English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos

The experts tell us that that English has a loose sounds-spelling correspondence “as a consequence of 16 centuries of unmanaged spelling” (Brown, 2016, p. 167). That’s just the academic way of saying that spelling in English is nothing short of a nightmare. As a child, I struggled with spelling. I sweated over lists of seemingly random letter combinations every weekend in preparation for Monday morning spelling quizzes. I puzzled about silent letters, schizophrenic vowels, and “rules” that had more exceptions than conformities. I misspelled “maybe” until I was well into high school. Nothing associated with spelling came easily to me.

Perhaps this is why I am so sympathetic when my students express frustration about English spelling. It is far less regular than spelling in many other languages and my ESL students are often perturbed when they realize English words aren’t usually spelled the way the sound, like words are in their L1s. This lack of regularity is the very reason native English speakers spend a disproportionately large amount of school time memorizing words and learning spelling rules (Seymour, Aro and Erskine, 2003).

From Struggling Speller to Teacher

Despite an ongoing personal dread of all things spelling related, I agreed to teach a spelling class last Fall when the adjunct instructor who had been assigned the class got a full-time job elsewhere. I reasoned that, if nothing else, my own spelling woes would make me a sympathetic instructor.

It was interesting to teach a class that was so far out of my comfort zone. I’ve been an ESL/EFL educator for over 20 years, so it’s not every day I find myself learning the subject matter alongside the students. Every lesson was like a trip back in time to primary school when I learned rhymes, like “i before e except after c” and “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” Plus, there were all sorts of things I had to teach that I had never learned myself, such as syllabification. What a wild ride that Fall semester was! When the Spring semester rolled around, I was determined to teach the class again. After all, I didn’t want all those hard-learned lessons to go to waste.

Lessons Learned

So, what did I learn the hard way? First, I learned a lot about teaching spelling. Even though I am an experienced pronunciation teacher, I still tended to overestimate how accurately students could identify sounds, especially vowel sounds. I learned very quickly that if students couldn’t hear the sounds, it was impossible to spell them. I also learned that most of the spelling textbooks I could find didn’t meet the needs of my students. They tended to either be written with young native English speakers in mind or they targeted lower level ESL adults. The problem with the children’s spelling books is twofold: the words that children are learning to spell, like “giraffe” or “prim,” are not useful for an adult who is trying to enter a nursing program in the US, and using materials that have been created for children with adult students just feels a bit condescending to me. My students are highly intelligent and experienced individuals. Reading about “Spot, the Dog” just feels wrong to me. As for the ESL materials, it appears that publishers believe that once ESL students are at the intermediate level, they no longer have any problem with their spelling. That is simply not the case. Students at all levels need spelling help; the words just get longer and harder as they become more advanced.

I also learned, or perhaps the more accurate term is re-learned, a big old mess of spelling rules. Except, as my students very quickly pointed out, it’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to them as “rules” because they have so many exceptions. I prefer to call them “tips” because I’ve found it more helpful to present them as common patterns instead of hard and fast rules. I also learned a lot about phonics. When I was in primary school, I had to memorize lists of words. By the time everyone was getting “Hooked on Phonics,” I was going on to university and my spelling troubles were alleviated by Spell Check on the computer. So, teaching a spelling class was useful because I learned a lot more about phonemic awareness and its relation to spelling than I had when I was young.

In the next few postings, I will share the specifics about what I learned, both in terms of how to teach spelling successfully and what “tips” are the most useful for students to learn. I’d be very interested to know if you have tried teaching spelling in any of your lessons and what’s worked for you. I am still a newbie at this, after all, and would appreciate all the help I can get!