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Question of the Month: December 09

burning questionEach month EnglishClub reviews your questions and chooses one “burning question” to share. We choose a question that we think many English learners have. Please help us answer the question by leaving your own tips and secrets.

Question for December: I need to use English for my work. What can I do to improve my spelling?

Answer: Before answering this question we asked our Facebook and MyEC friends to share their commonly misspelled words. Like any bad habit, admitting that a specific word gives you difficulty is “half the battle”.

Learners are always happy to find out that many native English speakers (teachers and writers included) have poor spelling. English is not a pure language. It has a long history that borrows from many different backgrounds. This is why the spelling is so difficult (and often inconsistent)!

Here are 10 tips to improving your English spelling. Keep in mind that the goal is to “improve” “not perfect” your spelling. There will always be new words to learn.:

1. Learn Useful Spelling Rules
Let January be the month that you learn the major spelling rules. Read them. Then write them down in your own words. Write them down twice. (Once with a pen and paper and once by typing them out.) Don’t forget to learn the exceptions as well as the rules!

2. Learn Commonly Misspelled words:
Here are the ones that English learners came up with on Facebook and MyEC Chat today:

a lot (two words, not one)
thought (many spell it “thougth”)
its vs. it’s
words with ence/ance endings

Here are some other commonly misspelled words:


3. Learn Homophones
Many misspelled words are actually homophones. These are words that sound the same but are spelled differently or have different meanings (hear/here; heard/herd; fare/fair). Study lists of homophones and practise making sentences with them.

4. Double Check your Writing
Before you send, post, submit, or comment, give your writing a moment to breathe. Return to your writing and look for words that may be incorrect. Many of your misspelled words are probably typos. Use an online dictionary or spell check program if there are any words you are unsure about. As a fellow tweeter wrote today (@tipsforwriters) on Twitter: “Don’t just settle…do your best. Always think that everything you write will be read by the President, Pope, and your mom.”

5. Don’t just Rely on Spell Check
There are so many spell check functions available. I use one myself. It’s called TinySpell and it beeps every time I spell a word incorrectly. (It just beeped when I typed its name!) The trick to using spell check is to learn from your mistakes. Instead of checking the correct spelling when my program beeps I force myself to try again. Keep a list of your own commonly misspelled words on your desktop. Each time you make a spelling mistake (not a typo) add it to your list.

6. Break Down Long Words

Try to find the main word inside a longer word. For example, I have difficulty with the word definitely. I remember it by thinking of the main word as “finite”. I add the prefix “de” and the suffix “ly”. Learn more about prefixes and suffixes. These will help you improve your spelling.

7. Use Mnemonics
Mnemonics are memory tricks that help you remember words and rules. One of the most common spelling rules is “i before e except after c”. (Of course there are many exceptions to this one.) Another common one is A friend is a friend to the “end”. You can make mnemonics up yourself! For example many people have trouble remembering which words end in “ant” rather than “ent”. Why not imagine a little ant as you make up sentences about it? For example: The ant is “brilliant” and “observant” but not “independent”. Share your ideas in the comments below. Make them simple. Mnemonics that are difficult to remember can be more harmful than useful.

8. Start an English Blog
The more you write the more your spelling will improve. MyEC offers a free space to practise your writing. You can even check your spelling before you post! If you learn to love writing you will not be so nervous about spelling. It will start to come naturally to you. You can even use Twitter to practise your English writing. Twitter is a “microblog”. You only have to write one or two sentences each time!

9. Think about Rules from your Own Language
Learners from specific language backgrounds often make the same spelling mistakes. Realizing this problem can help you improve your English spelling. Help your teachers out by explaining why you make a certain mistake. Your teacher will be able to pass down spelling reminders to future students from your language background.

10. Be Someone Who Cares about Spelling

    Here are five reasons to care:

  • Good spellers have more confidence using the language.
  • Poor spelling suggests laziness. You haven’t taken the time to check your work.
  • Poor spelling is the first thing a reader notices.
  • Incorrect spelling can change the meaning of a sentence.
  • Good spelling can improve your scores on standardized tests like TOEFL and TOEIC.
Caps on! Caps off!
One of my personal¬†pet peeves¬†is the lack of capital letters used in the online world. Correct use of capitalization is one of the first rules of English children learn. We teach kindergarten children the difference between small letters (also called “lower case”) and capital letters.¬†The rules are simple. Start a new sentence with a capital. Use capital “I” when it stands on its own. Use a capital for a¬†proper noun. Take the time to press the “shift” or “arrow” key to make a capital letter when necessary. Don’t use all “caps”. It’s a¬†capital crime!

Thank you to all of my Facebook and MyEC friends for helping me out with this!

How to Spell Out Something for Clarity
American English Spelling
English is Not Phonetic

Spelling Challenge: Go create a new document now. Call it “My Commonly Misspelled Words”. Which words will you place on it today?

Written by Tara Benwell for EnglishClub | December 2009
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials and articles for the ELT industry.

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