Spelling in English

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By Mary Shea

Although English is phonetically inconsistent, there is more sense than randomness in its spelling when particular factors are taken into consideration. Correct spelling in English—a social expectation for writing that goes public—requires the logical, thoughtful integration of knowledge and aptitude across multiple areas. Curiosity about unusual words—about their structure and derivation (i.e., original source, such as Latin)—increases the likelihood that students will notice the distinguishing characteristics (e.g., configuration, letter patterns) of them. Full understanding of such features develops gradually when teachers are aware of best practices for teaching spelling.

Providing lists of words to memorize and conducting weekly assessments of spelling prowess have been traditional practices in schools for decades but notably ineffective in developing significant spelling acumen in a wide swath of students. Learning how to spell in English—to construct words accurately—takes time and develops in stages (i.e., emergent, semi-phonetic, phonetic, transitional, and conventional) when effective instruction, practice, and feedback in each aspect involved is integrated. Learning to spell requires an appreciation and understanding of the elements that form English words.


Effective spellers in English have phonological awareness and phonetic knowledge. They break long words into syllables and spell with consideration of the sounds and patterns in each. Familiarity with common rimes stimulates recognition of where to apply them when spelling new words (e.g., /ook/ in look used to spell brook). Mastery of the intricate principles of phonetics in English—with 44 separate speech sounds (phonemes), over 100 spellings used to represent them (Bos & Vaughn, 2006), and several spellings used for more than one sound—is acquired over time in classrooms where each is effectively taught. Teachers also remind students that they’ll meet words that don’t fully adhere to the phonetic principles for English. One must be flexible when decoding or spelling, trying out different possibilities to match the context. Reasons for unexpected or alternate spellings are discussed and analyzed.

Understanding the structure of English words, including roots and affixes (i.e., prefixes and suffixes that change meaning, tense, degree, or part of speech), leads to a strategy of spelling in meaningful (morphemic) units. English is also replete with patterns of letters that are spelled fluently once they’ve been used often in personal writing (e.g., tion in nation and sion in tension) and read repeatedly in context. Derivation accounts for parts or the whole of most English words. Consider the Latin root aqua (water) applied in aquarium or a French word like beau (boyfriend) and a Spanish word like sierra (mountain range) used in English. The spelling of such words follows principles in the first language.

Effective spellers in English have another important tool. They write out a tricky word they’re attempting to spell, trying variations until it looks right—until it looks as they recall seeing it in print. They’re cross-checking with visual memory. Having noticed unusual words when reading, they’ve stored a gestalt of the word in their mind; now, their written word is compared to that gestalt. Repeatedly meeting and using phonetically inconsistent words (e.g., of, enough, should) in meaningful contexts increases the chances they’ll be read and spelled automatically and correctly.

English spelling appears daunting, but it is doable. Not everyone will reach the level of mastery where all components intersect easily or at the same rate. But, if we teach awareness of what’s involved to spell well in English, students understand how to use what they know and work on aspects that need more practice. They accept English spelling as a challenge that can be met with persistence; the task becomes a word puzzle for the thoughtful, analytic, and curious mind.

Bos, C. S., &Vaughn, S. (2006). Strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.