Letters Soup

A few weeks ago I was doing some workshops in Dillingen, Germany about - how did you guess? - spelling. There was time for a quick lunch before the first workshop - just some soup for me please. And you won't believe it - it was Alphabet Soup. What a great omen!

I hadn't seen alphabet-shaped pasta for years, since I was a child. There used to be something called Heinz Alphabetti Spahetti, which was alphabet pasta, horribly over-cooked in a red sauce. But I'm sure my mother used to make soup with the letters too. Perhaps it's where I got my interest in spelling!

Anyway I spent the rest of my free time in Germany trying to buy these edible letters, and finally succeeded.

So I've made you some soup!

While you're enjoying each mouthful,

see how many words you can make from the letters

Oh, look! This one's got a special message!!!

Write any words you find in the first and second spoonfuls in the comments. And what is the message in the third one?
Enjoy your soup!

Do texting and online chatting affect spelling? Survey.

In the last post we looked at research into the extent that online chatting and texting affect spelling. Now I want to do my own research for my book. If you can spare a few minutes (less than five, honestly) please do this survey (link below).

It would be wonderful if you could also pass it on to others - especially any teenagers or children. If you are a teachers you may like to get your class to do it.

The results will be published in 'Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners', but you never know there may be a sneak preview here on the Spelling Blog - keep your eyes peeled!

And thank you very much in advance.

Click here to take survey

Do texting and online chatting affect spelling?

Future texting
Nope! Research suggests that whether kids use text messaging or other types of shortened text for writing online doesn't make a blind bit of difference to their spelling.

Good spellers, weak spellers
Some small-scale research at the University of Alberta in Canada found that those who could spell well in academic contexts also spelled well on-line or on their mobiles and those that couldn't didn't.

The difference between girls and boys
They also found that girls used more short forms, like GR8, LOL, etc, whereas boys used more punctuation!!!!!!!! (like that). The article's at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090922095814.htm

The most literate generation ever?
Interesting stuff but the study was tiny (only 40 kids). At the other end of the scale, but with similar results, some research from Stanford University was enormous, involving 14,672 bits of student writing (both academic and social). The researchers showed that young people are doing more writing than any previous generation have ever done. And significantly they are writing for a specific purpose - not just to hand in an essay because they have to. "Ah yes but...,"say the grumpy old women/men*, "...they may be writing a lot but they use so much of that dreadful texting language that they forget how to write properly." Not so, according to these researchers: in all the academic papers that they looked at they didn't find any examples at all of texting language. The research is here.

What do you think?
If you are a teacher or a parent, do you think SMS language affects your children's spelling? And do you think some shortened forms like u (for you) will eventually become accepted forms of English spelling?

*I don't know if grumpy old men and grumpy old women are an entirely British phenomenon or not. They are not necessarily particularly old (middle-aged) but they are certainly grumpy ... about everything - especially anything new or anyone young.

The reason for love? And dove, above, done, wonder, come and some.

Have you ever wondered why we spell love, some, done as we do rather than *luv, *sum and *dun? The reason may surprise you.

Middle English manuscript was less rounded than ours is medieval manuscriptnowadays and it was largely made up of vertical strokes, called 'minims'. Also 'u' and 'v' were often interchangeable - written as 'v' at the beginning of the word and 'u' in the middle. So you can imagine that that letter strings of 'uv', 'um', and 'un' were pretty hard to work out - just a row of minims. So to make it easier to read, scribes started to make the 'u' into a more rounded 'o' in several words: love, dove, glove, above, shove, cover, oven; done, one, wonder, money, son, monk; come, some, etc. They are all spelled with 'o' but make the short 'u' sound, as in cut. (This explanation from David Crystal in The Encyclopedia of the English Language, p40.)

That still leaves the question of the final 'e' in some of the words above. In Old English, if there was a final 'e', it was pronounced. Words ending with this sounded 'e' were later dropped and that meant that a final 'e' could be used for other orthographic purposes. We know that the most common of these is to make the preceding vowel long, as in huge as opposed to hug or rate instead of rat. But the 'e' is also used for several other purposes. And one of these seems to be to tell us that the preceding vowel has been messed with in some way. Another reason for the final 'e' in some of these words is that there's an orthographical rule that English words can't end in 'v'. So an 'e' is added to make the spelling 'legal' in such words as give and live (vb).

Going back to the medieval manuscripts, at that time the letter 'i' had no dot and so Frank Smith (Writing and the Writer) suggests that's why women is spelled as it is - an 'i' (without a dot) between the four minims of a 'w'** and the three minims of the 'm' would be really hard to work out. And just think what the word minim would look like!

**'w' was sometimes written with a completely different letter (sorry, Blogger doesn't have that font!) and sometimes with 'uu'.

Spelling bees - how do you spell...?

The spelling bee is a very North American concept. These spelling competitions have never really become popular in the UK, but in 2005 the BBC did run a series called Hard Spell. Children competed against each other to find the best speller - it went on for weeks and drew good audiences I think. But it seems once was enough for the British public.

The Times newspaper has an online spelling bee - compete against yourself or others. I'll give you the link but it comes with a warning: if you are quite a good speller - it's very addictive, if you are not a good speller - it's depressing. If you're really sure you've got time / self-esteem to spare: http://www.timesspellingbee.co.uk/Default.aspx .

While I was playing with the Times spelling bee game (I told you it was addictive) I was trying to work out HOW I knew the spellings that I knew.

It was partly by sound, but certainly not exclusively. And sometimes I had to distort the real sound (like saying com-fort-able instead of comf-table to spell comfortable), not something we want to encourage in second language learners.

It was also partly visual - I could usually see the word in my head, at least the rough shape of it. If I took time to glance at the word on the screen, I could tell immediately if it was wrong, even if I didn't know the right spelling.

Sometimes I just followed orthographic patterns. I knew to write the suffix 'able' not 'abel', and of course I knew that I needed a 'u' after 'q' in acquaint. I knew that acknowledgement had to keep the 'e' before the suffix to keep the 'g' soft (in British English).

Other morphological rules really helped, as they are generally very regular. I knew prefixes had to be added to whole words and when I needed to double a letter before a suffix. I also had a bank of prefixes and suffixes in my head that I could select from. Sub and terra were useful for subterranean. Such chunks have become fairly automatic - I don't have to think about them letter-by-letter.

Lexical spelling
Sometimes I had to relate a word to another semantically linked word: for zealot I had to refer to zeal, I got the 'c' in vivacious because I thought of vivacity.

Some understanding of etymology can help too. Although the English word facile isn't one I write often, the French word facile is much more common, so I probably referred to that. There are also certain Greek letter strings that I needed such as 'ch' for /k/ in chronology, or the 'y' in dialysis (like the more common analysis).

Learning by doing
It was also quite a kinesthetic process. My fingers just typed many of the words, or at least parts of those words. The ones I got wrong (oh yes, there were certainly several of those!) tended to be words that I never normally write and that I couldn't relate to any other words or parts of words. And I think my spelling was worse than usual because the words were out of context. I believe that if I'd been writing them as part of a text they would have been more likely to flow out accurately - but perhaps I'm just making excuses!

Teaching and learning spelling
So what does all this tell us about teaching and learning spelling:
  • sound indicates spelling sometimes but is probably the least reliable route. And if your pronunciation isn't too good anyway, it could mislead you.
  • visual methods of spelling should be encouraged - it's what good spellers do, and weaker spellers can learn to 'see' words too.
  • it's worth learning, or at least noticing, some orthographic patterns - great to refer to when we are unsure.
  • for long words, breaking them up morphologically can really help. Learners need to know a range of affixes and rules for adding them to words.
  • semantic links between words need to be explored and spelling patterns will emerge that often explain a spelling that at first looks completely irregular
  • an acknowledgement that English is rather a mongrel of a language and an awareness of some common spellings handed down from different languages can be helpful
  • the more we write, the better our spelling gets as it becomes increasingly automatic - both in terms of words and letter strings, so learners need to write often and meaningfully. Writing for an audience will encourage them to aim for accuracy.
And all that, my friends, is what my book (soon to be published) is about - with plenty of activities to help learners discover and practise. For more about it click on the cover below:

Spell it like it sounds?

If somebody asks "How do you spell hot?" You might answer, "As it sounds", meaning it's phonetically very regular. But it depends who's saying hot. The way a North American says it may be very different to the way a southern English person says it for example. And many learners of English find it difficult to distinguish individual sounds precisely, especially vowels.

But does anyone have as much trouble spelling something 'as it sounds' as this policeman:



Waht Can Teatchers Do to Halp Bor Spillers?

This Saturday, 17th October, I'm giving a presentation about teaching spelling (of course!), called

"Waht Can Teatchers Do to Halp Bor Spillers?"

at the BELTE conference, in Brighton UK.

If you're coming, do come and say hello.


National Punctuation Day - International English Spelling Day?

Happy National Punctuation Day!!!

Yes, really! Today (24th September) is National Punctuation Day in the USA. It aims to remind people how to punctuate properly and bake cakes in the shape of punctuation marks! If you don't believe me, look here: http://www.nationalpunctuationday.com/index.html .

And for those of you who are EFL/ESL/ESOL (etc) teachers, here is a great lesson plan based on this auspicious occasion: http://www.eslholidaylessons.com/09/national_punctuation_day.html.

It got me wondering...

What about a National Spelling Day?

I googled National Spelling Day and could only find mention of a Korean one and lots of questions asking why there wasn't one. (It was a very brief search so if you know of one I've missed, I beg your pardon).

So what about having an International English Spelling Day?

  • Maybe the twelfth of February - that's pretty hard to spell.
What would the aim be?
  • to nag people about their 'dreadful' spelling? (the decline of standards, blah, blah, blah)
  • to press for spelling changes? (I don't go for this but know many who would)
  • to laugh at funny spelling mistakes people make? For example, here's one I read earlier this week: "He was rushed to hospital in a comma." (Not a funny subject I know - and you'll be pleased to know he's back home and recovering nicely - but created a great visual image. Topical too - this being National Punctuation Day.)
  • to teach one element of spelling each year? Hmmm... slow progress.
  • what else? Feel free to comment below.
How would people celebrate International English Spelling Day?
  • deface menus, signs, greengrocer's shops, etc., to correct misspellings?
  • raise money for charity by paying for each spelling mistake they make during the day?
  • erect new sculptures around towns which spell words that people have difficulties spelling?
The possibilities are endless. I'd love to hear your suggestions. The dafter, the better.

Homophones - How not to teach them.

Last week I blogged about homophones and what they are. This week I want to look at how to teach and learn them and this can be summed up in one word - don't!


Danger! Homophone lessons.

It's true homophones can cause confusion but lessons on homophones can introduce confusion where there was none. By pointing out to learners that 'there', 'their' and perhaps 'they're' have (about) the same sound but different spelling, we may be drawing attention to a difficulty in spelling that they have never had - and it could even spark off that confusion. It could plant a seed of doubt that stops them automatically writing 'there' (in, for example, "There are four people in my family"). They may find they have to stop and think about it now, and may come to the wrong decision.

Sure, if learners are already confused, we can acknowledge that different words sometimes have the same sound. But lists of homophones, or gap fill exercises where learners have to choose between two homophones, are not going to help them.

So what's the alternative?

Focus on other words that LOOK the same rather than SOUND the same. And show how words that look the same are often related:

So show that:
  • here, where, there are all related to place and all contain h-e-r-e.
  • hear, ear, heard are all related to perceiving sound and all contain e-a-r.
  • two, twice, twin, twelve, twenty, between are all related to 2 and all contain t-w.
  • one, once, only, none, alone, lonely are all related to 1 and all contain o-n.

Wordle: Untitled Wordle: two 2

This is much more learnable than looking at these confusing homophones:
  • hear/here,
  • where/wear,
  • there/their,
  • heard/herd,
  • to/two/too,
  • one/won,
  • none/nun.
So beware! The internet is full of these lists and interactive games for practising homophones. They may be fun for good spellers but for the confused, being super-confused is no fun.

Homophones, homographs, synonyms and other spelling challenges

I would imagine that all languages contain synonyms - different words that have the same or very similar meanings. But English probably has more than its fair share of homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings and different meanings) and homographs (those which are spelt the same but have different pronunciation and different meanings).

I have tried to simplify the differences between words with the same spelling and/or the same pronunciation and/or the same meaning here:

This diagram is inspired and adapted from one here.

You can see that we have three elements to consider: meaning, pronunciation and spelling. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don't. If we have two words that are exactly the same in meaning, pronunciation and spelling, then they are just two identical words. If the three elements are all different, then of course they are completely separate words. But you will see from the diagram that there are six other alternatives.

When spelling we have to watch out for:
  • homophones: make sure you have the right spelling for the meaning you want to convey. These are probably the trickiest types of words and spell checkers can't help you with these;
  • alternative spellings - there are a few words that have two possible spellings- I guess that's good news really - if you don't know how to spell one, spell the other! And some of these differences are between US and UK English, eg colour and color;
  • homographs: remember sometimes one spelling can have two different pronunciations and meanings - try not to get confused by this;
  • alternative pronunciations - again don't be misled by the differences in pronunciation, the spelling of these doesn't change.
In the next few postings we'll look at some homophones and some of those alternative spellings.

Meanwhile a challenge for you:

How many words that are homophones can you find in this posting (NOT including the diagram)? For example, I (eye).

Write them in the comments below.

Spell checkers - how useful are they?

People have said to me "Why bother teaching spelling nowadays? We all use spell checkers". This not only assumes that all writing is done electronically (which most of it is for some people but not all), but also that people know how to use them well (which some don't). A sentence in an essay from a student of mine started "The main thighbone is ...". I'm not sure what the learner had written but had obviously meant to write "The main thing is...".

I examined a corpus I gathered of 372 spelling errors from adult EFL learners with spelling problems. The mistakes came from handwriting so had not been through a spell checker. But I wanted to find out how useful a spell checker would have been to them. I ran the words through a Microsoft Word spell checker. Some interesting results:
  • 16% of the errors would not have been flagged by the spell checker at all because they were homophones or other real words.
  • 15% were shown as errors but the intended word (as indicated by context) was not offered.
So in over 30% of cases the spell checker would not have helped.

My student who wrote about thighbones probably just took the first alternative offered, without applying any brain cells to the decision. And this is another problem - very often you are offered several alternatives to choose from and the one at the top of the list may not be the one you need. Many of the errors offered up to five alternatives.
  • Of the 261 errors that were picked up by the spell checker and the right word was offered, 21% required the user to choose a word other than the first one shown, ie the second, third, fourth or fifth word.
So thinking still needs to take place. Some learners have admitted to me that they always take the first option shown. Blind faith!

The good news, perhaps, is that in 51% of the total sample, the intended word was the one offered first. But even then usually there were still other options that the writer needed to discount.

Maybe the easiest is when there is only one spelling offered. For example, a student who wrote 'culdn't' would have only been offered 'couldn't'. There were 62 cases where only one word was offered (16% of the total sample) . But of these 62, 11% didn't offer the correct word, so a writer can't even have complete confidence in this. An example to illustrate: a learner who wrote 'funately' meaning 'fortunately' would only have been offered one alternative, 'finitely', which would have made nonsense of his sentence if he'd accepted it.

So what's my point here? Spell checkers are undoubtedly useful. But if learners are too far from the original spelling or if they confuse two words the spell checker may not be helpful. We need to train these people in the use of them and encourage them to use other strategies too. Like much learner training, there is a danger of patronising learners - many will already know how to use a spell checker well.

An exercise like this may be the answer. Have a go and if it's useful, pass it on (but please link back to here).

There'll be more about using spell checkers and learning from them in my book, coming soon:

Word shape generator

Good spellers often recognise the shapes of words and one way to help weaker spellers is to encourage them to see these shapes too. For more on this see my posting: http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/seeing-spelling.html

I create worksheets for some of my spelling students with the outlines of words that they match with the words themselves. It takes ages in Word, fiddling about with tables and shading. So I was really pleased to find this: http://tools.atozteacherstuff.com/word-shapes/wordshapes.html You just type in the words and out pops a worksheet.

Here's one I made in less than a minute about words with 'p' and 'b', especially for my Arabic learners.

Also useful for confusing word endings such as 'el', 'al' and 'le'
( http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/spelling-words-ending-with-le-el-and-al.html )

What do you think? Useful?


I've just learnt a new word: cacography. It means poor spelling and or handwriting.

This is not a common word (I'd certainly never seen it before) but what a useful word it could be if we revived it:

"I'm not dyslexic, I'm just cacographic."
"The doctor who wrote the prescription obviously suffered from cacography."
"Spelling lessons for cacographers."

Caco- means bad or poor and comes from the Greek, kakos . -graphy is related to writing or recording.

Confusing prefixes: dis- and dys-

Disconnect, dislike, dishearten, disabled but dyslexia, dysphasia, dyspepsia.

These two prefixes, dis- and dys- seem to have very similar meanings - making a word negative. But it's a little more complicated than that.

Dis (from Latin, meaning apart) is much more common, so if you're not sure use this (dis). It makes a word negative, such as dislike. Or it can mean to reverse something: like disconnect

Dys-, on the other hand, comes from Greek and so is almost always used for medical or scientific words. It means bad or abnormal. So if you have dyspepsia you are not digesting your food well, people with dyslexia have some problems with language.

Confusing prefixes: anti -/ ante-

Prefixes tell us a lot about the meaning of a word but there are some pairs that sound the same or similar and look pretty similar too and so they are confusing. In the next few posts I'm going to look at some of these tricky pairs to help with spelling long words.

Anti- and ante-bathroomcabinet

Anti- means against. So we have anticlockwise (but counterclockwise in US English), antivirus, antiperspirant, antidepressant, antiseptic, antibiotic. And we can add can also add anti- to other words to create new words. You may hear people talk about someone being anti-technology or anti-Obama.

What interesting anti-s have you heard or used lately? Leave a comment to tell us.

Ante-, on the other hand, means before, in time or position. So antepenultimate means the third from the end (before the penultimate); antenatal refers to something before a baby is born (when a woman is pregnant); an anteroom is a room where you may be asked to wait before going into another larger room leading off it.

Anti- is much more common that ante- and we don't usually make new words with ante-.

One last thing: when do we use a hyphen ( - ) between these prefixes and the base words? The rules of hyphenation are not very strict (different dictionaries give different answers). I haven't found any ante words with a hyphen. When adding anti, generally if the base word starts with a or i or a capital letter use a hyphen, otherwise don't. So an anti-ageing cream may contain antioxidants. And an antiracist would probably be anti-Nazi. New words that you make up or hear should probably be written with a hyphen if they haven't yet made it to a dictionary.

'i' before 'e' - the trouble with rules

Last week in the UK there was an item in the news saying the government was telling primary teachers they shouldn't teach their children the spelling rule :

" 'i' before 'e' except after 'c' "

Look at the words below and make up your own mind. How many of these words follow the rule:

Wordle: i before e? Image made by me at Wordle (click on thumbnail to go there)

So is it a good rule? There are SO many exceptions to this that it is confusing. Some people say you should use a fuller rule:

When the sound is ee, 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'


'i' before 'e' except after 'c' or when sounded like 'a' as in neighbour and weigh

But they still have exceptions and those rules are now becoming long and complicated. So I agree with the British government (for once) - it's probably not worth teaching.

But what has really interested me about this has been other people's reactions to it in the media. This business about dropping this particular rule was one short paragraph in a 124-page document called Support for Spelling. But the Shadow Children's Minister said:
"Having systematically lowered school standards for a decade, it is sadly no surprise that the Government is now actively telling teachers not to bother trying to teach children how to spell properly."

He added: "The best schools in richer areas will continue to teach children how to spell and the victims of this dumbing down will be, yet again, poorer children living in poorer areas."
Ummm...but this is in a 124-page document detailing some excellent ways to approach English spelling. What is he talking about?

And then I read this from a senior English lecturer at King's College, London:
"It's a very easy rule to remember and one of the very few spelling rules that I can remember and that's why I would stick to it.

"If you change it and say we won't have this rule, we won't have any rules at all, then spelling, which is already terribly confusing, becomes more so."
Both quotes from here.

So she thinks a bad rule should stay because then it makes it look like we have one rule in English rather than none - and that is supposed to be helpful?

And in a discussion about the subject on another site a lot of people called Keith and Sheila had something to say about this rule!! One Keith said it wasn't until he was 25 years old that he learnt how to spell 'their' - when he suddenly realised that the 'ei' was the same as the 'ei' in his name! I've always said we should encourage learners to link what they don't know to what they do know - it took Keith a while but he eventually got there!

(By the way, I was asked to speak about this on National Public Radio - but unfortunately I got the message too late. The item is here, but it's obviously not me speaking.)

As always there'll be more on this and other 'rules' in my book "Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners"

British and American Spelling - spelling successfully reformed?

US+UK+flagsI've been asked several times to write about the differences between British and American spelling. I started to make a list and then got a bit bored, because there are lots of other such lists on the web. So at the end of this posting I'll link to some sites where you can find them (Check carefully though - some lists say that the British version of bank is *banque - rubbish! It's bank of course.) And there will be a much fuller exploration of British and American English in my book which I talked about in the last posting here.

But today let's look at how US spelling came to be different from English spelling. The big mover and shaker was Noah Webster. In "An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation" (phew - NOT a snappy title Mr Webster!) written in 1789, he says

It has been observed by all writers, on the English language, that the orthography or spelling of words is very irregular ... The question now occurs; ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniencies in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the AMERICAN TONGUE?

Mr Webster thought reform was definitely needed. And he proposed the following changes:

1. "The omission of all superfluous or silent letters." So he wanted bread to be bred, friend to be frend and give to be giv.

2. "A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate." This would give us *neer for near, *laf for laugh, *blud for blood, *wimmin for women and *korus for chorus.

3. "... ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh". So you would do your washing in a *masheen and a *shef would work in a restaurant. Other French spellings would also go, leaving us with *toor (tour) and *obleek (oblique).

4. "A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character." So here he proposed putting a little line across th to distinguish the voiced and unvoiced sounds. And he suggested using some dots over vowel letters to differentiate them.

Some of these suggestions were adopted at least in part but many of them the public just refused to use.

  • our got changed to or, so colour became color, but it never got as far as *culor.
  • re at the end of a word became er, so the British theatre became the US theater but for some reason not always (American National Theatre) and acre didn't become acer (because it would change the pronunciation).
  • Cheque got shortened to check, but unique didn't ever make it to *uneek (or *yooneek).
So was it a good idea or has it just made spelling more complicated, especially for those learning English as a second or foreign language? Certainly American spellings do look at first sight more logical and regular. On the other hand, there are now often two different spellings to learn, the British and the American. And there are still a lot of inconsistencies. If the reforms had been more complete, maybe this would have been more useful but now there are perhaps more opportunities for confusion, not fewer.

And another issue for me is that English orthography seems to purposely use different spellings to distinguish between most homophones. So check and cheque sound the same but are spelt differently to show they have different meanings. Also tire (to get tired) and tyre (black rubber on the wheel) deliberately, I think, have different spellings. In simplifying these for US English, that difference is lost.

So what about spelling reform generally - does it work? My feeling is that it's something that comes naturally to a language and it's a difficult thing to force on the native speakers of that language. It wouldn't surprise me if *alot replaced a lot, not because anyone in authority has said it should but it is the way many native speakers write it. And maybe u will become the new spelling of you. Capital letters may die out (or is it just a phase we're going through?) and the days of the apostrophe seem numbered (except that it appears where it shouldn't!).

I'd love to hear your opinions:
  • Is US English easier to spell than British English?
  • Tell us about other varieties of English (Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian, Carribean, etc, etc)
  • Can spelling reform work?
  • Has it worked in other languages that you know?
  • What other English spellings do you think might change?
Oh, and the links I promised you:
For a full list of the differences between US and UK English (and some other varieties):
A bit more user-friendly if you just want to check something quickly:
http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/egw/jones/differences.htm (but beware of *banque)
And if you want to read more from Noah Webster (where the info above came from):


Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

I'm so excited! I've just had the cover of my book - Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners - designed. And I want to share it with you.

Just one problem - I haven't finished writing the book! But I'm getting there.

Questions I'd like you to ask me...

So what's the book about?
Well, how to teach spelling to people who are learning English. Although it's primarily aimed at teachers of adults and teens, all the principles and most of the activities can be used with, or adapted for, children too. It starts with an examination of English spelling, how 'regular ' and learnable it really is and why some people struggle with it. Then we take a quick look at some research I've done about learners, teachers and materials. All of this helps to inform my approach to teaching spelling. The rest of the book describes this - the methodology and specifically how we can teach spelling strategies and some spelling patterns - particularly those that seem to bug our learners most.

What makes it different from the other spelling books? What spelling books? There aren't many, not for ELT. But mine moves away from a phonics approach - because

a) so much of English isn't phonetically spelt and
b) many English language learners have problems with pronunciation too.

So I deal with multi-sensory and cognitive approaches to spelling. We all learn different things in different ways, so there are loads of very different types of activities for you to use or adapt. The other difference is the focus on strategies. We can't make anyone learn to spell (just as we can't make them learn anything else) but we can show them some ways how.

Why are you writing it?
Guilt! I remember hearing myself tutting over student work and saying"You really must do something about your spelling". They would nod sadly and ask,"How?" and I had no answer. I knew just "read a lot" wasn't very helpful. So I started looking into ways to help them. Then came an MA dissertation. Then getting big and enthusiastic audiences at my presentations about spelling and requests to read the dissertation. So I decided to build on it and include lots of activities and ... here we are - well, nearly.

When will it be out?
Ah, good question! Hopefully, by the end of this year. In time for your Christmas stocking, chilly evenings or lying on the beach (depending which part of the world you are in).

What can we do to help you out?
Well, since you ask, encourage me! Tell me that this is the book you've been waiting for and that I should hurry up and get it finished and you know X number of people who want to buy it. Oh, and get someone to invite me to talk about how to teach spelling. And spread the word. And keep coming back to the blog to see how it's coming along. Thank you very much.

Thank you.
It's my pleasure!

And by the way, do you like the cover? Please leave comments.

Handwriting and spelling

Where is your memory? In your brain certainly. But it also seems to be in your muscles. When you write a very familiar word or even just a string of letters as part of a word, you don't stop and think about the spelling, your hand just does it. You have gained automaticity: that is, you do something without really thinking about it (like changing gear when driving). The great thing about automaticity is that it frees up your conscious attention for dealing with higher-level tasks. In writing this means you can be thinking about how to express your ideas rather than how to spell the words. It's what people who are learning to spell should be striving for.

So how can learners gain this automaticity when it comes to spelling? Handwriting is an important consideration. If students 'print', that is, they write each letter separately and individually, they are missing out on valuable opportunities to get the hand to remember spellings of whole words or common chunks of words (letter strings) such as '-ing' or '-tion'.

Learners from languages that are written from right to left sometimes start to write a letter on the right and work towards the left. So in the common string 'wh', they may start writing 'w' at the top right of it and then when they get to the top left of 'w' they have to skip back to the right ready to write the 'h'. All the flow from one letter to the next is thus lost. This needs to be corrected if at all possible.

In Melvyn Ramsden's Rescuing Spelling, he recommends that children are encouraged to join up their letters or at least write letters that can be joined up (i.e. they have those little tails on them - called ligatures). He suggests they should write the letters in each morpheme together, so their hand learns to automatically make that shape. So when writing '-ing' at the end of a word, the pen shouldn't leave the paper and the 'i' should be dotted last, after the 'g' has been written. He gets his children to say out loud "ing" when they dot the 'i'. Neat! I'm going to try it out with an adult English language learner who has this problem.

Here's a video I just found of Melvyn Ramsden in action:


Interesting, but I found it a bit uncomfortable to watch. What do you think? Are children taught to print or join up their writing when they start learning to write in your country?

Look, Say, Cover, Write and Check (LSCWC)

Sometimes you just have to learn to spell words. But how? One of the most tried and tested methods for English-speaking children is look, say, cover, write and check ... and it works just as well for adults.

LOOK at the word you want to learn, and I mean really look. Which bits of the spelling are easy and which are not so obvious? Mark the 'hard spots', that is the difficult part of the word, using a different colour pen. Is the word similar in spelling to another word that has a related meaning? Can you break it into parts?

Have a really good look and think about the spelling until you feel you can spell it.

SAY the word, while looking at it. Is the spelling a reflection of the sound? If not what is different?

COVER the word with your hand, a piece of paper, your coffee cup, the cat or whatever. Close your eyes and try to 'see' the word in your head.


CHECK your spelling by uncovering the word and comparing it with your spelling. Check it letter by letter. If it's wrong, start again; if it's right, have a sip of coffee and tell the cat how clever you are.

Even better, do it online - then you can't cheat! Here are some great websites to help you.

My favourite is Ambleside: http://www.amblesideprimary.com/ambleweb/lookcover/lookcover.html . It's so simple and you can put in your own words. For adults as well as children.

This one from the BBC is fun and full of surprises but you can't put in your own words unfortunately. http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/words/spelling/waystolearn/lookcover/game.shtml

There are more sites like this. Let me know if you want more or know of more yourself.

Online Spelling Games (1)

Here are some pretty cool online games to help people learn individual spellings:

Spelling City: http://www.spellingcity.com/ Type in some words that you have trouble spelling. Make sure you get the spelling right, but the program will tell you if it doesn't recognise a word. Then it speaks the word and also puts it in a sentence for you. How clever is that! Then it teaches you the spellings: you can play a variety of games with the words or it will test you.

East of the Web: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/games/index.html has got some very addictive games for people who like playing with words.

Spelling long words (2) - Prefixes (1)

Long words are difficult to spell because they are... well, long! There's a lot to remember. So break them down into separate parts.
Look at this word: uncomfortable.

We can break it into un (prefix) comfort (base word) and able (suffix).

We pronounce this word like this:

In other words, the 'or' in the middle is silent. So if you know the pronunciation maybe you will try to spell it *'uncomftable'* This is wrong. Usually (not always I'm afraid) the spelling of the base word doesn't change even if the pronunciation changes.

The part before the base word ('un') is the "prefix".

Two things to remember about prefixes:

1. A prefix usually changes the meaning of the word (makes it negative or opposite, for example).
2. The full prefix is added to the full base word. So:

unnecessary ( 'un' + 'necessary': so double 'n')
misspelling ('mis' + 'spelling': so double 's')
illegal ('il' + 'legal': so double 'l')
disappear ('dis' + 'appear': so only one 's')

This is one reason why Albrow says that English spelling is 'for the eye rather than the ear' (Albrow, K.H., The English Writing System: notes towards a description, Longman 1972).

Literacy - The Afghan Reading Project

You may be struggling to spell in English or to teach others to spell, but spare a thought for those who cannot read or write at all, and who have no books to help them. I am sure there are many places in the world where this is the case, but I read recently that in Afghanistan 90% of women and 80% of men are illiterate. I'm so shocked that I'm going to write that again in bold:

In Afghanistan 90% of women and 80% of men cannot read or write.

Just think for a minute what the consequences of such widespread illiteracy means for the people of Afghanistan and for the rest of the world.

Thinking about this led me to an organisation which looks like it does fantastic work:

The Afghan Reading Project

From their website:
The Afghan Reading Project is a registered charity that aims to put books in the hands of Afghan children to inspire reading and learning. We also fund books for older students and practical resources for teachers.

ARP has funded the publication of 40,000 books, all produced by Afghan writers, illustrators and printers. The books were distributed to schools in Afghanistan and refugee schools along the Afghan-Pakistan border, meaning that thousands of children can now enjoy a range of educational and fictional texts.

Please consider supporting The Afghan Reading Project.

If you need to be persuaded of the importance of this type of education I strongly recommend reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin http://www.threecupsoftea.com/

Alphabet - Bembo's Zoo

Ok, maybe this doesn't really help anyone spell but it makes you love letters of the alphabet. Check out Bembo's Zoo. It's beautiful. It's best if you have Flash on your computer. And have the sound on.

Here are some stills but you need to see the animations to enjoy it at its best. http://www.bemboszoo.com/

The Bembo's Zoo Alphabet. Go to the page and hover over the letters. Then click on one to see what happens. Click the images below to go to Bembo's Zoo.
bembo zoo alphabet
A Bembo's Zoo Antelope
A Bembo's Zoo Dragonbembozoodragon
Enjoy it!


Spelling long words (1)

a rat
If you can't remember how to spell a word, you need to really look at it closely to find ways to help you to remember. Look at this word: 'separate'. Some people write 'seperate' or 'separite' - these are wrong. Just remember there's 'a rat' in it separate.

Try to look for words inside other words. Here's an exercise you can try: http://www.elgweb.net/wordword1.htm . Find the short words inside the long words. The letters are in the same order.

If you don't know the meaning of some of the long words, check them in a dictionary, then try http://www.elgweb.net/wordword2.htm to try to spell the long words.

Do you know more words that have other words in them? Please put them in the comments if so.

Have fun!

Dictations for improving spelling

doing homeworkDictations go in and out of fashion. But who cares about fashion? A traditional dictation can be a nightmare for someone who can't spell well. They listen, they write what they hear and then they are told that they got it wrong! But this is when dictations are used as a test.

Here's a way to use dictations to really help learners improve their spelling.

1. Lead in to the topic of the text - get the learners interested in it.

2. Ask a couple of general questions about the text and then read it aloud to the learners. Check they understand by answering the questions.

3. Now give the text to the learners and read it aloud again so they can follow.

4. Tell learners you are going to dictate this to them in a few minutes. First they underline any words they think they will have trouble spelling. Allow them time to learn these words. Use methods from http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/seeing-spelling.html or Look Say Cover Write and Check.

5. Now they cover the text and put away any papers with the spellings on and you give the dictation in the normal way. (Read a small meaningful chunk out loud, now say it twice silently to yourself while students write, then aloud again, then twice to yourself again - this seems to make the pace about right for most people, but allow more time if necessary).

6. Now check the dictations or get learners to check against the original text. But be aware that people who can't spell well often can't see their mistakes either. Any words which have been misspelt should be listed (correctly) and learnt before the next lesson.

If learners have made a lot of spelling errors, then this suggests the error was ours! Choose an easier text. Aim for 90% success and then gradually increase the difficulty. Get a learner to do this every day for a month and you'll really see a difference in their spelling.

I learnt this technique from ex-colleague and now successful ELT author, Gillie Cunningham

Let me know how it goes.

Write or Die - making writing fun

I've just found a cool new tool for students who don't really like writing or who at least are not very good at getting started. It's called Write or Die and it gives you a box to type in and if you stop writing it starts to delete words you have already written as a kind of punishment. So you set a number of words that you want to write and then you can decide what speed you want to write at and how forgiving you want the program to be with you. It's really motivating to get you going with writing. In fact I am writing this blog posting in Write or Die now. That's why it may not be my best blog posting but, hey, it gets it done quickly. Of course I will have edited what I'm writing by the time you get to read it. (I bet my spelling is awful - no time to check). What do you think - would this help your students to write? I find that it's difficult to work on editing, spelling and other aspects of spelling if my students don't write anything but I think this could motivate them to. Phew, made it to 200 words.


By the way, I got this link from one of Nik Peachey's wonderful blogs:

Perhaps I should use Write or Die myself to speed up the process of finishing my forthcoming book "How to Teach English Spelling" (hopefully out by the end of the year).

If you use Write or Die, or if you have encouraged your learners to use it, please post a comment about the result. I'd love to hear.

Spelling words ending with -le, -el and -al.

'Towel', critical' and 'apple' all have the same pronunciation at the end. So how do people know which spelling to use? This presentation helps:

English spelling quiz

Here's a little quiz for you about English spelling. You can guess the answers or try to 'google' them if you don't know. There are no prizes except the warm glow of satisfaction you'll receive for each one you got right! You'll probably get a warmer glow if you didn't google them!!

Have fun and leave comments about anything you don't agree with.

Spelling with Flickr One Letter images

Images4 Education
I'm studying on an amazing course at the moment called Images4Education. We are looking at tools on the web for helping to teach English through images. Great, but how can it help spelling?

View my page on Images4Education

Flickr is a fantastic tool in its own right but there are also all sorts of things you can do with the images there. I came across something today that I thought it might help people learn to spell words that they find particularly difficult.

One letter
There is a group on Flickr called 'One Letter' where people post photos of single letters of the alphabet.

Spell with Flickr and Ramsomizr
And then I found two little applications people have made that let you spell words with these letters. You just type any word into the program and it spells it with the images like this:

S whitebrick p E41 L L

I like Spell with Flickr (above) because if you don't like one letter tile you click on it and get an alternative one. So we can have the two 'l's the same to highlight the double letter. But the tiles are a bit big for this blog!


And Ransomizr (above) does a similar thing but the advantage with this one is that you can change the size of the tiles easily. You can also get different tiles but you can't change them one by one. Just type a space after the word and you get a different selection of images.

How could we use it?
Think of a word that you find difficult to spell. Type it (correctly!) into one of the programs above. Then play around with it until you get the letter shapes and colours that you like. Try to make double letters the same and make difficult parts of the words stand out in bright colours. The more you work on it the more likely you are to remember the spelling.

Then you could print it and stick it on the fridge, in your office, above your bed, wherever. Leave it there until you don't need it any more.

Or you could copy the whole image onto onto your desktop to remind yourself.

Do it yourself
You could go to the Flickr One Letter group and find the letters you want yourself. Then copy and paste them into a document. This will give you a greater choice of letters and you could try to find letter images that fit in with the meaning of the word. (But be careful about copyright if you use other people's pictures - check their copyright restrictions and make sure you link back to their original photo, especially if you are publishing it in any form.)

Do it completely yourself
Or perhaps just use the idea as inspiration. Grab your camera, go out and take your own pictures of the letters. If possible try to make them relevant to the meaning of the word. They don't even need to be real letters, as long as they are the same shape as letters - such as a circle for 'o', a right-angle for 'L', a pattern in wallpaper might look like an 's'. It might take a week of carrying your camera round until you find all the letters, but I guarantee you'll know the spelling by then!

And then you could join the Flickr One Letter group and post your pics for others to use.

Have fun!

Any other ideas how we could use this to help with spelling?

Seeing Spelling

People who generally spell well sometimes look at a word and think "Hmm, that looks wrong". People who are weak spellers often just don't have that sense of whether a word looks right or not. So how can we help them?

Often what we see when we see a misspelled word is the wrong overall shape. So it is useful for learners to start to recognise the shapes of words that they have problems spelling or that are very important for them. Let's take the words 'which' (often misspelled as 'wich' by learners of different nationalities) and 'bicycle' as examples.

The learner or the teacher writes the word correctly and clearly by hand in lower case. Then the learner draws around the outline of the word, showing clearly where there are 'sticks' (tall letters like b, d, h) and tails (letters that drop below the line such as g, p and y). Like this:

Physically engaging with the word in this this way and being forced to notice the shape of the word helps some students form a much stronger mental image and therefore helps them to spell the word correctly later. This doesn't work for all learners, but some find it really revolutionises their spelling abilities.

Words can also be 'built' this way using Cuisennaire rods. By using the white 'one's and red 'two's, learners make a very strong visual picture of the word, which means there is more chance of becoming 'printed' in the memory. Here are 'which' and 'bicycle' again.

The teacher can then 'dictate' words that students have studied. The learners don't write them they just build the word patterns with the rods. This releases them from the stress of having to be sure of every letter but still makes them think very carefully about the spelling of the word.

I have had no resistance from adult learners when asking them to make words with the bricks (only a resistance to handing them back at the end of the activity!)

When learners have had some practice with this method they can do activities like this - matching words to their shapes. They can also make such activities for each other.

If you decide to try this method or have used this or something similar in the past, please post a comment about it.

And remember there are more spelling activities at http://www.elgweb.net/spell_act.html