms and Spelling Rules in Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy and in Logic of English curriculum.
This article was updated in 2017 to add information on Spelling Rule 31 and correct pronunciation categorization of several words.