You don't have to be a non-native student of English to be experiencing difficulty with English spelling. There are plenty of native English speaking people who would agree — many English words are hard to spell.
Even if you haven't specifically covered spelling in your English classes, you will be aware that English is not a phonetic language. This rules out only using pronunciation to help you spell words, or 'sounding out' to help you read.
English contains a host of commonly misspelt words that are downright tricky — like 'tough', 'though' 'throw'. Learning to spell can be a time-consuming bother for anybody learning English.
The first two words look almost identical, but the endings don't rhyme. The last two have different endings, which sound exactly the same!
You may feel like giving up, however, if you want to achieve a high level of reading and writing proficiency, you have to be able to spell!
Achieving language fluency is not only about your ability to communicate by speaking.
If you are planning to learn English with a view to becoming fluent, you need to work on all language skills. These include listening, written literacy skills and conventions, as well as conversation.
Written skills are vital to communication and should not be overlooked.
You might have fabulous spoken fluency with a perfect accent and a vast knowledge of English slang, idioms and expressions, but if you aren't able to spell English words accurately, you won't achieve that high level of proficiency you may be seeking.
Self Motivation is the Key to Improving Your English
You might be taking private English lessons, group ESL classes or learning English online — whichever way you're studying English, you are going to need to study independently when you're not in class. This means having the self-discipline to practise spelling!
Away from the classroom setting is the best time to focus on the areas where you struggle. Work out the revision strategies that suit your learning style. 'Learning how to learn' is particularly important if you're learning English online. Working through these things early is the best way to reduce stress and ensure success.
To start, try some of these ideas to help you conquer problematic English spelling:
Focus on Words that are Your Spelling Nemesis
If you know you have specific problematic words, and everyone does, do not ignore them. They won't go away.
If you target these words or spelling rules now, you'll save yourself a lot of time, and stress, later.
Begin by making a spelling list of those tiresome words — your common spelling errors.
Just writing them down is a great start, because writing aids memory and directs focus.
Practise your words daily!
Remove words when you can confidently spell them.
Adding new words to your list is a must. And make a special note of any UK/Australian and US spelling variations.
Building this daily practice into your schedule is a brilliant way to stay motivated because you'll see your progress.
Memorise Those Awkward Letter Patterns
Depending on your English dialect, there are up to ten ways to pronounce that annoying 'o-u-g-h' letter combination.
Then there are the silent 'p' words, like 'pterodactyl' and 'psychology'.
Try putting these tricky letter combinations into categories. Sorting words into groups aids memory to improve English spelling.
Why not start by making a list of all the silent 'k' words you can find: knee, knot, knowledge, knock. Cross them off when you 'know' them.
Chunking, or grouping, is also a useful strategy.
When you 'chunk' a word, you divide it into smaller pieces. Often, but not always, these are syllables, e.g. ack-now-ledge is how you might group 'acknowledge'.
Doing this may help you identify the part of the word you find difficult. You can then focus on the source of the problem rather than the whole word.
Give Yourself a Quiz
You won't know if you've conquered a word unless you test yourself.
Testing is easy to do informally, or you can look for online tests or worksheets which will keep track of your progress. In addition, these structured tests allow you to consolidate your understanding and find new target areas.
Be realistic. A weekly goal of ten or so words is achievable. A page of words is not.
Use this time to practise your words by sorting and dividing them into letter combinations. Write them down until the process feels natural.
Use the 'look, say, cover, write, check' method to assess yourself each day. (This means: read the word and say it, cover it up and write it, look at it again to check if it's correct.)
Improve English Spelling With Daily Practice
Learning a new language will not happen without considerable effort.
It's one thing to be able to recite English grammar and spelling rules, but you need to be able to actively use your English skills.
Regular exposure to quality literary resources and personal writing practice is the only way you will learn to spell — and retain that knowledge.
Reading is one of the best ways to get a feel for spelling patterns (and expand your vocabulary in context). This applies equally to those learning English as a second language and to native speakers of English.
You don't have to be focusing solely on spelling patterns to start becoming familiar with common spellings.
Your brain takes on a whole host of information without you realising. If you're absorbed in a great book, then chances are your brain is recording the shapes and patterns of English words which will help you produce them in writing later.
Who doesn't always have a book or reading material at their fingertips? (If you don't, get into the habit.) Reading for pleasure is an effective way to brush up on your English skills and learn more about different cultures.
Reading aloud is even better!
Take that opportunity to practise your pronunciation and fluency. Hearing yourself speak is another memory aid too!
Be brave, and read aloud to a native English speaker or anyone else who is fluent. They'll help you identify any pronunciation issues, particularly for tricky spelling patterns, before they become ingrained.
Ask someone you trust to focus on specific or common mistakes, and correct them as they happen.
Making mistakes is the most effective way to learn, and you won't make mistakes (and learn from them) if you don't have a go.
When you're practising writing in English, you're also engaging in spelling practice. And there will be words you want to use that are hard to spell. Try not to fall into the trap of picking another easier word.
Write the tricky word as best as you can, make a note of it, and come back to tackle it later.
Try not to resort to a dictionary first. Write down all possibilities for the word, select the one that 'looks right' — then consult a dictionary.
You might be pleasantly surprised. If not, you will at least have learned something through this trial and error process.
Think critically to improve English spelling.
Use Mnemonics When You're Stuck on How to Spell Certain Words
The Macquarie Dictionary definition of mnemonic (ne-mon-ik) is: a verse or the like intended to assist the memory.
Out of all the ways you can learn English spelling, creating and using your own mnemonics has to be the most fun!
Mnemonics can be any form of wordplay. Most commonly, they take the form of a short story, a song or a silly rhyme.
Rhymes are fun. Try this one if you need to spell the place 'Mississippi':
Mrs M, Mrs I, Mrs S S I,
Mrs S S I, Mrs P P I.
It works with 'difficulty' too!
Other common mnemonics, which are super easy to make up yourself and great for writing practice, are acronyms:
Necessary — Not Every Cat Eats Sardines, Some Are Really Yummy
Playing with mnemonics can make a huge difference in your writing and spelling. The challenge will motivate you to learn increasingly complex spellings.
What is the Importance of Fun?
If you love what you're doing, you'll make more progress — studies have shown this to be true.
Enjoyment is key to ensuring you improve your English spelling.
Have a look around for spelling games — both traditional board games and online ones.
Why not try Scrabble? There are easier and more challenging versions available. There's even an Australian Scrabble!
Whichever version you play, the basic aim is to use your seven letters to create the longest words you can — with the correct spelling.
Scrabble really develops your knowledge of letter patterns and vocabulary. It's competitive and it's fun to play.
If you want a game that takes less time to play, but is still fun, try Boggle. Switch your brain on though, because you'll be in for a wild spelling ride!
In a nutshell: roll the letter dice, set the timer, and write down as many words as you can using those letters.
If you have the most (correctly spelt) words, you win! Oh, and they have to be real words!
Boggle is particularly good for making connections with known letter patterns. For example, if you make the word 'dog', you might focus on the '-og' combination and search for a 'b' or an 'f' to make bog or fog.
Your brain may be too tired to compete. If you just want to chill — guess what? You can still learn while watching TV.
Switch on your favourite English-language show, or put in a movie, and add some passive learning time to your day. It's surprisingly effective, like reading a book which we mentioned earlier.
Either listen in English, or switch the subtitles on.
So, what's holding you back?
There's no harm in switching on the subtitles and taking in some new words or phrases and soaking up the sound and look of the English language.
Language learning is not all about spelling, but knowledge about vowels, consonants, rules, patterns and phonemes is more important than people realise.
Bring your written communication up to speed with your conversational English and reap the benefits.
Do it all: write, read, listen, speak. But, above all, have fun!