In English, pronunciation alone does not always let you know how to spell a word. For example:
two, too, to
bye, buy, by
Even worse, spelling alone may not always tell you how to pronounce a word:
read (as present simple, sounds like “reed” — a long vowel sound)
read (as past simple, sounds like “red” — a short vowel sound)
Why does English have such strange spelling?
- English words came from other languages, including Old English (a Germanic language), Old French, and Latin, each language having its own rules for spelling (Read here for the history of English written in simple English)
- People tried to preserve the original spellings of those words from whichever language they came from
- Between about 1350 and 1700, English went through a change called the “Great Vowel Shift“, where the pronunciation of vowel sounds changed
- Printing froze the spelling of words, even though pronunciation of words continued to change during this time
Certainly, there are no simple rules to English spelling!
How can you learn spelling?
There are many approaches to learning spelling. The more approaches used the faster the learning. Here are some, though not necessarily in order of effectiveness:
1. Phonics (pronounced /foniks/)
Phonics is one method of teaching the different letters and combinations used to write the 44 sounds of English (called phonemes).
In each lesson, learners (typically young children) are taught that a particular letter or combination (e.g. “ai”) has a particular sound, and are given many simple words to demonstrate it (e.g. rain, tail, sail, bait, fail, wait), often with a matching picture for each word.
By learning the pronunciation of many shorter words, they eventually learn to pronounce longer words, by recognising the same familiar patterns in them.
However, according to this chart, there are a total of 222 letter combinations (e.g. “ai”) to represent the 44 sounds. So, relying only on phonics to learn spelling could take a long period of time.
2. Listening to stories or songs while reading them
Methods such as phonics that focus on rules or patterns will help, but because there are so many rules and so many exceptions, these could take a long time to learn if taught out of context.
Learners will learn spelling more quickly by trying to read simple stories or poems while listening to someone read them aloud, or by reading lyrics of a song while hearing it sung. This lets them see the spelling, hear the pronunciation, and learn how to use many words in context. It also helps keep learners interested and motivated to continue learning.
See my earlier post about why it is important to learn vocabulary in context, such as though stories, songs, poems, etc.
3. Writing in a meaningful context
For maximum learning effectiveness, students should be encouraged to write something personally meaningful and interesting in response to something they have read or listened to. For example, they could write a short message to a friend explaining why it is a good story/song/video/etc.
The learner can ask someone (or use a computer) for help on how to spell difficult words or to correct any spelling mistakes.
With appropriate and constructive feedback, they will be improving not only spelling, but also other important aspects such as their knowledge of punctuation, grammar, set phrases, collocations, tone, paragraphing, etc.
4. Mnemonics (pronounced /nemoniks/)
To help you remember how to spell confusing words, you can use mnemonics. Many primary school students are taught the following mnemonic:
i before e except after c
Or except when sounded “A” as in neighbor, weigh and weight
Or when sounded like “I” as in height
And “weird” is just weird
to help them remember how to write words like:
receive, conceive, deceive, believe, retrieve, grieve, piece
However, it is only a general rule. There are exceptions. For example:
leisure, seize, species
Other mnemonics can help remind you how to spell individual words. For example:
- The principal is your pal (note: pal means friend)
- When Friday ends, you go out with your friends
- Always smell a rat when you spell separate
- complement adds something to make it enough
- compliment puts you in the limelight
5. Spellchecker and self-correction
Whenever the computer spellchecker shows me that I have misspelt a word, I force myself to delete and rewrite the word and say the word slowly in my mind (e.g. “se-pa-rate”) — unless it was just a typo.