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: .

And for those of you who are EFL/ESL/ESOL (etc) teachers, here is a great lesson plan based on this auspicious occasion:

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: