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.
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.