Do you struggle with English spelling?
You're not alone. English, for various historical reasons, has borrowed words from many other languages. As a result, its spelling and pronunciation is a bit… all over the map!
Unfortunately, English doesn’t have a simple list of rules to follow that helps you pronounce any new word that you may come across. And this makes your life as an English learner really, really difficult.
But the fact is, English speakers themselves (myself included!) will often spell or pronounce words incorrectly at first. So don’t worry if you have the same problem. You’re in the same boat as a native.
Nobody is Great at English Spelling – Not even Natives!
English has borrowed from so many other languages to form its vocabulary and spelling rules that the end result is confusing to pretty much everyone.
Sometimes you’ll see a word in English, and it will be spelled exactly the way you expect based on the spelling rules of your native language… but then much more often it will be completely different from what you’re used to or could possibly guess. As I mentioned previously, there’s no list of rules to follow.
English spelling is incredibly inconsistent, and this makes it really tricky for learners.
For example, the few spelling “rules” that English does use have so many exceptions that the rule is pretty much worthless.
Maybe you’ve heard the rule “i before e except after c”? This is supposed to help you remember how to tell the difference between ie/ei words like “field” and “receive”. But then you’ll notice that words like “weird”, “seize”, “ancient”, “weigh”, “science” and dozens more don’t fit the rule at all! How confusing is that?
I recommend a different strategy. In this post I’ll show you some mnemonics you can use to help you remember the correct spelling of tricky English words.
But first, be aware that this is a problem that pretty much all native speakers have to deal with. A common occurrence in English speaking countries, that’s much more unlikely in many other languages, is that we hold entire competitions about spelling correctly.
Native speakers have such frequent issues with spelling that most English you read online would not be intelligible if it weren’t for spell checkers. Even as I write this, every couple of sentences I see the dreaded squiggly red underline reminding me that I’ve made a mistake and I have to ask my computer how the word is spelled.
So don’t worry if you need help with spelling. It’s a problem we all face!
Language Hacks to Make You Better at English Spelling
Spelling is really not that critical when you’re a beginner learner. To start, I suggest you just learn by ear while reading along, and your skills will develop naturally. You can always Google, or use autocorrect in your browser or Word processor.
Having said that, I’d like to share with you a small sample of my favourite mnemonics that I’ve developed to help my students (and sometimes me!) remember the right spelling of some words.
A mnemonic is a memory device that makes it simple to recall difficult to remember information – in this case, English spelling.
Start by using the Mnemonics I’ve shared below. But more importantly, use these ideas to help you come up with your own mnemonics to help you remember English spellings you find especially tricky.
- This dessert is so sweet. We have two similar words in English, dessert (a delicious sweet final course of a meal) and a desert (a dry and hot place with lots of sand, and also a verb that means to leave someone behind). I try to remember that it would be way better to get a dessert than to be in a desert, which means the first is “so sweet”. Alternatively, two ‘s’s make it better!
- That liar looks familiar. From the way the word “liar” sounds, it can be hard to know how it’s spelled. It sounds like there could be an ‘e’ or even a ‘y’ in there! But I use this reminder, comparing it to the much easier word familiar, to help me.
- Never believe a lie. Still on lies, the word “lie” is inside of the word “believe”, to help you spell this common word.
- A principal is your pal. A principle is a fundamental truth. It can also mean “main” and is pronounced in the same way as a similar word which refers to the headmaster of a school. Since the latter is a person, and a perfect principal would be friendly, I try to remember that he is my “pal” (American slang for friend).
- Rhythm helps your two hips move. This word (rhythm) is hard to spell because it has no vowels, and you need to remember that it has two ‘h’s. Since rhythm also helps you dance, and you need your two hips to do it, use this mnemonic to help remember the spelling. The mnemonic also spells out the word – look at the first letter of each word of the phrase!
- An island is land in the middle of the water. This word, and others like it, are tricky because of the silent letters – but try to remember this mnemonic so you spell it correctly.
- It’s truly hot in July. I see many English learners make the mistake of spelling “truly” as “truely” or “truley”. Associate truth with the month of July, and you’ll no longer make that mistake.
- Separate a rat! Separate doesn’t quite resemble its pronunciation, so I imagine trying to remove or separating “a rat” from the word.
- Miss Pell never misspells. The ironic thing about English spelling, is that if you forget about the two ‘s’s, you may even misspell misspell. Think of “Miss Pell” to help with this.
- Affect describes an action, effect describes the end result. These two similar words are easy to mix up, so for affect think of action and for effect think of end result.
This blog post is an extract from my language hacking guide Why English is Easy. Pick up your own copy here!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.