Spelling in English: It’s a Puzzle

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When we read, we need to be able to recognize the words. When we write, we need to be able to produce the words so that others can recognize them. This brings us quickly to the challenge of spelling accurately in English. How can we improve the spelling of English language learners?

First, we should recognize that a good deal of English is written phonetically. We have a broad sound/symbol correspondence, if not a perfect one. While beginning learners produce inaccurate spelling in their writing, it is usually still possible to understand what is intended. We can build from this starting point with these ideas:

• Use resources – Provide dictionaries and the time to check work. Computers and even phone apps can support spelling.

• Consider the influence of the first language – Spanish speakers will have challenges with vowels since they represent different sounds in English. Chinese speakers may need to work on long words, noticing the sounds of stressed and unstressed syllables.

• Encourage students to share their writing – When students know that peers will read what they write, accuracy becomes more important to them.

• Involve students in the puzzle of spelling – Point out the homonyms. Respond positively when students notice that shift in the sound of the letter “c” from medicine to medical. Have a contest in which students identify all the ways that /eɪ/ is written in a single paragraph: steakplanestayacorn, and train.

Embrace the craziness of English spelling while keeping in mind that it is mostly pretty sane.

April 15, 2013