How to Improve Your English Spelling

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Addyson, a sixth grader who loves to write, asks, “How can I learn to spell better?”

That’s certainly a worthy question, and over the years, we’ve given many suggestions for better spelling.

But when young writers ask for advice on spelling or grammar, I always emphasize something else first.

Spelling is not writing. Grammar is not writing. Writing is saying, in the clearest way you can, what’s on your mind or in your heart. Despite what your teachers may be saying, poor spelling does not keep you from great writing.

How do I know? Because people with dyslexia or dysgraphia have become successful authors, including Agatha Christie, John Irving, Avi, Jeanne Betancourt, and Fannie Flagg. And some of the most important writers of modern times couldn’t spell.

The greatest poor spellers

Ernest Hemingway
His reply when his newspaper editors complained about his bad spelling: “Well, that’s what you’re hired to correct!” He must have not been paying attention in school the day his teacher said, “Drop the e and add ing,” because he often spelled “loveing” and “moveing.” He often used “and” when he could have used a comma. He still got a Nobel Prize for Literature.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
His editors had to correct hundreds of spelling mistakes in The Great Gatsby, such as “yatch,” “apon,” “definate,” and “critisism.” He couldn’t even remember how to spell the name of his best friend, who was Ernest Hemingway. One critic wrote, “I have said that This Side of Paradise commits almost every sin that a novel can possibly commit: but it does not commit the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.”

William Butler Yeats
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, but he got poor spelling grades on his report cards, for words such as “feal” and “sleap.” Unfortunately, his handwriting and spelling counted against him when his essays were graded, though he did well when he could read them aloud. He also had a habit of forgetting his school books.

Winston Churchill
Works such as the four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples led to the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. But a childhood report card said, “Writing is good, but terribly slow — spelling about as bad as it well can be.”

William Faulkner
One editor remarked on his “misspellings, faulty punctuation and accidental repetition.” Before achieving the literary fame that led to the 1949 Nobel Prize, he worked two years as University of Mississippi’s postmaster in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, “editing” the mail by throwing it out if he didn’t consider it important.

Jane Austen
Her misspellings included “scissars” and at age 15, she titled a novel Love and Freindship (remember, I before E except after C). Later editors tamed her spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but according to Oxford University English professor Kathryn Sutherland, a new study of 1,100 handwritten pages of Austen’s unpublished manuscripts shows she had a better gift for dialogue than anyone had suspected, when editors didn’t mess it up.

The best way to learn spelling

One reason that spelling in English can be so difficult is that our words come from so many different languages with different spelling rules. That’s why spelling bees can be so competitive.

Spanish schools don’t have spelling bees. Why bother? Spanish is always written phonetically, so any native Spanish-speaking child can correctly spell anything they can write.

This is not true of English.

The best way to learn to spell better depends on your own learning style.

  • If you learn by hearing, spell words out loud, or have someone else do it for you. Sing the letters. Listen to the rhythm, and you may sense the rules behind them. Teach someone else.
  • If you learn kinesically; that is, by movement, tracing words on paper or in the air may cement their correct spelling in your memory. Typing them will help too.
  • If you learn by seeing, the more you read, the more your spelling will improve. Using a keyboard will help. Seeing what you just typed appearing neatly on the screen may trigger your “right/wrong” sensors more reliably than trying to read your handwriting.
  • If you learn logically, organize your word lists by rule or family. Not all logic is verbal, and you can sharpen your unconscious spelling sense simply by putting all the words together that end with ‘ed’ or start with ‘eu’.

Strategies for better spelling

  • It helps to learn basic spelling rules, but don’t worry if you still make mistakes. After a two year study, Stanford University researchers determined that you would need more than 650 rules to correctly spell the 20,000 most common words in the English language. If you learned 300 rules, you might be able to spell half of them.
  • Learn to spell words according to families; that is, in groups of similarly spelled words. In a spelling bee, to make the competition harder, the judges make sure that every word is different from the next. But learning to spell is not a competition, so spelling lists should be as easy to learn as possible – with each word similar to the next. In a few minutes, a child can learn to spell take, rake, make, lake, bake, cake, sake, and wake. So when you study patriarch, you may as well learn arch, archive, archaic, architecture, archipelago, and archaeology at the same time. Simply seeing arch on that list might be enough reminder to spell the others correctly. Besides, getting question after question right makes a student feel good.
  • Learn to spell words according to their etymology; that is, according to their language of origin. Many Arabic words begin with ‘al’ (meaning ‘the’) while many Hebrew names end with ‘el’ (meaning ‘God’). In words that came from Greek, the ‘f’ sound is spelled ‘ph’. If you remember those word origins, you will never spell algebra as “elgebra”, Michael as “Micheal”, or photograph as “fotograf”.

Though some people may judge you for your mistakes, success in life doesn’t depend on good spelling. Fortunately, spellcheckers and friends can help. But when opponents criticized Andrew Jackson’s spelling, the future U.S. President retorted, “It’s a… poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”

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8 thoughts on “How to Improve Your English Spelling”

  1. I would recommend:
    “7 Steps to Good Spelling: All you need to know to spell the words you write”
    By the lIlustrious Maeve Maddox

  2. Thank you, Venqax. It contains considerably fewer than 650 rules!

  3. “It’s a… poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”
    Yes! acknowledgment & acknowledgement.
    judgment & judgement.
    Neandertal and Neanderthal.
    whisky and whiskey.
    “whiskey” – the only common word in German that begins with “wh” .
    (Aha, this is a loanword from Scottish English.)
    Charleston, Charlestown, and Charles Town.
    Frankfurt, Germany, and Frankfort, Kentucky.
    gauge and gage (two different meanings),
    but “gauge” is by far the more important one: air gauge, depth gauge, fuel gauge, gasoline gauge, measurement gauge, oxygen gauge, pressure gauge, rain gauge, speed gauge, water gauge, wind gauge . . . It has irritated me to no end the writers who cannot spell “gauge”. One reason: “gage” is in spellcheckers!

  4. How to spell correctly in English?
    Learn how to read and write in Latin, French, German, and Ancient Greek! Adequate knowledge of some of these languages used to be fairly common.
    It does help to know some Spanish, Swedish, Sanskrit, and Sinhalese!
    Farsi – forget it! (I still dislike Iran very much.)

  5. In the classic TV series “Mission: Impossible”, Willie and Barney often needed to break into, and get out undetected, some sinister place:
    the HQ of the secret police, the communist party headquarters, or the same for the fascist party, the dictator’s office or house, a jail, and even an insane asylum to rescue someone!
    Willie and Barney often posed as repairmen or installers for some utilities organization: telephone, electric power, the natural gas company, the water company.
    Naturally, this happened in many countries and many regimes, and there were always telephone booths in every one of them. The marking on the booths were ingeniously made up by the writers and the folks who made the sets for TV series like this:
    Telephone, Telephon, Telefon, Telefone,…
    with or without umlauts over the “o”, or a slash through the “o”, and add to these the word “Telegraf”.

  6. A bachelor was courting a single woman who had a son already, and he visited her house (and her son) for the first time.
    After observing the son at home for a while, the man mentioned, “Little Johnny sure isn’t very s-m-a-r-t is he?”
    Johnny answered then: “I may not be very s-m-a-r-t, but I sure can S-P-E-L-L !”

  7. Sorry, but that reminds me of the immortal Home Simpson, singing:
    “I am so smart!
    I am so smart!
    I mean S-M-AR-T!”

  8. Wow, it ties in with Homer Simpson. Very suiting.
    To me, that sounds like a song from Bart Simpson, too.
    That song reminds me of an actual pop song of the 1980s or 90s:
    “I’m too sexy for my shirt,
    Too sexy for my shirt,
    So sexy that it hurts!”
    Bart is so s-m-a-r-t that it hurts!

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