How can we best teach S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G?

A PLN for ELT Professionals

How can we best teach S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G?

This summary was contributed by Phil Longwell on his blog and is reproduced here with his kind permission.


Last night’s lively ELT Chat (11/07/12) was on the topic of ‘how can we best teach spelling’ – question mark not included.  After previous attempts to get this topic discussed and two third-places in the previous two weeks, ‘spelling’ finally won through, not least due to a minor rallying campaign.


@esolcourses kicked off by proposing games can be fun, suggesting, as an example, the BBC Skillswise site. @maizie said she used different methods – flashcards, games, spellingcity, studystacks, videos and dictations. @esolcourses added wordsearches to the list and offered her own. Games with words that sound the same but have different spelling and meaning, suggested @touqo – basically, homophones.Quizlet suggested @naomishema and@eannegrenoble. It visually shows your mistakes, coloring (sic), erasing and adding the right letters. It’s so easy to make your own sets, apparently. In addition, you can use Hangman (@teacherphili),  palindromes and crosswords (@touqo) or “task: change one letter in a word to make a sentence to mean something completely different, preferably funny.” @Hartle thought that all games could help but not as much as systematic reading, as will now be shown.

@Hartle said she had noticed that students who learn a lot from songs are not good spellers and suggested reading, the more the better.  @teflrinha, @singernick, @ljp2010 and @SophiaMav agreed.  In addition, using audiobooks and films with subtitles can help.  A running thread on the issue ofseeing/hearing words developed. @naomishema said she was an avid reader at school, but didn’t learn to spell til 4th grade. @ministryofshiny, enjoying her first #ELTchat, doubted reading being everything – “you read with your eye and spell with your ears”, she said. @teflerinha challenged this and thought it more individual – some people need to see or visualise a word, as in the technique of ‘look, say, cover, write’. @ministryofshiny responded that ‘LSCW‘ had some logic to it.  There is a link to a Look, Say, Cover, Write and Check chart here.



Most agreed that spelling with a visual form and sound would be good for everyone, as @teflerinha said. @naomishema believed some phonics were necessary along with sight words and in her class, “the deafer [a student is] the less mistakes [are made]”.@eapteacher mentioned synthetic phonics – students practice spelling nonsense words, then they think how spelling relates to pronunciation.  @teflerinha thought more ‘analytic phonics’ and in combination with whole word approach.  @esolcourses added that “phonemic awareness if good, but there are so many words that don’t fit with patterns,” to which @eannegrenoble agreed. @teflerinha countered that “if you learn the full 44 sounds the vast majority of words do fit.”

Wordle of the chat


@teflerinha mentioned a book by Ruth Shemesh and Sheila Walter which uses phonics, basically teaching sounds as they relate to letters or letter combinations. @Shaunwilden knew of it but hadn’t used it much, @hartle questioned whether it worked and @teflrinha replied that it sounded good but she struggled in practice. Quite laborious, but systematic. @hartle suggested that learning another alphabet on top of IPA might be complicated.


@teacherphili advertised a recently published and comprehensive book on this exact topic by Johanna Stirling, creator of the English Language Garden site, who unfortunately couldn’t make the chat, but promised to speak to #ELTchat later via a podcast (see end of this post).  @eannegrenoble confirms its direct relevance to ELT.  There is also Joanna’s unique Spelling Blog.





@ljp2010, new to the ‘land of iPad’, asked what cool apps could be recommended.  @Shaunwilden said he found most spelling apps not aimed at ELT.  ‘The Cat In The Hat‘ iPad app is good, said @hartle. Further apps weren’t mentioned, but they must be out there, and not just for the iPad. I believe Adrian Underhill’s Sounds app recently won an ELTon award for Macmillan.


@theteacherjames asked whether it is more important to be able to spell or be able to use a spellchecker.  Given the amount of technology used in checking what we write.  Isn’t it common for internet users to rely on Google suggesting ‘did you mean…. ?’ when we misspell something? to paraphrase @hartle.@mkofab said she obliged students to use a spellchecker and only practise structural words eg: its/it’s/their/there/who’s/whose etc”.

Laziness often means students don’t check when handing in ‘word’ processed documents, said @singernick. @teflerinha tells her son to check his blog output because of the message, but he misspells very phonetically because he learned that way.  @Shaunwilden tells himself that. @SophiaMav agreed that ‘blogging motivates sts to double-check their work’.  The issue of typing as a separate entity from actual spelling was also raised.  We now spell ‘because’ as ‘bcoz’, ‘disguise’ as ‘disciz’ (@teflerinha) and so many other abbreviations get used.  Nobody dared mention that this was due to the constraints of single text messages (or ‘msgs’) and Twitter’s only requirement to limit your tweet to 140 characters, so I will add that in now.


@theteacherjames also mentioned the auto-correct facility on ‘iDevices’. Indeed, users have become used to making mistakes without a care, knowing that it will get fixed. @hartle joked that her device misspells things she has typed correctly as, I will add, they only have a finite list of words, while @eannegrenoble has to persuade her device not to ‘think in French’.   @ljp2010 questioned whether all communication takes place electronically? ‘90% of mine,’ answered James. She later added that perfect voice recognition software will make us effectively make the user redundant.  @teacherphili mentioned that @JohannaStirling questions whether technology is really making use worse spellers on her blog.





@teacherphili wondered about BrEng vs AmEng variations. There is a full list here.   Some institutions in some contexts require students to learn simpler, AmEng spelling as well as pronounciation. He suggested South Korea as one example, although @theteacherjames suggested nobody minded ‘his’ (presumably BrEng) version. @teacherphili also questions whether anyone still uses ‘old-fashioned’ spelling rules.  Both teflerinha and @tim_crangle put forward ‘magic e’. The latter also put forward the idea of getting students to spell 2 name rhythmically and rapidly.


Things like ‘i before e’ have been disproven – see QI clip for a funny take on this.  This rule, designed to help us remember how to spell words such as receive and chief, seems so promising in its simplicity at first.


  • achieve, believe, bier, brief, hygiene, grief, thief, friend, grieve, chief, fiend, patience, pierce, priest
  • ceiling, conceive, deceive, perceive, receipt, receive, deceit, conceit


But then things get complicated: it doesn’t work with words pronounced “ay” as inneighbor, freight, beige, sleigh, weight, vein, and weigh and there are many exceptions to the rule: either, neither, feint, foreign, forfeit, height, leisure, weird, seize, and seizure.



It was suggested that there are techniques or strategies for learning how to spell difficult words.  The idea of mnemonics was thrown in, and acronyms are often good memory-aids for remembering how to spell a word.  Interesting suggestions included:


  • BECAUSE – big elephants can (or ‘can’t) always understand small elephants (@dianatremayne)
  • CUSTOMER – cusTOMer TOM’s always in the middle (@singernick)
  • BEAUTIFUL – Sister Ann – a nun at school – singing B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L. (@teflerinha)
  • FRIEND – a friend to the END (@naomishema, useful for @teflerinha’s son – always writing ‘freind’)
  • NECESSARY -It is neCeSSary to have one COAT and two SOCKS (@teacherphili via @johannastirling)
  • RHYTHM – rhythm helps your two hips move (@teacherphili via @johannastirling) – which teflerinha thought sounded very ‘Cat In The Hat’.
  • DIARRHOEA – Diarrhoea Is A ReallyRather Humiliating Occurrence,Especially Annoying!

a ‘Matunda’ yesterday



‘Matunda’ is theswahili word for ‘fruit’, but how can you remember that?  Just visualise a pineapple sitting on a mat.  There is mat ‘under’ the fruit. It helped @teacherphili remember, anyway and buying fruit was a daily activity in Tanzania, so the word was never forgotten. Neither was the spelling, not that I needed it when buying a ‘Matunda’.


@ministryofshiny mentioned ‘spelling reform’, asking if it was possible. This is not a new request.  @tim_crangle said he was shown GHOTI by a student over 25 years ago, to which @teflerinha and @eannegrenoble replied ‘FISH’ !  @naomishema also threw in a ‘fish’ and @Shaunwilden was none the wiser – “I had one of those for tea,” he claimed. Apparently, Ghoti is often cited to supportEnglish spelling reform, and is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, a supporter of this cause.  It shows up the irregularities in English spelling – thus, Ghoti is a respelling of the word fishi.e., it is supposed to be pronounced /ˈfɪʃ/. It comprises these phonemes:

  • gh, pronounced /f/ as in tough /tʌf/;
  • o, pronounced /ɪ/ as in women /ˈwɪmɪn/; and
  • ti, pronounced /ʃ/ as in nation /ˈne͡ɪʃən/




A kind of spelling reform has already taken place, I might argue. Language evolves and words become spelled / spelt differently until they become accepted or, at least, tolerated.  A surprising number of English words come from India – see this article today, for example, from the BBC.  As for ‘-ed’ and ‘-t’ endings, well, “if you speak American English, probably the ed version, if you speak British English, you probably just write what you feel like on the day. I know I use both, says @JohannaStirling, before pointing out that this tool from GoogleLabs called Google Ngram. would compare uses of the two. Click here for more.


The ‘red pen’ for correction was brought up by @JoannaBorysiak. She suggested that it can draw attention and reinforce incorrect spelling.  How should errors be pointed out then?


There was a brief discussion about the correlation between good spellers and those who are good at math(s) – I will leave one of the participants, @naomiepstein to explain more on her blog.


The difference between nationalities was briefly mentioned.  Those with a latin origin probably find it easier to spell English than, say, Arabic learners (@teflerinha).  Arabic only uses a e o, so vowels are mystery, said @ministryofshiny. SS thinking of a place in London, remembered ‘Fbry’ Where? Finsbury.


@teacherphili suggested that some people swear by cuisenaire rods to help with word ‘shape’ although he had never used them himself.  @Shaunwilden and @hartle replied the they had used rods for ‘affixation’, but didn’t say exactly how.  Not familiar with this term, self-confessed lurker @leoselivan and @teacherphili thought he meant he had used rods for ‘asphyxiation’!  A strategy for reducing the number of students in your class, perhaps 😉


@hartle, @eannegrenoble and @andyscott55mentioned US-style ‘Spelling Bee’ contests.  The trick is to ‘say the word, spell the word, say the word’, which helps to lock it into the memory (@andyscott55).  The Times ran one in the UK.  And now there is a World Spelling Day Contest!







#ELTchat finished by @Marisa_C making contact with the absent @JohannaStirling who wished she could have been at the chat, so agreed to do a follow-up podcast with @theteacherjames as she had “a burning need to reply”.  And here is the podcast: