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:


  1. Hi Johanna Stirling.

    This really interesting post offers a lot of stuff worth thinking about.

    One - and this also comes through in several of the other posts - is the feeling you convey that it can be effective to approach spelling in a playful manner. (Being a poor speller doesn't need to be depressing - lots of poor singers are frightfully cheerful.)

    Another is that there's no "one way" to puzzle out the spelling of a word - we think best, I think, when we use all our senses, memories and skills.

    Third, you present a sound example of someone reflecting on how they learn to improve on how they support others' learning. (That was a yucky sentence - all passive and stuff - but you get what I mean.)

    Anyway, if your book really is like this post, I'll be buying it. :)

  2. Thanks very much, Wendell. Yes, playful is good. Actually I approach most things in life in a playful manner if I can!

    Yep, the book's like the blog, so keep dropping by to check the progress. Should be out in the next few months.

  3. Hi

    Can I ask you a question? It looks as if this is the most likely place to post it.

    I'm with you all the way when you say that spelling is a visual as well as/more than an aural activity. You say that the more we write, the better we spell. Agreed. I'm going to assume that you also believe that the more we read, the better we spell.

    That's the background. Here's the question. Where I work, it's being proposed that we start showing videos after classes in the afternoon. Great. To begin with the videos are to run with subtitles. Then after a few weeks, the subtitles are to quietly turned off. I think I understand why - it's assumed that this will be a purer/better listening/understanding activity. Would you turn the subtitles off?

    Personally I wouldn't. I like activities where you get aural words and visual words together - the reading/listening thing. And it is one of the reasons I am so fond of BBC Words in the News. I know it is important to listen but there are loads of opportunities to do that - it seems a shame not to maximise the really quite few opportunities to read and listen. I suspect, though, I am out on a limb here.

    I'm asking you because of your spelling expertise. I am making a connection between listening/reading activities and good spelling. Does that work for you?

  4. There is a website that I have created for probably grade 3-5 kids.
    It's mostly high frequency words. Is there a reliable way to order them by grade?