Congratulations on your decision to learn English! Whether you are taking group or private English lessons or learning online, becoming fluent in English will open a whole new world.

With the ever-increasing global community and the widespread use of English in trade, there is an abundance of opportunities for English speakers who have sound oral, reading and writing skills.

Learners of English as a Second Language may struggle with different English language skills, but the one which seems to create issues for many people, including native speakers, is — English spelling.

A lot of languages have lovely, phonetic spelling, but not English.

There are silent letters to contend with — that is, letters that are there in the spelling, but not in the pronunciation. A couple of the many examples are the letter K which cannot be heard in the words 'knowledge' and 'knee', and the letter G which is silent in words like 'gnome' and 'sign'.

As if English pronunciation isn't hard enough for some non-native English speakers, consider the four innocent letters 'o-u-g-h' — even though they're spelled the same in lots of words, there can be anywhere up to 10 different sound combinations. For example, through (sounds like 'oo'), tough (sounds like 'uff') and though (sounds like 'oh').

You can always invest in a good dictionary, though — right?

Well, yes you should — but not all English dictionaries are exactly the same and there can be disagreements on the spelling of some words, or whether or not to use a hyphen, e.g. wellbeing or well-being.

Can you improve your English in any English speaking country?
When you learn English, your global horizons and opportunities expand. (Source: Pixabay - derwiki)

Initially, the English language was derived from the Germanic language family.

Later, in 1066 the Norman invasion saw a more Latin influence being brought into not only the language but also how and where it was used in society.

Over the following centuries, English has been heavily influenced by a range of other languages, accounting for its somewhat 'interesting' spelling. In addition, many changes are specific to particular English speaking countries and regions, such as North American English.

Learning to speak English confidently, understanding slang and having sound listening comprehension skills is important, but it isn't the only area you should be focusing on in your English classes.

Fluency also refers to the ability to read and write English and is essential if you want to be able to communicate or obtain work in Australia, UK or North America.

The history behind the development of English into the unique language it is today is the reason it is so challenging to learn. But challenges can be fun.

How Logical is English Spelling?

Plurals, inflections, tense — English grammar can cause headaches for people who are trying to learn English spelling rules.

Like every new challenge, however, working through these difficulties is part of the language learning process.

A quick internet search will bring up a huge array of strategies, methods and worksheets to assist you with your grammar knowledge and spelling — whether or not English is your native language.

The most important thing is that you stay motivated in your quest to improve your English skills.

What sort of learner are you? Which methods do you prefer when you're revising? Knowing different ways to learn will keep you interested, grow your confidence and allow you to achieve success as you learn English spelling rules.

One effective strategy is to practise with a list of your 'demon words', crossing them off once you've spelt them correctly in a test.

Not only is this a confidence booster, but it also provides you with a visual tracker of progress and ensures you don't 'learn' how to misspell words.

Tricky spelling becomes easier to remember with mnemonics, word play and rhymes.

Maybe 'mnemonic', with its silent 'm' at the start, will be the first word on your list. However, mnemonics are a brilliant way to help remember the arrangement of letters in a word.

The definition of 'mnemonic' is: a technique, such as a phrase, a rhyme, a pattern or a sentence, designed to help you remember certain facts.

For example, 'Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move' is a useful way of recalling how to spell 'rhythm'.

Of course, regular practice is the best way to learn how to spell.

Practice doesn't have to be boring. Try games like Scrabble, or Boggle, or even Hangman which rely on your knowledge of letter combinations (and some luck) to win.

Fun equals motivation, which equals success.

Linking spoken English words with letter combinations is your next step. try setting your TV to show English subtitles, and watch movies to practise making connections between English writing and the spoken language.

Analysing how the English alphabet works will help you improve your spelling and avoid mistakes, and you will get a confidence boost when you begin to see the results in proficiency tests.

Spelling Errors? Here are Ten Common Ones

Even the most proficient native English speakers have issues with words that are regularly spelt incorrectly.

Some words are just hard to spell — but English pronunciation also has a lot to do with it.

Work on your spelling so you're never caught out on a crossword
Don't be caught out by English spelling (Source: Visualhunt - stevepb)

If you're trying to make some links between pronunciation and spelling, bear in mind that English spelling rules are not consistent, nor is the language phonetic.

Take homophones, for example. These are words which sound the same but have different spellings, origins and meanings — like 'state' and 'stair' or 'suite' and 'sweet'. They are the nemesis of almost everyone who is learning English.

Making matters even more confusing are the English words where the pronunciation is nothing like the spelling.

Surely a 'colonel' from the armed forces should be pronounced 'kol-o-nel' not 'ker-nul'? After all, isn't a 'ker-nul' the centre of a nut or fruit which you can often eat? At least 'kernel' has a phonetic spelling.

You only have to look at the somewhat tumultuous past ... passed? No, it's definitely past ... of the English language to see there's a perfectly sane explanation for the mixed up spelling.

By way of example, look at the word 'colonel'. This word came from Middle French, and used to be spelled two ways.

  1. Coronel — similar to the current pronunciation.
  2. Colonello — which was the older spelling from the words Italian roots.

If an English word contains letters that are silent, you can usually assume they are derived from a foreign word and have been adapted for English use at some point.

This practice occurs today too. Think about the word tsunami (Japanese). The beginning letter pattern of 'ts' is difficult to say for native English speakers, so the 't' is often dropped — sunami.

Multicultural Australia has long been a melting pot of language and culture, including the use of a large number of Indigenous dialects and words, particularly in place names. Of course, this makes it even more challenging, if not impossible in some cases, to apply spelling rules.

Do not let this deter you!

Although important, spelling is but one step on your journey to learn English and there are many strategies you can use — like the previously mentioned mnemonics.

Double letters also cause spelling confusion.

How about 'unnecessary'? Do you have trouble remembering the number of Ns, Cs and Ss it has, and where they go?

Next time you have to write it, try this handy mnemonic — my Nearly New shirt has one Collar and two Sleeves.

Two Ns, one C, two Ss — unnecessary.

You can make up these mnemonics yourself. Learn your spelling and practise your writing at the same time!

Fluency is not only about conversational English, phrases and idioms, it's about the ability to communicate in a variety of ways. It just so happens that speaking skills are quicker to pick up when you're learning a new language. However, remember that spelling serves writing as well as pronunciation, so it's a great way to bridge the gap between these skills.

Useful Patterns For Some English Spelling Rules

With all the linguistic influences meaning that English spelling rules cannot be consistently applied, due to the close relationship to French and Germanic languages, there are many patterns in the way word-groups work.

One of these patterns is pluralisation.

'Just add an S' is the general rule in English, for making the plural of a noun.

  • umbrella — umbrellas
  • gate — gates
  • camel — camels

Naturally, this wouldn't be English if there weren't several exceptions to this rule.

Luckily, many of the exceptions also follow a pattern so they are easy to learn.

Are there any English spelling rules that don't have exceptions?
When you learn English spelling, it feels like every rule has to broken at some point. (Source: Pixabay - MoneyforCoffee)

Words ending with 'y'

If a word ends with a consonant + y, replace the y with 'i-e-s':

  • lady — ladies
  • family — families
  • category — categories

If a word ends with a vowel + y, follow the general rule and simply add an 's':

  • boy — boys
  • array — arrays
  • birthday — birthdays

At first glance, to beginning English learners, the spelling of English words might appear to be indecipherable and full of trickery, but if you take a breath, and find a pattern, you will be surprised.

Here's another exception to the pluralisation rule, but it has a pattern too.

If a word ends with 's', 'ss', 'z', 'ch', 'sh' or 'x', add 'es' to make it a plural:

  • bus — buses
  • boss — bosses
  • waltz — waltzes
  • torch — torches
  • radish — radishes
  • fox — foxes

Pronunciation of these plurals without the 'e' is close to impossible, so this particular rule is not hard to remember.

The UK/Australian Spelling v US Spelling Debate

With English being spoken widely throughout the world, it is understandable that English-speaking countries have added culturally specific words and modified the spelling of others.

American English is renowned for its spelling variations which are so commonly used they are considered the standard version of English.

Why did America change? It's all about pronunciation — American spelling changed to suit the way words are pronounced whereas British English stayed with their adopted words' original spelling.

The most obvious of these changes was from the British English '-re' to the US English '-er' at the ends of words.

American English went with the pronunciation, whereas the British stayed with the French spelling.

Variations in Spelling


Another common variation in spelling is the British/Australian '-our' and the American '-or', with the omission of the 'u'.

'-our' or '-or'?

British/Australian EnglishAmerican English

Many of the changes to spelling made in America were considered changes, made to ensure words were more similar to the way they were pronounced.

The other reason was to prevent confusion. In British English, the '-our' ending in 'flavour' sounds like 'uh', whereas in 'flour' the sound is 'ower'. Removing the 'u' in 'flavour' prevents that confusion.

Many other American English words have undergone change to be spelt more phonetically. For example: plow (plough); pediatric (paediatric); ax (axe).

How different is American spelling from British spelling?
American English or British English? Which one is 'correct'? (Source: Pixabay - ErikaWittlieb)

Australia seems to be adopting more American spelling, particularly in print media. In fact, Australian students are so used to seeing a mix of American and British spelling, it doesn't even affect their reading comprehension.

For this reason, learning English and becoming familiar with both types of spelling can only be of benefit as it will open up more opportunities for you worldwide.

So Many Dictionaries — Which One Will You Choose?

A good dictionary is an essential tool when you're learning a new language.

Dictionaries help you with your vocabulary, spelling and general word study, but there are so many different ones — slang, bilingual, online, pocket, etymological, monolingual, rhyming, junior ... it's so overwhelming.

Which one will be just right for your needs?

Different dictionaries have different functions — knowing your learning needs will help you make the right choice.

The level of complexity of dictionaries also greatly varies. Some may only have basic definitions, while others will also have example sentences, lists of synonyms or related phrases.

Bilingual dictionaries were first used in medieval Europe, when churchgoers used them to be able to translate biblical texts from Latin to their mother tongue.

In Great Britain, dictionaries contained lists of words in French, Latin and Spanish, with English definitions. From this, dictionaries containing English words and their definitions were developed.

In 1755, Samuel Johnson produced 'A Dictionary of the English Language', a precursor to the alphabetical dictionaries used today.

Dictionaries, and other word list forms, like glossaries, were valued references of standardised English spelling and were a powerful influence in the development of the English language.

American lexicographer, Noah Webster, realised the power of the dictionary. He was responsible for making many of the small changes to British spelling, which subsequently became known as American English.

Dictionaries are far more than a basic word list and their history is rich and fascinating.

The continuing growth of the English-speaking community means that, despite the difficulties with English spelling rules and the complexity of the language, help is always just around the corner. With more pros than cons, the world of English is merely waiting for you to open the door and receive the benefits.

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Kellie is an editor, a children's writer, blogger and a teacher. Any remaining time she has is spent on a dragon boat.