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Methodology: teaching English spelling

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article offering suggestions for teaching English spelling from Tim Bowen.

I'm teaching some Arabic students on an IELTS preparation course. A major problem for the students is very poor spelling. This clearly matters as spelling mistakes disadvantage them in the reading, writing and listening parts of the exam. Rightly or wrongly, I am reluctant to spend too much time on the 'rules' which apply to spelling due to the number of exceptions and vagaries in English spelling. I've tried tape recorded dictation of familiar vocabulary, double-sided cards with translation of easily-translatable words such as concrete nouns, and 'lines'. Progress, however, is very slow and this, from students who otherwise are well motivated and generally good learners. Tips would be much appreciated.
Barry Grossmith

A few activities that might help:

Activity one
Encourage your learners to look for patterns in spelling. One approach is to use word lists, where words with similar spelling patterns are listed. An example might be the ending ight and the list would then contain examples such as sight, right, might, fight, flight and so on. Lists like these can be displayed in poster form and added to whenever a new example comes up, or students can also be asked to use their dictionaries to find new examples. They could also be part of their vocabulary workbooks. The simple repetition of the patterns should eventually bring about an improvement.

Activity two
Relate spelling to particular sounds. Brainstorm the different spellings of a particular phoneme, for example, words containing the sound /i:/. This might produce examples such as tree, please, receive, experience and so on. This could also be extended to endings, for example words ending in the phonemes /-eit/. This would produce examples such as eight, plate, fate, weight, state, freight etc.

Activity three
Focus on prefixes and suffixes. Looking at the writing of Arabic learners, I have seen the word management, for example, spelt in a number of different ways, but the ending, in particular, has appeared variously as mant,   -mint and mnt. Again, brainstorming or making a list of words ending in a particular suffix might help to fix the pattern. Examples here would be parliament, encouragement, statement and improvement.

Activity four
Look at short and long sounds or diphthongs and in particular the difference that the letter ‘e’ can make to pronunciation. Contrast the sounds in pairs such as:

hat  — hate

capcape

pin  — pine

The relationship between long and short vowels and the doubling of letters might also be worth some attention, e.g.

filledfiled

tappedtaped

Activity five
Reading texts can be used in several ways to assist with spelling. For example, students can be asked to find groups of words, such as all the words in the text ending in –ition or –ation. You can ask them to underline examples of words containing a particular sound (for example /a:/). This might produce, for example, different spellings such as arm, father, calm and past. You can ask them to underline examples of double letters. A text I have in front of me as I write this contains such diverse examples as additional, successful, attract, sightseeing, accommodation and support.

Activity six
All kinds of spelling games will also help, even such obvious ones as hangman. Dictation will also be of use.

Activity seven
It may also help if you get into the habit of writing up new words complete with their phonemic transcription and encourage your learners to record new words in their notebooks as a matter of course.

Activity eight
In general, devote regular time to spelling and draw attention to features of spelling such as double letters, silent letters (the ‘k’ in know, for example) and unusual spellings (the different pronunciations of –ough, for example). When correcting written work, note any spelling mistakes with a sign in the margin and get the students to self-correct using a dictionary.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • thanks - I have been asked to teach online a visually impaired Arabic speaker who needs to improve her spelling. Her spoken English is much better and she only wants to learn how to spell. Suggestions welcome. (She has a screen reader.)

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