12 Spelling Rules & 12 Helpful Strategies to Successful Spelling

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Everyone talks about the English language and how difficult it is to learn. They talk about all of the spelling rules and the exceptions to these rules. I thought it might be helpful to share with you some of the more common spelling rules in the English language and to point out just what these exceptions are. Perhaps this will help you in your English language learning, and specifically in spelling.

Let’s look at word endings first:

  1. Did you realize there are no English words that end in “v” except “spiv” which according to Wikipedia online is in the United Kingdom, a particular type of petty criminal who deals with illicit, typically black market goods; an especially slickly-dressed man offering goods at bargain prices. The word was particularly used during World War II and in the post-war ration period.
  1. There are no English words that end in “j”.  Try using the letters “ge” or “dge” instead like in the words huge and judge.
  1. There are no English words that end in “i”. Use the letter “y” instead except for several Italian pastas: spaghetti, vermicelli, macaroni and the word taxi, short for taxicab.
  1. The letters “l”, “f”, “s” and “z” are doubled after a single vowel at the end of a short word like tell, sill, still stuff, stiff, miss, toss, fizz and fuzz.  Exceptions to this rule include the words: pal, yes, this, gas, bus, us, if and of.
  1. When there are two or more syllable words that end with s and if the first syllable is stressed, it is spelled with one “s”:  litmus, circus, fungus, bonus, crisis and crocus. If the stress is on the final syllable, the “s” is doubled as in address, unless and discuss.
  1. If a word ends in silent “e” and the suffix begins with a consonant, then keep the vowel as in the words hateful and awesome.  If the suffix begins with a vowel, then drop the silent “e” as in enforcing and aging. There are exceptions like changeable, noticeable, enforceable, courageous, outrageous, manageable and traceable.
  1. If a word ends with the consonant plus “y”, then change the “y” to “i” before adding a suffix except “ing” like parties, heavier, largest, married and happily.  Exceptions include crying and hurrying. And if the base word ends with the letters “ey”, “ay” and “oy” do not change the final “y” to “i” when adding a vowel suffix like played, boyish, annoying. Exceptions to this rule include laid, paid and said.
  1. If words end in “t” or “tt” and you add “ing”, “ed” and other suffixes you double the “t” if the word is one syllable with a single vowel or a short vowel sound like rotting, filling and knotted.  You double the “t” for verbs of more than one syllable when the stress is on the last syllable like allotted, committing and forgotten.
  1. Then there is confusion over what word endings to use (“able” or “ible”, “ant” or “ance”, “ent” or “ence”)? There is no rule covering these words, as in “able”: admirable, preventable, suitable, dependable; in “ible”: incredible, invisible, negligible, sensible; in “ant” or “ance”: attendant/attendance; ignorant/ignorance; nuisance and important; in “ent” or “ence”: sentence, different/difference, independent/independence; and intelligent/intelligence.
  1. You drop the letters in some words when adding a suffix and there is no rule to follow as these letters are not always the final letter to be dropped: proceed to procedure, disaster to disastrous, repeat to repetition, administer to administration.

Let’s look at letters within a word:

  1. Usually the letter “i” comes before “e” except after the letter “c” or when sounded like “a” as in neighbor or weigh.   Examples include:  achieve, friend, niece, siege, believe, reign, sleigh, veil, ceiling, conceit receive, receipt and perceive. Exceptions include ancient, conscience, science, society, sufficient, either, foreign, neither, protein, seize, weird, counterfeit, height, leisure and forfeit.
  1. Some words include silent letters that are not pronounced: campaign, column, debt, often, design, doubt, gauge, ghetto, heir, knife, knowledge, island, mortgage, pneumonia, rhythm, solemn, subtle and Wednesday. Again, there is no rule to explain these exceptions.

Strategies to help with spelling:

Although you might have heard about some of these rules, in general memorizing rules isn’t the only way to learn spelling. It may help with some words but not the exceptions. You can memorize some of these exceptions to any given rule, but this might be hard to do or impossible for all of the variations of words.  But, there are additional strategies that you can use to help you with your spelling:

  1. The first strategy is to break the word down into smaller word parts. Think of how these word parts are like other words you know how to spell. Looking for similar patterns will help you become a better and more confident speller.
  2. Another strategy is to think of ways to help you remember. For example the words “desert” and “dessert” and remember something like the word dessert means a sweet treat and something you would love to have more of so it has one more “s”. Or the word “separate” is spelled with an “a” in the middle because the word says “a-rat” in the middle of it. Then you’ll get this word correct every time and not stop to wonder if it is spelled “separate” or “seperate”.
  3. Another way to remember how to spell words is to think of a sentence that uses the first letter of every word to spell a word like I learned to spell the word arithmetic with the sentence: A rat in the house might eat the ice cream.
  4. Another suggestion is to pronounce the words correctly so you hear the individual letters and syllables like library instead of library, candidate instead of candidate, etc.
  5. You can put together a list of words that are difficult to spell for you and review it. See if you can think of ways to remember the correct spellings of these words or memorize one or two of these words a day.
  6. Spell check is a great time saver and it can find many errors, but if you misspell a word and you end up writing a different word that is spelled correctly instead, the spellchecker probably won’t t find this word. No doubt this has happened to you before.  It has happened to me. I even typed my boss’ name once as Dr. Zdrale (correct spelling) but when I did the spell check, it changed the name to Dr. Date and I accepted all of what were thought to be misspellings. That one will be hard to forget as my colleagues keep reminding me of it.
  7. You can study with an online dictionary or with a hard cover edition. You can look up words from time to time or tell yourself to study so many words a day or maybe even one page a day. Visually seeing the correct word in print is a helpful tool to spelling the word correctly in the future. I have witnessed some very effective teachers who taught ESL students using the dictionary as the main tool in both spelling and vocabulary development.
  8. Read. Granted some good readers are not good spellers and vice versa. But, reading in general does bolster spelling. This goes back to the tip of seeing words in print as visualization helps aid memory of the correct spelling. By reading different types of text, you will have a broader knowledge base of words to use.
  9. Another strategy is to study root words. It is easier to add prefixes and suffixes to words that we can already spell.
  10. Writing frequently provides the practice we need to use these words until they become a natural part of our writing vocabulary. You will be more apt to see if the words “look right” and if not, self-correct them or consult a dictionary for the correct spellings. Research supports the viewpoint that once you write a word correctly a few times, you are more likely to remember it. That’s why one good technique of practicing spelling words is to write them so many times.
  1. Study glossaries in textbooks. Pick a subject area that interests you or one that you feel might help benefit you by learning these words.  Maybe these words are used on your job or in your studies. Find article(s) and book(s) that use this jargon and review these words and spellings as you read. Again, incorporate these words in your writing repertoire.
  2. The final strategy is to study list of commonly misspelled words. You can find a multitude of articles online that provide lists, as well as books on this topic. You could skim the lists and jot down words that are difficult for you to spell. Or you could have someone quiz you on the words. Then you can take your list of words that you misspelled and put these words on individual index cards to study until you have mastered the words. To extend your vocabulary, you could write a definition or sentence on the back. Then as some of the former suggestions have pointed out, use these words as much as possible in your writing so the correct spelling becomes engrained and natural for you. Then you can continue to add new words to your spelling repertoire.

I hope this article has given you some realistic tips to help you become a better speller. Learning English takes dedication and time. Learning how to spell English words does, too. I wish you success in language learning, and specifically in correctly spelling the English words that you choose to use in your daily writing. Do write to me using the comment section below and share a story about the spelling of a word or how you mastered certain words to use.  Maybe you saw a word spelled incorrectly and you were able to recognize this. And remember, spelling is a very common task and one that all of us can continue to improve as we add more words to our vocabulary and as we apply these words to our writing.

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