You may well have heard of the best-selling book P Is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever, written by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter and illustrated by Maria Beddia. Published on November 13 2018, it takes an amusing look at the way so many of the rules of spelling the English language are broken.
The New York Times described it as "A raucous trip through the odd corners of our alphabet." And, according to Foreword Reviews, STARRED Review, it enables us to "Explore the many quirks and anomalies of English spelling and pronunciation in an A-to-Z tribute to some of the most unconventional words in the lexicon.”
Having browsed through some of the pages, It really does make you realise how difficult the English language is when it comes to learning to read or write it. It gives wonderful examples e.g: T is for Tsunami, K is for knight, G is for gnat etc. It made me consider how tricky it must be if someone is trying to enter the workplace when they come here from other countries and English is not their first language. I wondered if there is a way that, as work colleagues, we might help.
I spoke to my wife, Sue, as she was an elementary school teacher and has taught hundreds of young children to read and write. She told me that when it comes to these anomalies, you have to forget about the rules, like vowels in syllables, the silent “e”, consonant diagraphs and blends etc. because there are certain words that just have to be learned individually as none of the rules apply.
She did say that telling her pupils that to think of the letter “Y” as an extra vowel sometimes helped and making list of words that didn’t follow the rules and have them on display was a useful visual aid. But she admitted, that’s not something that would really be appropriate in the workplace. Then she reminded me of something some friends of ours did, which helped the husband with his spelling and better command of the English language, when he arrived in Canada from Tanzania and was looking to gain employment.
Every evening they would play Scrabble. They allowed themselves 9 tiles, as opposed to the usual 7, so that they could complete the game more quickly and it really helped him in reading, writing and most of all, spelling. If you have colleagues who need help with spelling, why not spend part of your lunch break over a game of Scrabble or maybe invite a group to a Scrabble evening in your home?
If you do know someone who could use a little help with their spelling, here’s an article you may want to share with them. Entitled 19 Practical and Fun Ways to Improve at English Spelling, it was published inJuly 2014 by Oxford Royale Academy.
“English is often cited as one of the hardest languages to learn, and one of the aspects that gives it this reputation for being tricky is its spellings.
English spellings are full of contradictions and exceptions, meaning that it’s sometimes difficult to apply logic when you’re unsure how a word should be spelled. For example, the word “phone” sounds as though it should begin with an ‘f’, and the word “knock” doesn’t sound as though it should have a ‘K’ at the beginning. The shortcuts can seem few and far between when you’re trying to learn spellings by rote, but a combination of plain old repetition and the tips and tricks in this article should help you make rapid progress.
1. Learn the rules
Because of its aforementioned exceptions, learning the rules of English spellings may be easier said than done, but you can at least start to identify common patterns and combinations of letters so that you can begin to guess how a word might be spelled. These could include common endings such as “-een”, “-ough”, and “-tion”, words beginning with a silent K or G, and even homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and/or spellings).
2. Learn the exceptions to the rules
Once you’ve learned a rule, make sure you also learn its exceptions. For example, an oft-quoted rule is “I before E except after C”. This is not universally applicable, however, so you’ll need to learn the exceptions to avoid tripping up, such as “weird” and “height”. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to learn these exceptions – it’s a matter of being aware of them, trying to remember that a word may not conform to the rule you’ve learned, and memorising the words that don’t.
3. Crosswords and code words
Puzzles are a good way to make your brain work harder and improve your general knowledge, but they’re also a good way to improve your spelling. Crosswords give you a series of clues that you must fit into overlapping horizontal and vertical boxes, while code words look similar to crosswords, but involve working out which numbers stand for what letters (meaning that you have to make deductions based on known recurring letters, such as words ending in “-ing”). If you get the spelling wrong in either a crossword or a code word the other words won’t fit, so it’s a good idea to have a dictionary beside you.
4. Watch English television with subtitles
You can get better at spelling without even realising it by learning while you’re watching television in English. Simply switch the subtitles on and you’ll see how the words you’re hearing should be spelled. They’ll be moving too fast for you to make notes, but you’ll learn through osmosis, and this will help you identify instances in which a word you’ve written “just doesn’t look right” – so you can then look it up to find the correct spelling.
Another fun way of learning spelling without even realising it is to read plenty of things in English. Simply being exposed to English words on a regular basis will help new spellings sink in and improve your vocabulary, but reading things you enjoy will make it much easier to absorb this new information. You could start by trying to read the English version of a book you already know and love in your own language, as the plot and characters will already be familiar to you, freeing up some of your mental capacity to concentrate on unfamiliar spellings. Then you could introduce even more English into your daily reading by keeping up to date with English-language magazines and newspapers, or news websites.
Memory aids – or mnemonics – are a useful way to help you remember trickier spellings, although if you try to remember too many of them you’ll probably end up confusing yourself. When it comes to memory aids, the simpler and more memorable, the better. For example, you could remember the word “separate” by reminding yourself that it has “a rat” in it. Another mnemonic helps you remember how to spell the word “piece”: “a piece of pie”. And yet another helps you with “hear” (as opposed to “here”) – you “hear with your ear”. You could even make up a little song to help you with particularly difficult spellings. You probably learnt the letters of the alphabet using a tune when you were little, so you could try a similar approach by setting the letters of a difficult word to music to help the spelling stick in your mind.
7. Break it down into syllables
For longer words, it can sometimes be helpful to break the word into syllables to help you remember the spelling. Many people get confused with the word “several”, for example, because it looks and sounds similar to “separate”. We’ve already seen how to remember “separate”, but you could remember “several” by breaking it down into “sev-ER-al”. “Desperate” is another tricky one because it sounds as though it should be spelt in the same way as “separate”, but breaking it into syllables helps you remember that it’s “desp-ER-ate”.
8. Word of the day emails
Word of the day emails are useful for learning new words, but they can also help you learn spellings. Such emails are generally geared towards helping you learn more unusual words – words that most British people don’t even know – but there are some dedicated to learners, such as this English \learner’s Word of the Day from Merriam-Wester, which teaches you the various meanings of words and the contexts in which they can be used, as well as the spelling and pronunciation (click on the red audio symbol to hear it spoken). Collect your Word of the Day emails in a dedicated folder on your computer so that you can look back over them, or add each new word to a Post-It note and stick it to your mirror so that you see the new words when you’re getting ready to go out each morning.
9. Spelling competitions with friends
Do you know anyone else who’s learning English? If so, why not challenge them to a spelling competition? Take it in turns giving each other a word to spell and you’d be surprised how much this cements your knowledge. The competitive element will make it more fun, as well as helping things sink in more easily. You could start by each making a list of the spellings you find trickiest, using a dictionary to help you compile the list if necessary; then try to learn them by heart, and finally swap lists to test each other.
10. Online spelling quizzes
If you don’t have a friend to hand who’s willing to have a spelling competition with you, you could instead try one of the plethora of online spelling quizzes to put your spelling skills to the test. Here’s one example from The Guardian, but if you Google “spelling quiz”, you’ll find plenty more. Don’t forget to look for the correct spellings of any you got wrong, and perhaps make a note of them for future reference.
11. Don’t rely on the spellchecker for the answer
Spellcheckers may not find all the errors, as they won’t pick up things you’ve spelt incorrectly but that are still valid words. For example, you might have written “four you” instead of “for you”, which is incorrect but still won’t register with the spellcheck because “four” is still a word. Similarly, you might try writing a word, see that red squiggly underline and get the spellchecker to correct it for you – but it might not be correcting it to the word you intended!
12. Put posters and flashcards up in your room
A quick search of Google images for “English vocabulary poster” reveals hundreds of posters designed to help you get to grips with English vocabulary, and these will also help you learn the spellings. If there are certain spellings you’re particularly struggling with, you could even try making your own poster for tricky spellings. Put it up in your room and study it for a few minutes each day. Try covering up each of the spellings and attempt to recall them without looking.
13. Writing spellings out several times
It sounds dull, but one tried and tested method of learning spellings is to write a word down several times. You can look at the original word for the first two or three times, then cover them up and try to write the word again two or three more times without looking at your previous attempts. Sometimes there’s no substitute for such repetition when learning spellings, boring though it may seem at the time!
14. Learn plural versions
Learning the plural version of a word sadly isn’t as simple as adding an ‘S’ to the end of a word. You can get better at spelling plurals by learning rules for the different plural versions of words, which vary depending on the ending of a word and its origins. For example, the plural of the word “berry” isn’t “berrys”, it’s “berries”, and the plural of the word “knife” isn’t “knifes” (“knifes” is the third person present tense form of the verb “to knife”), it’s “knives”. This handy article from Oxford Dictionaries will help you learn the rules.
15. Get the pronunciation right
Sometimes, mispronouncing words can lead to spelling errors, because you try to spell the word in the way you think it sounds. Many English people are guilty of this too, so don’t despair if you find yourself doing it! For example, many people think that the word “espresso” – the coffee – is pronounced “expresso”, and spell it as such, or that the word “clique” is pronounced and spelled “click”. Even if the pronunciation is correct, it can still land you in trouble. For example, some people struggle to spell “Wednesday” because it’s pronounced “Wensday”. In this example, the tip we mentioned earlier about breaking it into syllables may prove useful: “Wed-nes-day” might be easier to remember than the word as a whole.
16. Write lots
We’ve already recommended reading regularly earlier in this article, but writing regularly in English is important too. If you don’t use the spellings you learn, you’ll quickly forget them. Look for opportunities to write in English, such as writing letters to British friends, blogging, or writing essays in English. Look up any spellings you’re not sure of as you go along. The more you use the words you’ve learned, the more confident you’ll become.
17. Don’t read bad English
Internet forums and social networking sites are a hotbed of poor spelling and grammar, so frequenting English-language sites like these will do you as much harm as good. People make less effort with spelling and grammar when they’re on the internet, and pick up bad habits from other users, perpetuating common spelling errors and creating new ones. If you’re trying to learn English and get better at spelling, it can seem a good idea to hang out on English-speaking sites and chat to English-speakers, but in fact you may end up learning incorrect spellings without even realising it. So, try to limit your exposure to English to high-quality written sources, such as newspapers, magazines and books.
18. Keep a notebook of spellings
Keeping ongoing notes will help you see how far you’ve progressed. Every time you encounter a word you find difficult to spell, jot it down in a notebook. This gives you a quick reference guide of spellings you know that you personally find hard to remember, and it’s probably going to be quicker than trying to find the word in the dictionary”.
Some great tips that reinforce the idea that although English spelling can seem a struggle at times there’s no need to despair. The more a person is exposed to English, the more they’ll learn, and the easier it will become and, as a friend or colleague, you can help them in the process.
About the Author
Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and his final book in the Marathon Trilogy, THE SECRET MARATHON-Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan through sport, was released on October 30th 2018. He speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential” and has written for, or been covered by CNN, BBC, CBC, The Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.
In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. In 2016 he ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in support of Afghan women and girls running for equality. Find out more about Martin at www.martinparnell.com and see what he can do for you in the long run.