Does Spelling Still Matter?
By Coquina Healy Restrepo
Every time I write my name in Microsoft Word, spellcheck tells me I’ve misspelt it.
I ask Google at least once a week what’s the difference between ‘quiet’ and ‘quite’. Then promptly
forget which one to use when I need it.
When I tried spelling “dilapidated”, I had to re-write it in my search engine three times like this:
‘word for a broken building.’
These are just a few reasons on why I know I can talk about what being a bad speller is like and
why it’s important to learn how to spell. The debate about if learning spelling is still important is
often said by people who complain that computers can solve all of their problems. Which would be
true, except you need to be able to spell the word you need in order to get the spellcheck to work.
Proper spelling is something every adult struggles with even though we have been studying
spelling throughout our entire education. We may all have different average vocabulary sizes but
we all misspell many of the same common words. Words like ‘acknowledge’, ‘apparent’ and
‘necessary’ are often the most used in speech but the hardest to remember how to spell; and that’s
All humans are speakers and listeners, we naturally pick up vocabulary easier when we are
speaking with one another and not through reading. Yet we’ve been taught to link spelling with
reading which a memory process that is distinctly different from learning how to properly spell a
Spelling is linked to the memory process of recalling a words’ shape, sound and definition which
supports our ability to read and write in our primary and secondary language. It’s important for ESL
learners to understand spelling because it reinforces our language skills and also helps with higher
level communication skills just as writing and information retrieval. If we want our learners to be
able to use their ESL skills professionally and work in higher communication fields, they need to
have a good grasp on how to spell.
Our job isn’t to give them spelling lists or enter them into an adult spelling contest. Our goal is to
help our learners develop the spelling skills they need to be able to understand what a word looks
like and how to spell and find it. Spelling skills are connected to improving literacy, memory recall
and an expanded vocabulary. But what are the skills necessary for a good speller?
Why do we spell and why is it so hard?
Spelling is not a natural skill. Most of our early reading and writing skills came from two mediums:
listening and drawing. When words were intuitive pictograms and we only one or two words used
to describe the same thing, spelling was a lot easier.
Then our vocabularies became larger because new words were being introduced and invented
from different cultures. The Greeks had to learn Persian and Macedonian; Romans needed to
learn two different forms of Egyptian, old Germanic languages and Celtic dialects. And each of
those languages had their own pictures, their own phonetic systems, and their own alphabets.
The English alphabet is even a construction of three different languages: Ancient Gaelic plus Latin
and adapted Ruins. Originally, English only had twenty letters to explain over thirty-six distinctive
sounds! When the Romans arrived, their scribes had to create six extra letters in order to describe
the distinct sounds such as the ‘h’, ‘r’, soft ’s’, hard ’t’, ‘p’ and ‘z’ sound. The other ten sounds were
made by combining different letters and spelling words to illustrate things like ‘sc’, ‘ll’, ‘mn’ and ‘oe’.
But this didn’t happen quickly and spelling in English would change every few years due to its
Short history of English Spelling:
English language has this long and incredibly complex history that we’ve boiled down into three
Old English - The original
base language of English was a strange mix of Gaelic, Anglo and
German which all blended together depending on the region. Then Latin monks came to England
and realized they had no idea how to write down what everyone was saying so they made up an
Middle English - Normands came and took over England and their French speaking monks didn’t
like the kind of English the Latins made up.
“Modern” English - Around the time of the Renaissance people were going back to reading Latin
and realized it looked really pretty! So they started spelling everything in Latin.
This whole timeline boiled down over five different distinct languages with different ideas about
what a word should look like and turned it into one, messy language: English. The way English
spelling began to shape into looked a little like this:
If you think it sounds Latin then spell it with Latin rules.
If it wasn’t invented before 1200 A.D. then spell it like the French but pronounce it like it’s English.
German doesn’t look pretty so all the German words have to spelt like they’re Latin even if it
doesn’t make any sense.
Also, keep in mind that this was all during a time when everything was written by hand and then
carved by hand into stone. Next comes the printers! And they really made things worse.
Printers Ruined Everything:
Scribes had always been valued more as artists than archivists, they’re beautiful manuscripts were
littered with mistypes and prototypes of spellings that were drawn out in loopy letters. There were
casual changes to simple words like “catch - cach” and “fishing - fiscing" that only made sense if
you knew if the scribe was Norman or Latin or Anglo-Saxon.
Then came the printing era. The printing press came along just after the Bubonic plague, Normand
expulsion and the “Great Vowel Shift” to a silent ‘e’. So everyone was ready for something to start
making sense; starting with English.
Everyone had fought to create a stylized version of English that either mimicked Latin or French.
Eventually, the printers said “To Hell With It!” And came up with the rules: Everything has to be
spelt like how it sounds and spelt the way I spell it. Some printers decided that words had be spelt
this specific way, and the most popular way to spell was Midland English. Which formed the basis
of William Caxton, Chaucer and Shakespeare. And later to our version of English.
Our Brain and Spelling - Word Analysis
Our brains don’t like reading or spelling, much. Reading is a very difficult process for our brain
because it forces us to use both sides of our brain: To look at the shape of the word (right
hemisphere) and to translate the sounds of the letters into one word (left hemisphere). Spelling is
even more difficult because it’s breaking down a single word into multiple sounds AND trying to
organize it into a familiar, “correct” looking shape.
Our brain is similar to a computer in way it decodes words. It turns sounds into symbols which is is
called “Phonemic awareness”. When you read a word you can “hear” it in your mind because you
know what it sounds like. But when you spell a word you’re creating a picture of what it’s shape is,
not specifically the individual letters.
Ex: The word ‘complicated’ can be broken down into four distinct sounds: COM + ple + KAY + t-ed.
You’ll remember how each sound is spelt because they’re more familiar when it’s broken down into
simple shapes, but the word ‘complicated’ looks difficult because it’s a long word without any
distinct letters or patterns.
When we spell we don’t think about letters, we think about shapes. Does this word look right?
Does is look like it sounds right? What does this sound look like? We’re constantly trying to
recreate the hieroglyphics with modern spelling because our brains want to view words as pictures.
Aren’t there any rules to help us remember how to spell correctly?
The Illogical Land of Spelling Rules
We were all taught a little rhyming rule to help us through grade school in order to pass our spelling
tests: ‘’i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’’.
Unfortunately, our brains can’t always remember all of the little rules that go with spelling. So we
expand on our simple rules with new complicated orders:
‘’i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ unless there’s a ‘u’ then you have to say ‘ue’ which is pronounced like
‘ou’. If the vowel is short like in ‘report’, then omit the ‘e’ entirely.’
That doesn’t look right and technically doesn’t rhyme well. Even worse, it doesn’t make any sense.
In fact, nothing about the rules of spelling makes any sense when you try to write down all the
basic rules all at once:
‘’i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ unless you’re trying to stretch the ‘i’ sound like in ‘ice’ (which is
ridiculous because now the ‘e’ IS after the ‘c’ and apparently that’s how you spell it). There’s long
vowels and short vowels and double vowels and double consonants. You don’t use an ‘e’ at the
end of the word unless you want to make a vowel long. Unless you’re using a double consonant.
Sometimes you also add an ‘e’ at the end of a double consonant.’
There’re too many rules because too many different people from different cultures sculpted English
over a thousand years ago. Some of the rules of Gaelic spelling apply to certain words with
German origins, while the French aesthetic completely changes how the original Latin spelling of
certain Anglo words were originally spelt.
At this point, you need a degree in Ancient European languages just to teach a basic second grade
How to Remember Spelling Rules?
Do you ‘see’ or ‘hear’ spelling? The answer is yes, both. So if you want to learn how to spell you
have memorize how certain sounds are spelt and what the shape of certain words are. We usually
learn this through rote memorization, sitting and spelling the same words over and over again until
it becomes automatic. But this will only work if you can commit it to long term memory through
multiple learning channels.
Think about learning spelling the way they did it traditionally: copy once, listen to the teacher talk
and writing down the word in context. You should be able to connect how a word is spelt through
how it sounds, so you need to be able to write down a word after someone says it. This promotes
developing higher listening skills in learners and creates more memory connections so they can
recall their new vocabulary quicker than before.
Tips for Improving Spelling for learners:
Developing spelling skills takes time, practice and multiple methods. The best way to improve you
and your learners’ spelling is to practice in different ways every day. You can do this easily by:
Texting is great because it forces you summarize and practice recalling specific words in a general,
every day context. It also helps that if you need to use spell check, it will flag words you commonly
misspell which forces you to memorize them!
Spelling out loud
Connecting sounds to how a word is formed reinforces a word to memory, and spelling a word
outlaid can help you deconstruct what letters make what sounds when put together. More over, it
forces you to try and think through an uncomfortable process which makes the word more
prominent if you communicate it letter by letter.
Instead of flashcards that have just words written on them, use simple pictures to summarize a
words’ definition and write the correct spelling bellow. This forces your brain to attach the word
directly to its meaning and improves your memory recall, making recalling the correct spelling
easier in the future.
Chunking is a reading skill where you break down long passages into smaller segments. This can
be done in spelling by breaking a word down into its simplest sounds and focusing on spelling
those segments first, then putting them together into one word.
Word puzzles are popular mind games that actually promote spelling reinforcement and memory
recall. Make and look up simple word puzzles like the crossword and word searches to make
spelling practice a more fun of your learning routine.
Spelling will always be a challenge no matter if English is your first or second language. It’s a
difficult skill but it shows us that English has had a long and complicated history. One that we can
appreciate more and more as we study and learn about word origins.
It’s also a fun, cultural pastime that you can use to bond with your learner. Whether you two bond
over common misspellings, playing Scrabble or doing the Sunday New Yorker crossword, you can
always see how spelling impacts your every day life. So good luck, keep trying and remember that
there are no bad spellers, just difficult words.
And finally: Gud locke!
Crystal, David “Spelling it Out. A Short History of Spelling English.”,book, 2012.
About the Author
Coquina is an educator in Shanghai, China and Roanoke local who grew up speaking two languages with her family. She currently works as an early childhood educator and reading specialist as well as a freelance writer. Her current clients are design firms and education organizations such as Bright Design Studio, Bright Minds, ESL Passport and Compass Review. When she’s not writing, she draws comics and organizes events for the teacher community in Shanghai through her own organization Good Thoughts.