Tongues and tongs and medieval monks

The picture above made me laugh. One of those times when you think, "Hmm...spelling really does matter sometimes".

But why do we spell this:tongue but these: tongs?

Let's take tong first. We spell this as it sounds, like song, oblong, dongle.  Easy!

But tongue rhymes with hung (at least in my accent), so why the o and why the u?

To understand the o, look at some other words that use o when it sounds like u: come, some, love, monk etc. In the middle ages many written letters took the form of up and down strokes (called minims):

Can you identify these letters? (They don't make a word but they are in alphabetical order):

Quite tricky, isn't it? So if some and love were spelt as they sound they would look like this:

And if the word for the thing in your mouth was spelt tung, it would look like this:

The u and n are not so easy to read together. Compare it with :

So the monks, who were the ones who wrote in those days, replaced the u in some common words with o. It made it easier to read but more difficult to write!
Now, what about the u after the g in tongue? To find out about this I consulted my go-to etymology and read there:

The spelling of the ending of the word apparently is a 14c. attempt to indicate proper pronunciation, but the result is "neither etymological nor phonetic, and is only in a very small degree historical" [OED].

So in other words, someone thought it would be easier to read the g in tongue correctly than it would be in tong or tung. We don't know why they thought this and, well, they were probably wrong (possibly right in their own accent), but we are now stuck with this spelling.

Anyway, guys, please don't touch the bread with your hands or tongues. Especially tongues!

The bread image has been circulating on social media but I couldn't find the original source I'm afraid.
The tongue image is from:
The tongs image:
The monk image is from
The medieval writing is done with

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is 5 years old! I can't believe it. If you haven't got a copy yet, now's your chance, there's 40% off if you buy it from but only for a few more days.

Photo from Roland Tanglao

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.


"What Teachers Should Know About Spelling" article

I am grateful to Megan, an Australian follower of The Spelling Blog, for pointing me to this summary of what seems like a very interesting talk by Dr Misty Adoniou about teaching spelling. Her ideas are similar to mine in many ways but have some really interesting variations. To summarise the summary(!):

  • Phonics and visual skills are not the most important indicators of being a good speller
  • English is morpho-phonemic (based on meaning as well as sound) and etymology (word origin) plays a large part, so these two aspects should be explicitly taught across the curriculum (if taught in English, of course)
  • We need to teach 6 types of knowledge about words to spell them well: meaning, sound, acceptable and typical letter patterns, origins, parts of words and remembering what words look like.
  • We should teach spelling strategies through words that learners meet in context  in real books rather than having lists of words to learn that illustrate a strategy.

Thank you, Misty, Megan and Tina Williamson, the summary author. More about Misty Adoniou


Winner of the International Literacy Day competition

And we have a winner! 

September 8th was International Literacy Day. To raise awareness of this I ran a competition to win a copy of my book, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners. The winner is .... Fitta Astriyani from Indonesia. Fitta says she and her colleagues have not been able to find up-to-date books about teaching English spelling in Indonesia and her students certainly need help in this area. Fitta has a great blog herself - take a look at all the fun and creativity at So congratulations Fitta - your book will be with you soon!

Everyone else who entered will soon get a voucher for discount on the book. 

But let's get back to the reason for the competition - raising awareness of literacy around the world. Here are some facts:

There are about 775 million illiterate adults in the world (nearly 16% of the global population) and nearly three quarters of them are in just ten countries. By far the largest number come from India, but it does not have the highest percentage of illiterate adults. According to the CIA Factbook, the country with the lowest number of literate adults is Burkino Faso with only 21.8%. 

In Afghanistan, the rate is slightly higher (28%) but it has the lowest rate of female adult literacy: only an unbelievable 12.6% (in 2000). We know that female literacy is crucial to the development of future generations.

But it's not all bad news. Literacy rates are increasing now. According to Unesco, between 1990 and 2011, the adult literacy rate in the Arab States rose from 55% to 77% and the youth literacy rate from 74% to 90%. South and West Asia also saw very welcome improvements.