Chip, cheap, ship, sheep - remembering the spelling

Words that sound similar, especially to learners of English, can be a nightmare to spell.

A colleague in Algeria wrote that his young students mix up the spelling of the words chip, cheap, ship and sheep. If you're a native speaker of English you might think that the only problem here is the two different ways of spelling the long e sound in cheap and sheep. Otherwise the sounds tell you how to spell them, don't they?. But if you're a learner of English as a foreign language, you may well not be able to hear or produce the two different vowel sounds in ship and sheep. And the same difficulty is common with the different consonant sounds in ship and chip. So that's where phonics falls down for learners of English.

So let me try to help.

If we can't rely on sound for spelling these words, perhaps we can find something in the meaning to help. But that's usually easier with longer words. So I had to get a bit creative with these.

Linking the meaning with a photographic image of the letter.

Using synonyms to remember those two vowels
Using the word shape linked to the meaning 

Using drawn images to remember the vowels

You'll notice that:
  • there are lots of different ways to help learners remember
  • visual images stick in most people's memories
  • linking meaning with spelling gives learners a hook to hang the spelling on
  • this is a great way to differentiate between two (or more) similar words that cause spelling problems
  • I can't draw! It's true I'm rather embarrassed about these drawings - particularly those sheep! - but in fact here I think it's an advantage because it makes them funnier and it shows people (teachers and learners) that they don't have to be artists to be able to do this. I'm most certainly not!

Teachers! Parents! People who find spelling hard! 

I invite you to try it yourselves with words your learners / your children / you can't spell or confuse. 

Start by identifying the problem part in the word. Think about the whole word shape and think about the shape of those tricky letters, but always think about the meaning too and try to make a link. Can you make a visual link between the spelling and the meaning? 

Try out some different ideas - just the thinking and drawing will help memory, so it works best if the person who is having the spelling difficulty does it himself or herself or you do it together. The images can then be displayed as a reminder if necessary - but remove the display as soon as possible so the memory needs to do a bit of work. 

Please share your images with us in my Flickr group:

And please, feel free to tell others about this Flickr group, this blog, this idea and/or my Facebook page:

Looking forward to seeing your pictures!


Learning to spell Definitely

It's definately  defnetly certainly got to be one of the most misspelt words - definitely.

By the time you've read this post, you'll definitely never misspell it again. But how DO you learn those words that refuse to be learnt.

Here's my advice:

Don't rely on sound alone. Depending on your accent, this word definitely might sound a bit like "def-nut-lee". In fact you really can't hear how that vowel between n and t is spelt, so that's not going to help you. Going on sound alone it could be a, e, i, o or u.

Try more than one way to remember. At least one of them will work for you. And if you can use more than one of those methods, you can check that you're right.

Here are some ways to remember the spelling of definitely.

1) Build it up. This is my favourite way (and how I personally learnt to spell definitely).

finite  (easy to spell)
de + finite = definite
definite + ly = definitely


2) Think about the error you usually make (people often write this word with an 'a') and kill it!

There's definitely no 'a' in definitely.


3) Look at the shape. If you follow this blog you'll know I do a lot of work with word shapes. But they don't work so well with long words and not at all with vowels. So here's another way. Look at the combination of letters below. What does the overall shape remind you of? You might need to squint!

Does it look like a car? Or an armchair? Or something else? Remember those are the vowels in this word:


4) Play a game: how many words can you find in the word definitely? The letters must be consecutive not anagrams. So fin is fine but fit isn't.



5) Relate part of the spelling to part of another word that you can spell.

I've definitely finished


6) Colour your vowels. Decide on a colour for each vowel. For example:
a - grey
e - green
i - bright red
o  - yellow
u - blue
(the names of the letters sound like the colours)
Then write the word:
Download resources for coloured vowels here.


7) Check you've got it. Use my Look Say Cover Write and Check chart to test yourself. Download it from here: or read more about it here.


Got it? Any other ways to remember? Go ahead and share them.

How to Self-Publish

Ever so slightly off-topic, this one.

My book Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners was self-published. What does that mean? How can teachers self publish? I am giving a presentation at the 49th IATEFL Conference in Manchester called The Why, What and How of Self Publishing. Here are the slides and the handout for those who attend and those who can't.

Handout 1 (for notetaking)
Handout 2 (links and references)

If you have any questions, please add them to the comments.