Spelling is one of the biggest challenges that English learners face. In fact, even native speakers find it difficult. I am not only a native speaker of English but also a professional writer and editor and I still occasionally make mistakes with certain words!
It can sometimes seem overwhelming but, in this lesson, I want to help you find ways to improve your spelling. I’m going to give some practical advice that will give you a better chance of spelling words correctly so that you can get a good score in your IELTS writing test.
The Importance of Spelling
Some people think that spelling is no longer important and indeed technology has made it easier to get by without knowing how to spell many words. Even so, it is still important. Being able to spell properly allows you to communicate clearly in writing. It helps you to avoid mistakes.
Even in the modern era, spelling mistakes make you look ignorant and unprofessional. They can cost you a job application or cause a major misunderstanding. In IELTS, of course, it can badly lower your score. After all, spelling plays a role in your score for Lexical Resource.
Understanding the Basic Rules
Before you tackle the labyrinth that is English spelling, you must understand its foundational rules:
Phonics and Alphabetic Principle
English is an alphabetic language, which means that letters or combinations of letters correspond to particular sounds. Phonics is a method of teaching that starts by associating these letters with their corresponding sounds, making it an excellent starting point for beginners in spelling and reading. For instance:
- Simple Words: In phonetically simple words, each letter corresponds to a single sound. Take the word “cat”; it is broken down into its three individual sounds: /k/ – /æ/ – /t/. Another example is “dog,” which corresponds to the sounds /d/ – /ɒ/ – /g/.
- Consonant Blends: Some words have combinations of consonants that are each pronounced but quickly blended together. For example, the word “plant” has the consonant blend /pl/ at the beginning. The sounds are /p/ – /l/ – /æ/ – /n/ – /t/.
- Digraphs: These are pairs of letters that represent a single sound. For example, in the word “she,” the ‘sh’ makes a single sound /ʃ/. Another example is “ch” in “chip,” which produces the sound /tʃ/.
- Silent Letters: Some words contain letters that are not pronounced. For instance, in the word “knight,” the ‘k’ and the ‘gh’ are silent, leaving the sounds /n/ – /aɪ/ – /t/.
- Vowel Combinations: Vowels can also combine to produce a single sound. In the word “boat,” the ‘oa’ makes a single /oʊ/ sound.
- Long and Short Vowels: English vowels can be either long or short, and this distinction is crucial in spelling. For instance, ‘cap’ with a short ‘a’ /æ/ changes to ‘cape’ with a long ‘a’ /eɪ/ when an ‘e’ is added at the end.
By starting with the basic sounds that letters and letter combinations make, you lay the groundwork for understanding more complex spelling rules and irregularities.
Common Rules and Their Exceptions
- “I” before “E” except after “C”: This rule works for words like ‘believe’ and ‘receive’. However, there are exceptions like ‘weird’ and ‘neither’.
- Double Consonants: Words like ‘sit’ become ‘sitting’ when adding a suffix. However, ‘visit’ becomes ‘visiting’ and not ‘vissiting’ because it has two syllables, and the stress is not on the last one.
Learning these basic rules is a good starting point but be prepared for many exceptions.
Understanding Why People Making Spelling Errors
Why do people spell words incorrectly? There could be many reasons, but the most common ones are:
- Pronunciation issues. Words are not always spelt as they are pronounced, causing problems. In my country – Scotland – people pronounce “definitely” as “deffo-nate-ly.” As such, many people think that this word is spelled “definately.” When you understand this, you are in a better position to avoid the mistake.
- Homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same. We have many of them in English and they can cause spelling problems. The words “right” and “write,” for example, might be confused. We also have many words that are similar but different, such as “loosing” and “losing.” These can cause problems for people.
Now let’s look at how to improve our spelling.
Practice Makes Perfect
Once you understand the rules, constant practice is your best ally. Here’s how:
Create a set of flashcards with the word on one side and its definition or a sentence that uses it on the other. Flip through these cards regularly to refresh your memory.
Either create your own quizzes or find some online. Aim to do this at least once a week. The repetition and self-testing can significantly improve your spelling.
Set aside a few minutes each day to write. You could write a journal entry, an email, or even a short story. Focus on using new and challenging words. After writing, spell-check your work to identify any errors.
Keep a Spelling Journal
Maintain a dedicated notebook where you write down all the words you find difficult to spell. Make it a habit to review this journal periodically and test yourself on the words. (Tip: This is a great approach to learning prepositions as well!)
Focus on Common Mistakes
A spelling journal can help you identify and fix your own mistakes but it’s also worth looking at words that other people find difficult to spell. Mastering these can help you reduce the number of mistakes that you make. Here are some commonly misspelled words:
You can find more in this list from Wikipedia.
Use Technology Wisely
Word processing software often comes with spell checkers that highlight incorrect spellings. These are good for catching basic errors but don’t rely solely on them. They won’t always catch mistakes like using ‘their’ instead of ‘there’.
Warning: These often act as a “crutch” as well, meaning that people rely on them too much and so they can be counterproductive.
Spelling and Grammar Apps
There are numerous mobile apps that can help you with your spelling through quizzes, games, and challenges. Popular ones include Grammarly, Duolingo, and SpellTower. You can search for others on Google or in your preferred app store.
The Power of Reading
Reading is an underrated tool for improving spelling. It helps you see words in their natural habitat, i.e., within sentences and paragraphs, making it easier to remember their spelling. Aim to read a variety of materials, including books, articles, and newspapers.
Seek Constructive Feedback
Constructive criticism is invaluable. If possible, get a teacher or a proficient English speaker to review your writing and highlight your spelling errors. This tailored feedback can be a real eye-opener. Many people improve their spelling by using my writing correction service.
Mnemonics and Memory Aids
Mnemonics are memory aids or strategies that help you remember information. They are often used for difficult-to-spell words. Here are some examples:
- Because: The mnemonic “Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants” can help you remember the correct order of letters in “because.”
- Separate: A common misspelling is mixing up the ‘a’ and the ‘e.’ You can remember it by noting that there’s “a rat” in “separate.”
- Receive: For words that follow the “i before e except after c” rule, think of the phrase, “Never believe a lie,” to remember the order of ‘i’ and ‘e’ in “believe” and “cei” in “receive.”
- Accommodate: This word often trips people up with its double ‘c’ and ‘m.’ Remember it by saying, “A comfy cat occupies a double mattress,” noting the double ‘c’ and ‘m.’
- Desert vs. Dessert: Remember that “dessert” has two ‘S’s because you’d always want seconds. “Desert” has one ‘S’ because you wouldn’t want to be stranded there twice.
- Stationery vs. Stationary: “Stationery” with an ‘e’ is related to ‘envelopes.’ “Stationary” with an ‘a’ is related to ‘standing still.’ Another trick is remembering that “stationery” shops sell paper. The “-ER” at the end of “paper” matches with “stationERy.”
- Principal vs. Principle: Remember the “PAL” in “principal” to note that the school principal is your “pal,” whereas “principle” is a “rule.
By incorporating mnemonics into your study routine, you can make the task of memorizing difficult spellings more manageable and even fun. These clever shortcuts help lodge the words in your long-term memory, making it easier to recall them when you need to.
Bonus: The word “beautiful” is often considered hard to spell. Many people remember it from this silly movie quote:
Patience and Consistency
Improving your spelling is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires sustained effort over a period of time. Maintain a consistent routine of practice and review.
In summary, English spelling is complex, but mastering it is not an impossible challenge. With a combination of understanding the basic rules, consistent practice, constructive feedback, and the effective use of technology and memory aids, you can significantly improve your spelling skills. It’s a skill that will serve you well in all English-related endeavours, be they academic or professional. So, keep practising, and don’t forget to be patient and consistent in your efforts.