By Rajul Goveas

6 January 2022 - 11:24am

Learner checking words in a dictionary

Ever heard of ‘Spelling Bee’? Perhaps the first word is a giveaway! It is, believe it or not, a spelling contest where almost 11 million students participate every year. The contest started out really small around 90 years ago to help students improve their spelling and vocabulary, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage. Now, we are not looking at becoming ‘spell-a-thoners’, but improving spelling and vocabulary must definitely interest you, especially if you want to learn how to use English correctly. 

Where do we begin and how can we improve our spelling? Practice, practice, and more practice is the mantra! You can also follow some basic rules to keep learning and make it fun too!

Rules to learn spellings, you say? Don’t we just learn them by heart? Yes, there are simple rules to make learning spellings easier. All you need to do is understand the logic and the concept behind learning spelling. Then, learn the rules and don’t forget the exceptions too!  

1. Don’t spell words the way they are pronounced

Sometimes we drop letters while we speak or change the vowel sounds. For example, we drop the /d/ sound in ‘handkerchief’ and pronounce it as /ˈhæŋ.kə.tʃiːf/ (han-ker-chief). ‘Colonel’ has an ‘o’ but it is pronounced as /ˈkɜːnəl/ (kernel). ‘Yacht’ has and ‘a’ but is pronounced as /jɒt/ (yot).

2. Watch out for prefixes, suffixes and more

Learn more about correctly adding prefixes and suffixes, forming plurals, doubling letters, dropping and adding letters with examples in the table below. 

1 Prefix A letter or a group of letters added to the beginning of a word to make a new word with a different meaning! When we add a prefix, we do not normally add or take away letters. There is also the new prefix ‘–e', which is oh! so familiar: super + human → superhuman dis + satisfied → dissatisfied in + sane → insane un + sure → unsure illiterate, immature, irreplaceable e-business, e-commerce, e-book, and e-mail.
2 Suffix  A letter or a group of letters added to the end of a word to make a new word. The new word is often a different word class from the original word e.g. adjective to noun -forget + ful  → forgetful -create + ion  → creation An example of spelling change: able + -ity → ability possible + -ity → possibility  (-le changes to il) 
3 Plurals  To make plurals the general rule is add ‘s’. Some words take -es. Some words take -ies. face → facessmile → smiles bus → buses, cross → crosses baby → babies, reply → replies
4 Doubling letters  Double the final consonant of a word (b, d, g, l, m, n, p, r, t) when using a suffix beginning with a vowel (-ed, -er, -est, -ing): hop + -ed → hopped slim + -ing → slimming red + -ish → reddish rub + -ed → rubbed travel+ -er → traveller
5 Dropping letters Drop the final ‘e’ when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel. However, keep the -e to differentiate them from similar words  approve + -al → approval hope + -ing → hoping fame + -ous → famous invite + -ation → invitation dying (verb: die)  dyeing (verb: dye) 
6 Adding letters  For adjectives ending in –ic, add the suffix -ally  to form adverbs. Don’t forget the exceptions! basic → basically realistic → realistically public → publicly
7 Verb forms  Spelling rules for regular verbs: Add -ed to the base form of the verb. If the word ends in -e, add only -d to the base form of the verb. If the word ends in a consonant, + -y, change the -y to ‘i’ and add -ed: There are some common exceptions.  -y is changed to ‘i' after a vowel and just -d is added.The general rule is add -ing to the base form of the verb. clean → cleaned, echo → echoed email → emailed, sail → sailed agree → agreed, dine → dined   love → loved apply → applied, cry → cried pay → paid, say → said go → going, hurry → hurrying, play → playing

3. Beware of ‘ie’ or ‘ei’

A simple thumb rule here is: when we have a long vowel sound /i:/ as in the word brief, we spell it with ‘ie’.  e.g.  achieve, belief, diesel, niece, relieve. However, in words that have the letter ‘c’, we spell it as ‘ei’ after the ‘c’. e.g. ei after c - ceiling, conceit, deceive, receipt, perceive. Remember ‘i’ before and ‘e’ except when there’s a ‘c’! Words that do not have the long vowel /i:/ as in brief, follow the usual order, that is, ‘e’ before ‘i’.  e.g. neighbour, leisure, height. Of course, there are exceptions! The words friend, ancient, science are common deviants from this rule.

4. Silent letters – ignore them while speaking, include them while writing 

Don’t we pronounce all the letters in a word? No! Strange but true! There are some letters that we spell out in a word, but don’t say them when we speak. So remember to add them in while writing, but you can ignore them while speaking. Here are some classic everyday examples:

Silent B - debt, doubt, dumb
Silent C - muscle, disciple, descend
Silent G - design, foreign
Silent P – psychology, receipt

Wow! Aren’t these a lot of rules! Don’t worry. Just start with the basics and try to understand them one at a time. Soon you’ll get the hang of it all. And where did I get these rules? From my best friend-the dictionary. In this case it is courtesy Cambridge, 

Ever thought of making friends with a dictionary? Do this if you are really interested in improving your spellings and building your vocabulary bank. There are some other good ones available online too. To name a couple:

1. Merriam-Webster 

2. Oxford Learners Dictionary 

Get down to the roots

A smart move to learn spelling - ask the question - where does the word come from?

Knowing or learning the origins of words is called ‘etymology’. The English language is influenced by many foreign languages like French, Greek, Italian, Latin, Roman, Spanish. Lately, several Indian words have been making their way into English dictionaries too. This means that the spelling of the word won’t often follow the rules of English grammar and pronunciation. So, how can we learn to spell is a million-dollar question! 

If the words originate from the same foreign language and have the same root (the basic part of a word that can be modified by adding prefixes or suffixes), we can notice patterns that help us with spelling skills. For example, words of Greek origin like psycho from psycho have a silent ‘p’.  The root word ‘bene’ from Latin, which means ‘well’ forms part of words like benefactor, benefit. If you have reached here it means you are still with me, and therefore here’s your bonus!

Differences between British English and American English

Differences in British English (BE) and American English (AmE) can sometimes cause trouble too. We have largely focused on BE here, but let’s look at differences between two.

•Spellings with ‘s’ or ‘ z’

BE analyse neighbour centre colour cancelled
AmE analyze neighbor center color canceled

IELTS test givers please note: Both spellings are accepted as long as you don’t mix the two in your writing. Follow one style.


Do you want chips (AmE) or crisps (BE)? Would you like some cookies (AmE) with your tea or biscuits (BE)? Oh! Never mind. Just bring a plateful of both-whatever you want to call them is what I would say with a smile. And here’s one more for you. Do you wear trousers (BE) or pants (AmE)? Eh? Both right? Many-a-time these two words become a joke - simply a question of the British saying, what is worn as an outer by you is an inner for us. And so the list goes on! Read on for a few more examples.

BE trousers flat lorry holiday post box biscuits fizzy drinks
AmE pants apartment truck vacation mail box cookies soda


Yes, there are differences in grammar, but that’s something that you need not worry about right now! The important thing to note is even though there are differences there are more similarities. To communicate you can use either BE or AmE, and if you use BE instead of AE or vice versa chances of miscommunication are rare so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t remember the shades of both languages.

Oh!…wait…talking about British and American English, what about accent? Does that matter? I don’t think so! You just have to spell and pronounce the words correctly. It would be a good idea though, if you learnt the diacritics, which are small symbols found above words in a dictionary. These tell you how and where to put an accent on a word. And not to forget phonetics in language which help to develop your pronunciation and speaking skills. This is a whole new subject we will deal with in another blog. However, if you’re curious what this is, here’s a link to download the phonemic chart.  

How can I improve my English spelling?

Here are some easy-to-follow strategies you can work on yourself to improve your spellings. 

• Think of all the words you have a problem with or the ones whose spellings you want to remember. A simple strategy you could try to become a ‘spell-a-thoner’ is the 3-columns guide. 

• In the ‘first’ column, write all the words you want to learn.

• In the ‘second’ column, write the same words as many times as you want without looking at them

• In the ‘third’ column, which is your real test, write the words that you have finally remembered and spelt correctly. This last one is a ‘feel good’ column as you will be able to see how far you have come. 

• Look up new words and note them down to learn and add to your 3-column guide

• Curiosity about new words won’t kill you, but will only make you stronger, helping you learn a few words every day

• Google will throw up an endless pool of resources, but the two that I would definitely recommend are:

BBC Teach – Skillswise, Spellings Here you will find useful techniques to help with your spelling using memory aids, common letter patterns, root words etc.

Johnny Grammar’s Word Challenge - Want to earn Word Wizard and Supreme Speller badges? You can complete all the levels on this app which tests common vocabulary and spelling that appear in everyday English.

•Rope in your family and ask them to check your spellings, just like way back when you were in school. They can be great coaches. Or get yourself a spelling partner                which is even better!

•Use flash cards or post-its’ with tricky words and stick them where you can see them

•Categorise words according to their roots or the number of letters each word has

•Break up long words into small parts (syllables) to remember them

•Think of words that have a similar pronunciation

•Challenge yourself with word games like ‘Invisible man’, ‘Scrabble’ or do ‘Crosswords’.

•Connect with the words as they roll off your tongue, get that passion and love within you for learning new words.

There is no one-size-fits-all method for learning. You know too, that some words are just unusual and there’s no easy way to learn them except by heart. It’s difficult to memorise lists of words so get on with your reading which is the best way come across new words and be challenged to spell. There is no magical shortcut, and it is certainly not a cake walk, but it is within you to make spelling your very own special piece of cake. The benefits are enhanced communication skills because of a rich ‘vocablary’ or is it vocabulary? Look it up!

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