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EFL/ESOL Teachers - Improve Spelling in Your Classes

Andrew is a TEFL graduate and has recently taught classes in the UK. A keen traveller and article writer, he has also tutored 1:1 abroad.

Keep your students happy with these easy to follow spelling tips and ideas.

Keep your students happy with these easy to follow spelling tips and ideas.

How To Improve Spelling

You can improve the spelling of your ESL students by following these clear and simple ideas and tips in your classes. Spelling words correctly is crucial and reflects an accurate grasp of the language, which is not 100% phonetic as you already know.

English has many irregular and strange-looking words!

In the following article, I've outlined some basic rules and given you lots of words as interesting examples to put before your class and also added some important tips. All you need to get your students spelling correctly is here.

Plus there are two quality poems—both packed with humour (humor)—which should challenge your students and hopefully fire them up!

Remember, the more your students see and read words the more they'll be able to spell them correctly.

Basic Ideas

  • In your classroom put up posters, leaflets, pictures and captions with CLEARLY PRINTED words to help reinforce correct spelling. Each time your students are in class they'll see correct spelling.
  • Have regular reading sessions with your students and focus on exceptional or difficult words. Reading allows students to see how words relate in sentences.
  • Give the class spelling tests every so often. These will allow you to assess strengths and weaknesses. You'll find helpful lists of words later on in the article.

Lead In

If your lesson plan aims and objectives involve the improvement of spelling, there are lots of ways to lead in. You can approach the subject via:

vocabulary: make a list of words, go through their meanings and then focus on particular words that pose an extra challenge.

reading: reading paragraphs from books, poems, newspapers and so on. Pick out various words and analyse them. Have an open class question and answer session.

listening: use a CD or tune in to the radio and let your students take notes. Ask them to listen for words they're unfamiliar with.

looking: choose suitable photographs/posters/images with new words or words around a theme.

informal chat: ask questions, raise issues, make conversation then pick out a few words that look challenging and go through the spelling on the board.

games: use large cut-out letters of the alphabet, think of a word and ask students to form the word each with an individual letter. You could split them into 2/3/4 groups and let them compete!

  • Whichever way you lead in, you should be prepared to use a variety of strategies to help your students improve their spelling. There are four basic approaches.

Four Strategies To Improve Spelling

  1. Phonetic Development: encourage your students to listen to the sounds of words. Break words up into syllables, split letters up so that the class is able to connect a particular sound with a particular letter or morpheme eg flush can be broken up into fl, u, sh.
  2. Visual Development: if your students can see words they'll become used to memorising (memorizing) them. Read books, posters and other material at frequent intervals. Regular exposure to unfamiliar words will help them overcome any mental barriers they might have to learning.
  3. Rule-Based Learning: some words follow rules, others don't! For example, the word repeat becomes repeated, the word admit becomes admitted. Why is that? The rule is that if there are 2 vowels in the last syllable (repeat) the extra t isn't necessary, whilst in admit there are 2 consonants so the extra t is necessary. See the separate section on Rules for more good information.
  4. Morphemic Development: this is having knowledge of the origin of words, whether they're from Latin or Greek for example. Some of your students may be keen to learn about origins in connection with the terms prefix and suffix.

Regular Spelling Sessions

I like to focus on spelling once or twice a week so that my students become familiar with the basic rules. We spend perhaps 15 or 20 minutes on challenging words and how to use them in the context of sentences and conversation. Reinforcement is crucial so give time for feedback at the end of sessions to make sure learning has taken place.

A typical spelling session might include:

vocabulary: let the students study a list of say, 20 words.

sentences: let each student choose two words then get them to write sentences.

read out: have them read out the sentences.

  • Students could work in pairs or small groups.

Some Spelling Rules

  • Use i before e except after c or when it sounds like an a.

For example:

belief, pieces, thieves

deceive, receive.

neighbour (neighbor), weigh.

  • Drop the final e before a suffix beginning with a vowel only.

For example:

glide - gliding

hope - hoping

guide - guidance

entire - entirely

like - likeness

cope - coping

lose - losing

  • Change final y to i before a suffix unless the suffix begins with i.

For example:

defy - defies

party - parties

pity - pities

city - cities

try - tries but note trying

journey - but note journeying

  • Double final consonant before a suffix beginning with a vowel.

For example:

stop - stopping

swim - swimming

hit - hitting

occur - occurred

prefer - preferred

Some Technical Terms

homograph: two or more words spelled the same but not necessarily pronounced the same and with different meanings eg sow and sow.

homonym: two or more words with the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings eg pole and Pole.

homophone: two or more words with the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins or spelling (new and knew).

Look Out For These Words

alter - altar

lead - led

story - storey

birth - berth

male - mail

tear - tear

break - brake

meat - meet

there - their

buy - by - bye

our - hour

to - too - two

coo - coup

pray - prey

wait - weight

die - dye

read - red

whole - hole

flower - flour

soar - sore - saw

wood - would

witch - which

What If You Can't Spell A Word?

  • Write down the word as best you can.
  • Repeat it to yourself, listening for sounds.
  • Break it up into letters and chunks and syllables.
  • Write the word in as many different ways as you can.
  • Look for the most likely version.

Last Resort! Look it up in a dictionary.

Slight spelling mistake!

Slight spelling mistake!

Words With Correct Spelling and Use

* alright or all right ?

all right is regarded as correct although alright is also acceptable.

* already or all ready ?

It's already 9 o'clock. Are you all ready for the taxi?"

* altogether or all together ?

Altogether there are four tournaments per year
when the players are all together."

* anyone or any one ?

"Anyone can enter and select any one of the options on offer."

* cannot or can not?

cannot is the correct form in British English, while can not is generally preferred in American English. Even BrE lets you use can not for emphasis: "She cannot play music but when it comes to singing she can not only sing in Spanish but in French as well."

* -ever or ever?

ever is only separated from a wh-word for the sake of emphasis:
"He can go wherever he likes and do whatever he wants!"

"Where ever has she been and what ever has she been up to?"

* everyone or everyone?

Everyone is the same as "everybody" and applies to people only.
Every one means 'each single one' and applies to both people and things: "Everyone drank water at the cafe and every one of them ate a cheeseburger."

* inasmuch as or in as much as?

Both are correct but inasmuch as is more common:
"She is a most talented actress inasmuch as she has little formal training"

* insofar as or in so far as?

Both are correct but in so far as is more common: "They appreciated him in so far as he was always very helpful."

* into or in to?

Into is a preposition: "She got into the taxi."

In to is a combination of an adverb followed by a preposition:
"He joined the group at the hotel and accompanied them in to dinner."

* maybe or may be ?

"Maybe she'll stay for a week or more, although he may be here for only a day."

* no-one or no one?

Both these forms are correct.
"No-one has so far been convicted of the crime because no one person has any evidence against them."

* onto or on to?

Onto does not enjoy the same dominant status as into above. So in English, onto and on to are both regarded as correct prepositional forms. In cases where the on is an adverb, however, on to must be used: "When she finally got onto the plane, she went on all the way to New York"

* sometime or some time?

"They'll do it sometime when they get some time!"

Spot the two spelling mistakes and missing suffix!

Spot the two spelling mistakes and missing suffix!


Morphemes are the smallest units of language, for example:

plural - s,es

prefix - un,mis,pre,dis, re, non, ex...

suffix - ment,ness,ly,able,ful, less, ation, fy, ing, itis

verb ending - ing, ed

comparatives - er, est

A Fun Poem To Help With Spelling

I think you may already know

of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble but not you

on hiccough, thorough, rough and through?

That's great! And now you wish perhaps

to learn of less familiar traps?

So, beware of heard, a dreadful word

that looks like beard but sounds like bird.

And dead - it's said like bed not bead -

For goodness sake don't call it deed!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother

nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there

nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

and then there's dose and rose and lose -

just look them up - and goose and choose.

And cork and work and card and ward,

Don't forget font and front and word and sword

and do and go and thwart and cart -

Come come, I've hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!

I'd mastered it when I was five.

Spelling Errors everywhere!

Spelling Errors everywhere!

Some Words That May Cause Spelling Errors

desperate - separate

advice - advise

conscious - conscience

practice - practise

your - you're

their - there - they're

earn - urn

where - wear

through - threw

strictly (strickly)

restaurant (restraunt)

interesting (intresting)

Fun Poem - Mister Ough?

It must be rather rough

to have a name like Mister Ough.

Or do you discreetly cough

and say,'No, I pronounce it Ough.'

Yet if you lived in Slough

you'd be known as Mister Ough

and if you spent a day in Scarborough

wouldn't they call you Mister Ough?

But I must sit and think it through -

perhaps you're known as Mister Ough?

And now I think I've said enough

Mister Oh, Ow, Urro, Oo or Uff!!!!

Proficient At Spelling

I hope you've found these spelling tips and ideas useful for your EFL classes. Your students will benefit greatly from regular spelling sessions because once they've taken on board the basic rules they'll have the confidence to expand and experiment in conversation and other aspects of learning. It's all about being familiar with patterns and sounds.

Be sensitive with those students who might struggle with spelling at first, who are not 'writers' as such but who may be better at conversation. Try to balance things out.

  • Encourage them by starting with simple words before moving on to more challenging work. Build their confidence gradually and you'll help them become proficient at spelling and they'll pass exams because of your hard work and great teaching!

© 2014 Andrew Spacey


peachy from Home Sweet Home on January 28, 2015:

i need to look up my dictionary often!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 05, 2014:

Dianna, thank you for your visit and comment, glad you got something out of this article.

Dianna Mendez on October 04, 2014:

I enjoyed the lessons and found it refreshing to review the rules on spelling. Your ideas are ones that will certainly help others improve their spelling.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on September 27, 2014:

suzette - thank you for the comment and visit, much appreciated. Yes, I gue you could use most of this information for mainstream too. I think I have Mrs Thompson at junior school to thank for drumming correct spelling into my head!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 27, 2014:

What a great hub on spelling. The English language is so difficult when it comes to spelling because of the silent letters and different sounds with the same spelling. What a comprehensive view of English spelling you give. I love the poems and had never heard of them until reading this. This is good for all classrooms not just ESL. Thanks for sharing your spelling teaching methods. Great job! Voted up+ and shared.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on September 25, 2014:

Ruby - thank you for the supportive comment, I really appreciate it. I too recall the old fashioned teaching methods! Yes, they were mostly effective but that's because the teachers delivering them scared the living daylights out of the class. Learn or else!

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on September 25, 2014:

This is one of the best teaching tools I've seen on HP. Spelling was never easy for me. We were not taught phonics, I don't know why, it was in the 50's. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Jones was strict when it came to English, each one of us had to stand before the class and say all the prepositions and the being verbs. ( Which is still in my head. ) but if we couldn't spell, what good was that? Thank you so much. This will help the many people from other countries who write on HP. Tweeted.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on September 25, 2014:

Ann - thank you for your supportive comments and extra information. Spelling is one of those topics that can run and run - difficult to know when to stop!

Ann Carr from SW England on September 25, 2014:

This is an excellent hub. You've got the lot here.

One of my pet bugs is that so many native speakers get the al/all words wrong and don't realise they have subtle differences.

I used to teach my dyslexic students 'short vowel, double consonant; long vowel, single consonant' (but only in 2 syllable words). It's a minefield isn't it?

My other approach when teaching ESL (and dyslexics, both benefit from similar approaches) was to have a group of rhyming words, e.g. fun, bun, run, etc. Taking the first letter off and adding others helps get the pattern. The same thing works with more complicated patterns.

I'm so glad you've mentioned morphemes - so important that people don't sound out each letter! Every ESL teacher should have this. Up ++ and sharing.