When it comes to IELTS writing, spelling is really important. You can make a few small mistakes with difficult words, but you need to be able to spell common words correctly. If you have too many errors, it can negatively impact your score for Lexical Resource, and if this is serious enough it could potentially cause misunderstandings that reduce your score for Task Achievement.
In this article, I will show you how to improve your spelling for IELTS.
Is Spelling Really That Important for IELTS?
Basically, yes. It is important in the writing test and it is also important in the listening and reading tests.
For IELTS writing, you could get away with making a few spelling mistakes and still achieve a high score. In the IELTS marking rubric, published by the British Council, it clearly states:
produces rare errors in spelling and/or word formation
This is the section for band 8. It tells us that a candidate could make “rare errors” and still achieve band 8. However, what does “rare” mean in an essay that is 260-290 words long? And – more to the point – are all errors equal in weighting?
Types of IELTS Spelling Errors
I suspect that this is included because even native speakers make mistakes sometimes when it comes to spelling. There are two kinds of spelling mistake:
A typo is when you simply make an error because you have written something too quickly. It needn’t be a typed error; we can use this also for handwritten work. Common typos include:
- teh (the)
- ot (to)
- taht (that)
- brining (bringing)
You can see that these are basically words that have the letters in the wrong order or have missed a letter entirely. These occur all the time for native speakers, so it would be harsh to punish someone for making such an error in an IELTS essay.
The next one is a little more serious because it shows that you actually did not know the word. When you misspell a word in English, it could again be subdivided into two categories:
- easy words
- hard words
If you misspelled the word “essay,” for example, you would be in trouble. However, if you misspelled the word “dissertation,” it would be less of a problem. That is because “essay” is much more common than “dissertation.”
The Biggest IELTS Spelling Mistakes
As you can tell, there are different levels of spelling errors for IELTS. In addition to the easy/hard distinction, there is another problem: words that occur in the question.
If you are given a word in the question and you misspell it in your essay, this shows that you struggle with spelling more than most, and your score would reflect that. Let’s say you have a question about “commercial properties,” but you write “comercial” in your essay. An examiner would take this as a quite serious mistake because you did not even need to remember the word. It is on the paper in front of you!
In IELTS writing task 1, this is really common because you often see a variety of unfamiliar words on the exam paper and people sometimes assume they have copied it correctly when in fact they haven’t.
When you doing IELTS and you encounter unfamiliar words in the question that you later want to or need to use in your essay, you should spend some time at the end checking your work to ensure that you have gotten these words right.
Spelling in IELTS Reading and Listening
I am often asked whether candidates will be penalised for getting words wrong in the reading and listening test, and the answer is YES. If you make a spelling mistake here, you will certainly lose marks.
For IELTS listening, you would never be given an extremely difficult word to spell. All of the words that could appear as an answer would be ones you should know. If you don’t know, you can take a guess, but given the difficulty of a correct guess it is perhaps better to skip ahead to the next question.
IELTS reading requires you to find words from the text and so you would certainly not be allowed to misspell any of these.
Remember: There are no negative points so you can certainly take a guess at an answer. However, if you almost spell a word correctly, it is not enough and you would get zero marks, just the same as if you had not answered.
How to Improve your Spelling for IELTS
Ok, now we shall move on to the next section, which concerns actually improving your spelling. This is not an easy thing to do. English is notoriously difficult when it comes to spelling and native speakers are pretty bad at it.
Still, it is like learning Chinese or Japanese: without actually mastering the hard parts, you have not really mastered the language. Being poor at spelling is not the end of the world, but it will mark your IELTS journey pretty challenging.
Below, I will list some things you can do to improve your spelling.
1. Get an expert to point out your mistakes
Ok, this is the first step because without knowing that you are making a mistake, it is hard to fix it! I strongly recommend that you work with a teacher or another expert English speaker to find your commonly misspelled words.
I offer a writing correction service. As part of this, I will show you every mistake that you are making with spelling and grammar. It is fast, affordable, and professional. There is no better way to improve your IELTS writing score.
If you cannot do this, you might find it helpful to install Grammarly. It is not perfect but it is pretty good at highlighting spelling errors. I have demonstrated some of its strengths and weaknesses here:
2. Practise writing your commonly misspelled words
This probably seems obvious, but many people don’t think about it. Once you have had an expert point out your mistakes, you should then work to address them.
Fixing your mistakes essentially requires a process of practising over and over until the spelling seems easy to you. You should get a notebook and devote it to your misspelt words. Spend a little time each day to address troublesome ones.
Every person is different and that is why you need individual help. However, some words are particularly hard to deal with and so maybe you can also practise these. Wikipedia has a list that you might find useful.
3. Learn spelling rules
One of the hardest parts of English is the fact that there seem to be so many exceptions to rules. There is an amusing poem that shows just how illogical English spelling rules can be. Here is a short excerpt:
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword
Don’t worry if you can’t say this allowed easily. Even as a native speaker it is quite challenging!
The point, though, is that there are many exceptions to our rules. However, knowing the rules can still be useful.
4. Make your own rules
When I was a child, someone said this to me:
The word “end” is at the end of “friend.”
This was amazingly helpful because “friend” is a commonly misspelt word. Many people (especially young children) try to write it as “freind.”
In a funny movie, a character pronounced the word “beautiful” as “bee-ey-oot-iful.” It was a silly thing but for many people the word suddenly became easy to spell! We did not need to remember the spelling; instead, we just heard his silly voice in our heads:
Hopefully you can now spell “friend” and “beautiful” easily, but you should also make up some of your own rules for words that are particularly tricky for you.
5. Internally sound out the word
Although you should not speak in the IELTS exam (except for the speaking part 😂), you can say the word in your head to spell it. This does not always help, so sometimes it is useful to say the sounds as they are spelt.
For example, the word “February” is usually pronounced “Feb-yoo-ary.” Because of this, people often misspell it as “Febuary.” It can be helpful to remember “Feb-roo-ary” and think this when you are spelling.
However, be careful not to mispronounce the word when you actually have to say it aloud in the speaking test!
6. Learn chunks of words
Sometimes it can be helpful to learn words as groups of sounds in order to spell them properly. Take the word “professor” as an example. It is quite hard to remember the spelling because we often forget whether there should be 2xFs or 2xSs.
However, if you say it aloud, you can usually figure out the correct spelling:
It would sound weird to say “prof-fess-or” right?
7. Find games and apps to help you
In the past, I used to teach my students about fun games like Scrabble as a way of boosting their spelling skills, but nowadays people don’t like playing board games. Instead, there are a million and one apps they can use.
I recommend finding a mixture of fun games and serious spelling apps. The fun ones can entertain you for a long time and gradually tell you about the spelling of words, but the serious ones will quickly impart that information and help you fix your problems.
Try an app like Anki, where you can input your own words and practise them repeatedly until you are familiar with the spelling. It is a little boring compared to a game, but it should help you to address problems quickly and efficiently.
If you follow these ideas, you will be able to overcome problems with your spelling and achieve a better score in the IELTS exam. Don’t feel bad when you make a mistake. I have made many in this article and hopefully I will find them by the time I have edited it! Everyone makes mistakes, but we should work consistently to reduce them.
You should also read this article about checking your IELTS essays for mistakes. This is a really important part of the writing test that many people overlook. It can help you to find a lot of typos and maybe a few spelling errors, too.