How to Improve Your Spelling Skills

Fair or not, your spelling skills are used throughout your life to evaluate you as a person. Several months ago, the results of a study of Fortune 500 human resource employees were published, saying that of the people they had interviewed, some 85% threw away a resume or cover letter that had as little as one or two spelling errors. The logic was, if you didn’t care enough about your application to make sure everything was spelled correctly, then you couldn’t be trusted to care enough about your job – where a tiny spelling error might undo an important business deal or cost the company money.

But what if you’re a reasonably intelligent person with a fairly good sense of written style who, for one reason or another, just doesn’t spell very well? How do you improve your spelling, short of going back to elementary school and sitting through four or five grades of English class again? There are books and lists of commonly misspelled words available, but they’re too overwhelming to be very useful. Looking things up in the dictionary isn’t all that helpful if you don’t know already that you don’t know how to spell something — or if you can’t spell it well enough to find it!

Those of us who spell well have a hard time explaining it, too – it just seems like a natural gift (and of course people who don’t spell well often blame their lack of that “gift”). We can tell people how to spell particular words, but explaining how to spell better overall is trickier. It doesn’t help that we often look down on people who spell badly, seeing them as people of little education or little intelligence – or both.

Wanting to help my kids learn to spell better, I went looking for some techniques and practices that teachers use to teach what is, after all, just a skill, like riding a bike or learning long division. Here are some of the things I found out:

  • There is no substitute for reading a lot. Just as we learn spoken language by hearing lots of people speaking, we learn written language, including spelling, by reading what a lot of people write. Spelling is not about how a word sounds, it’s about how it looks on the page, which means you have to look at a lot of words on the page to learn how they are spelled. End of story, really – the first step to improving your spelling has to be to read a lot (and it should go without saying, read a lot of stuff that’s spelled correctly; txtng ur frnds may b fun bt isn’t going 2 hlp ur spllng).
  • Make a list of your commonly misspelled words. When you catch yourself spelling the same word wrong over and over, write it down somewhere (back of a Moleskine is a good place). When you get a chance, look it up and put the correct spelling next to it. (Make sure you mark which is correct!) Unlike the massive lists of “commonly misspelled words” in the back of dictionaries and the like, this is a custom list that reflects the words and spelling rules you have trouble with – so instead of a huge list of Other People’s Problems you have a custom-made guide to your own.
  • Use mnemonics. There’s an MnM in mnemonic! Mnemonics are memory tricks or devices, like “i before e except after c”. Since spelling rules are often abstract and, in English, even contradictory (what sound does “gh” make?), they are hard to memorize by themselves. Mnemonics “sneak in” through a different part of your mind, by rhyming, presenting an image, or forming a pattern that makes better sense than “that’s just how it’s spelled”.Here are some examples of spelling mnemonics:
    • It’s necessary to have 1 Collar and 2 Socks.
    • A piece of pie
    • You hear with your ear.
    • Pull apart to separate.
    • Definite has 2 i’s in it
    • There is a place just like here.
    • Because: Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants
    • Cemetery has three e’s – eee! – like a scream.
    • IN NO CENTury is murder an innocent crime.
    • Slaughter is LAUGHTER with an S at the beginning.

    These are all taken from The North Coast Institute Learning Institute and Audiblox; check out these sites for more.

  • Study spelling with Carolyn. The National Spelling Bee offers a 36-week spelling course, a lesson a week, by Carolyn Andrews, an ex-teacher and spelling coach to her championship-winning son. Each week’s lesson focuses on an aspect of spelling; taken a week at a time, it’s a good way to cover the basics. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t offer an RSS feed or email subscription; since the main page offers the most current lesson, you can monitor it for changes using a service like ChangeDetection.
  • Put a mark next to every word you look up in the dictionary. If you look it up more than once, add it to you personal list.
  • Write write write! The only way to really learn a word is to use it, and that counts for spelling as much as for learning its meaning. When you look up how to spell a word, write it down several times in a row, and do it again a day or two later – you’re trying to build up the motor memory of writing it correctly spelled. Write a blog, a journal, emails, a novel, anything that will keep you using words – and pay special attention as you write to the words that come up wrong (spell-check is good for this, at least!). Let others read your writing, and ask them to circle misspelled words (or post it to a blog – blog readers make especially harsh taskmasters where spelling errors are involved!)

Better minds than yours and mine have ranted about English spelling rules (or the lack thereof). There has been a near-constant drive for spelling reform for centuries, with advocates including Samuel Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Andrew Carnegie. These efforts have generally been failures, attempts to impose artificial “corrections” on the organic flow of language and writing.

English, it seems, won’t be rationalized, leaving it to each of us to make peace with its foibles and somehow work out how to get things spelt. Hopefully these tips help you begin the process of patching up your own spelling. If you have any other tips, please let us know in the comments.

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