How to be a whizz at spelling

E-C-S-T-A-T-I-C. Michael Reynolds/EPA

Children who compete in spelling bees often dazzle with their ability to spell complex words. In this year’s televised Scripps National Spelling Bee, two American teenagers were so good they were crowned joint champions, correctly spelling the words “stichomythia” and “feuilleton” to clinch the title.

Contestants in a spelling bee are allowed to ask about the pronunciation, the meaning, and the language of origin of a word. All these are key to a good grasp of spelling.

English is a chaotic and highly irregular writing system, according to some observers. In this view, we can’t do much more than memorise the spellings of words.

But studies of the English writing system itself and of spellers paint a more encouraging picture. English isn’t totally chaotic. There are things that spellers can do to increase their chances of spelling a word correctly.

Break it down

Breaking a word up into individual phonemes (units of sound) and selecting a letter or letter group for each unit is a good strategy for spelling many words. In some languages, such as Finnish, almost all phonemes have just one possible spelling and this strategy works very well. In English, however, many phonemes have more than one possible spelling.

What children are taught at school are usually context-free rules that link phonemes and letters. For example, children are taught that the “f” sound is spelled with f, as in fish, or that the “short o” sound is spelled with o, as in pond.

Put it into context

If spellers relied only on such context-free links between phonemes and letters, they would misspell many sounds, including the “f” of staff and the “o” of wand. Taking the neighbouring sounds and letters into account can often improve performance in such cases.

In English, there is a general rule that the “f” sound has a special two-letter spelling, ff, when it comes after a single-letter vowel. Similarly, “l” has the ll spelling in such cases and “k” has the ck spelling. Even when this rule is not explicitly taught, my research has shown that people pick it up through their exposure to written words. They use the context in which a sound like “f” occurs when deciding how to spell it, favouring f in some environments and ff in others.

As another example, people become sensitive to the fact that “o” tends to be spelled differently when it comes after the “w” sound, as in wand, than when it comes after other sounds, as in pond. Children with higher levels of spelling skill take better advantage of the context of consonants than children with lower levels of spelling skill.

Meaning matters

Spelling in English is not just a matter of attending to sounds. It also requires attention to meaning. For example, the “t” as the end of words is usually spelled as ed when it is a word ending that conveys the past tense. In other cases, it is usually spelled as t. There can be added confusion due to the differences between American and British spelling.

A six-year-old who writes Jak jumpt for Jack jumped doesn’t yet know this. Within a year or two, however, children have begun to learn about the meaning units within words and how these sometimes influence spelling. That knowledge can help them to spell a word like health correctly, with the ea that is found in heal rather than the e that would be expected purely on the basis of sound.

English has borrowed words from many languages, and knowing the origin of a word can sometimes help in choosing among possible spellings of its sounds. The “k” at the end of words is normally spelled as ck when it is preceded by a single vowel, as in chick. When the word is French in origin, however, this sound is more likely to be spelled as c, as in chic.

Not everyone can be a spelling bee champion, but these techniques can help everyone to become a better speller.