ESL Writing: Spelling

ESL Writing: Spelling

Spelling of English Words:

People spoke English before they wrote it. When they started writing it, there was a lot of confusion about how to represent the sounds. That means there was a lot of confusion about how to spell the words. Over the years, the way people spoke English changed but what they wrote down in books and dictionaries did not change. As a result often there is little in common between how English is written and how it is spoken. That is why English spelling seems illogical.

But you have to deal with the difficulties of spelling correctly in your writing. Proper spelling is important to you as you learn to write English. It is important for two principal reasons.

The first is that the image your writing projects of your seriousness and competence depends greatly on your spelling. Persons who spell correctly in their writing are considered more intelligent and their professional work makes a better impression.

The second reason is that spelling correctly can help not only your writing but also your reading and speaking. Most adults who are learning English are used to saying that there is no sense to the spelling of English words.

This is not true. Although English is not always pronounced the way it is spelled, you will be happy to learn that you can learn a few facts and “rules” of English spelling that will help you in your writing. But remember, even the best rules have their exceptions. Although spelling is usually taught to children, it is not child’s play. It is important to you because it is very closely related to your reading, writing, and vocabulary improvement. This is because all these activities depend on the same language skills.

Spelling and Writing:

Of course, spelling is most connected with writing. Your writing will not impress your readers as mature or professional if it is full of misspelled words. Furthermore, if you can’t spell well, you will tend to avoid writing, and when you do write you will write shorter pieces. The result of your fear of spelling will keep you from using the more expressive words you may know because you are afraid of spelling them wrong. This is the reason why we have this section on spelling in a book that is dedicated to helping you improve your writing.

Spelling and Reading:

As your spelling improves, you will be able to read more words. You will be able to read groups of words, rather than single words, and will understand more of your reading. You will get clues from your knowledge of word parts. For example, if you learn the word sociology, you will recognize the ending in other words such as geology, biology etc.

As you come across new words that indicate fields of intellectual activity, you will be able to build on the ology ending. You will just have to learn the word part that indicates the field of study. This way your recognition and spelling vocabulary will grow.

You know that there are many words in English that are spelled differently but are pronounced the same. The words rite, write, andright are all pronounced the same. Instead of this making your reading more difficult, it will make it easier for you. As you learn the meaning of the different words, the spelling will help you keep from confusing the meaning, and help in your understanding of what you read.

An example of the connection between spelling and reading is the pair of words, stationery and stationary. School children learn to spell both words correctly by suing the memory trick of remembering that the words letter and paper (items sold in stationery stores) are written with the letters “er” and not “ar”. This way the children remember that stationery with an “e” refers to the tools of correspondence, such as paper and envelopes etc.

Spelling and Speaking:

Certain words in English, such as flesh, flush, flash, fresh, etc. are only different from each other in one or two letters. The person that learns to spell these words necessarily learns the meaning and vice versa. The persons who concentrate on the spelling and the value of the consonants will also improve their speaking and writing. An interest in spelling will make you a better speaker and writer of English. You will understand better the meaning of the words when you write them.

Learning their differences in spelling also will also help in your speaking; you will know their meaning and how to pronounce them more clearly. Similarly an interest in the proper pronunciation will make you a better speller of English. Some people just go on spelling similar words wrong and give the excuse that “they sound the same”. However, when you learn the proper pronunciation you will be able to spell the word correctly.

Ways of Learning Spelling Rules:

Some people say that English is crazy and has no rules, and that there is no way to be able to learn spelling rules. These people influenced the teaching of primary English to children. Their theory of teaching English emphasized the visual recognition of the words. Taken to an extreme, this approach makes learning the spelling of English words the same as that of learning Chinese characters.

Fortunately, this approach is being displaced and teachers are returning to that which used to be the approach to spelling, the language based teaching of spelling. Now we recognize that the spelling of nearly 50% of English words is predictable based on the letters in the word. For example, the spelling of the “hard” k sound, the /k/ in pack, look, and act are predictable to those who know the rules. Furthermore, 34% more of English words (such as knit, boat and two) are predictable except for one sound.

Finally, if we take into account other information such as the origin of the word, or its meaning, a very small percentage of English words are truly irregular and have to be learned visually by reading them several times. The language based approach to spelling is even more appropriate for you, who are learning English as an adult. You are better equipped than the child to see categories and to apply rules. If the language based system is better for children; it is even more useful for adults.

The Language Based Approach is based on:

  • word origin and history,
  • syllable pattern,
  • word parts,
  • letter patterns.
  • Don’t be afraid. We will explain these points step by step and as clearly as we can. The few examples we will give you should be enough for you to recognize other examples of the three main parts of the language based approach so that you can continue improving your spelling on your own after reading this brief introduction.

Word Parts: Knowing the important parts of words such as prefixes, suffixes and roots will help you in your spelling, writing, and speaking. Some teachers will give a list of words for students to memorize their spelling, for example teacher, professor, aviator, writer, actor, carpenter, author, plumber, baker, etc.

To concentrate on the different suffixes is a better way to learn the difference in the spelling of these words. Take a look at what follows. It is only one example but will help you discover and learn other word parts. The everyday words end in “er”, and the more modern or sophisticated words end in “or”.

There is a reason for this which will help you. The words that name everyday trades and professions (like teacher, baker, carpenter) come from Old English or entered modern English early, while the “more fancy” professions (like professor, actor, author) are named by words that come from Latin, and were introduced into English much later.

This is just one example of how a knowledge of the different suffixes, “er” or “or” can help you. The origin of these two different suffixes also brings us to look at the role of the origin and history of words in the next section. English has many Latin and Greek word parts (prefixes, roots, and suffixes).

It is useful to know them to use the correct word in your writing. Look at the following. Following are a few examples; they are only a few among many that have entered the English language. If you learn a root or a prefix it will help you with other words. Little by little you can learn them all. For example, in the word “geology”, the word part “geo” has to do with the earth, and “ology” is the “study of”. Next time you see the word “geography”, “geometry”, etc. you will know that it has something to do with the earth. You will also have a start on knowing the meaning of “anthropology”, psychology”, “sociology”, “criminology”, etc.

Common Roots

Root – Original Meaning – Example – Definition of the Example

agri – field – agronomy – study of crop production and soil.

anthropo – man – anthropology – the study of man

astro – star – astronaut – one who travels in interplanetary space

bio – life – biology – the study of life

cardio – heart – cardiac – pertaining to the heart

cede – go – precede – to go before

chromo – color – monochromatic – only one color

demos – people – democracy – government by the people derma – skin – epidermis – the skin’s outer layer

geo – earth – geology – the study of the earth hydro – water – dehydration – the loss of water

hypno – sleep – hypnosis – a state of sleep

ject – throw – eject – to throw out

magni – great, big – magnify – to enlarge, to make bigger

man(u) – hand – manuscript – written by hand

mono – one – monoplane – airplane with one wing

ortho – straight – orthodox – right, true, straight opinion

ology – study of – geology – study of the earth

onomy – science of – astronomy – science of the stars

pod – foot – podiatry – care of the foot psycho – mind – psychology – study of the mind

pyro – fire – pyromaniac – a person obsessed with fire

script – write – prescription – written instructions for medical care.

terra – earth – terrestrial – having to do with the planet earth

thermo – heat – thermometer – instrument for measuring heat

zoo – animal – zoology – the study of animals


Common Prefixes (word parts at the beginning of words)

Prefix – Original Meaning – Example – Definition of the Example

a-, an- – without, not – atypical, amoral, anarchy – not typical, not moral, no government

ante- – before – antebellum – before the war

anti- – against – antifreeze – liquid used to guard against freezing auto- – self – automatic – self-acting or self-regulating

bene- – good – benefit – a value; a gift bi – two – bicycle – with two wheels

circum- – around – circumscribe – to draw a line around contra- – against – contradict – to speak against

de- – reverse, remove – defoliate – kill vegetation by killing leaves

dis- – apart – dislocate – to put out of place ex- – out – excavate – to dig out

equi- – equal – equidistant – equal distance extra- – beyond – extraterrestrial – beyond the earth

hyper- – over – hypertension – high blood pressure

hypo- – under – hypothermia – body’s reaction to extreme cold

in-, il-, it-, im- – not – invisible, illegal, impossible – not visible, not legal, not possible

inter- – between – intervene – come between

intra- – within – intramural – within bounds of a school

intro- – in, into – introspect – to look within, as one’s own mind

macro- – large – macroscopic – large enough to see by the naked eye

mal- – bad – maladjusted – badly adjusted

meter – (measure – thermometer – instrument to measure heat micro- – small – micrometer – instrument to measure small units

multi- – many – multivitamins – a pill containing many vitamins

neo- – new – neologism – newly popular word non- – not – nonconformist – one who does not conform

pan- – all – pan-american games – competitions in the western hemisphere

poly- – many – polygonal – having many sides

post- – after – postgraduate – after graduating

pre- – before – precede – to go before

pro- – for – proponent – a supporter

proto- – first – prototype – first or original model

pseudo- – false – pseudoscience – false science

re- – back again – rejuvenate – to make young

retro- – backward – retrospect – a looking back

semi- – half – semicircle – half a circle

sub- – under – submarine – ship that goes under the water

super- – above – superfine – extra fine

tele- – far – telescope – seeing or viewing afar

trans- – across – transoceanic – across the ocean

ultra- – beyond – ultraviolet – beyond violet on the light spectrum

un- – not – unnecessary – not necessary

Word Origin and History:

If you are curious and try to learn the origin of words when you look them up in a dictionary, little by little you will be conscious of the influence the origin of a word has on its spelling. For example, my students confuse the words past and passed. They write:In the passed, life was simpler. The child past his exams.

Of course these sentences are wrong. It is easy to correct this error. You have to realize that the word passed is a form of the verb pass because it ends in the letters “ed”. Once you have this engraved in your mind you will never write, The bus past our stop. You will know that since you are talking about what the bus did, you are using a verb. You are saying that the bus did not stop, that it went on. You will know clearly that the proper word to use is the word passed. The proper sentence is:The bus passed our stop.

Other examples are the pairs: mist and missed, band and banned. It should be easy for you to realize that the proper use of the words is the following.

  • In the morning the mist makes it hard to see.
  • The hunter shot at the bird but missed.
  • The government banned smoking in public places.
  • The band played the music too loud.

Syllable Patterns

First of all, let’s be sure we know what a syllable is. When we hear English spoken we hear a certain rhythm; we don’t hear one unbroken sound. We hear different parts of what is being said. If we hear the phrase “Robert’s father”, we hear four parts of the saying: “Ro” “bert’s” “fa” “ther”. Each of these parts is a syllable.

Also, let’s review what vowels and consonants are. Vowels are sounds that we make with no interruption of the flow of air by the mouth, tongue or lips. Consonants are sounds that stop, interrupt, begin or end a vowel; consonants are made with the different placement and use of the speech organs. Now we can look at the syllables.

There are two kinds of syllables in English: open syllables and closed syllables.

It is very useful to know this because it will help you in your spelling. The open syllable ends in one vowel and that vowel is long. A closed syllable ends in one vowel and that vowel is short.

The vowel of an open syllable is long, for example, he, go, and the first syllables of apron, hotel, etc. A “long” is a vowel that sounds like its name in English. The “a” of apron sounds like the name of the letter “a” and the “o” of hotel sounds like the name of the letter “o”.

A closed syllable ends in one vowel and that vowel is short, that is, it has a sound that is NOT the same as the vowel’s name in English. Why bother with this? Because it will help us to spell correctly the words we know how to pronounce.

You probably have heard the word “rabbit” and have talked about this long-eared animal. If you know the difference between open syllables and closed syllables, you will know that you spell this word with two “b”s. If you spelled it with one “b” as “ra” “bit”, the first syllable would be open and therefore the letter “a” would sound like its name and it would sound like “ray”.

Since you know that the long-eared rodent’s name doesn’t sound like “ray-bit”, you know that have to double the consonant “b” in the middle of the word. On the other hand, the word “label” is split into two syllables before the consonant so the first syllable is open and there is no double “b” as in “rabbit”. So this word is pronounced with a long vowel and sounds like “lay-ble”.

This is a simple rule to remember; it is the “rabbit rule” and reminds us that in a two-syllable word, there has to be a double consonant in the middle after a short vowel. Knowing this rule is better than memorizing the spelling of words like ladder, tennis, written, etc.

Of course there are exceptions but the “rule” holds up most of the time. According to the “rule”, the words lemon and camel should be spelled with two “m”s because their first syllable is not long. But they are not; they are spelled the way they are spelled with only one “m”.

This is an example of what makes people complain about English spelling. True, it would be easier for you if the “rabbit rule” always was followed, but why complain about the exceptions if the rule helps you most of the time?

The “rabbit rule” not only helps you spell, it helps you read. If you come across an unknown word like “written”, you will know how to pronounce it. You will know that the first vowel is not long, although you know that it is a form of the word “write”.

Many people who learn English think that the word should sound like “write”. They pronounce the word as if it were “writen”. There is no reason to pronounce it this way, since you have the word in front of you with two “t”s. Of course, knowing the rule you will write correctly.

Letter Patterns:

If you learn certain facts about how different letters show up in English words, this will help you with your spelling and writing. This is because English is spelled in certain ways to preserve connection with how it is pronounced whenever this is possible.

Knowing a few letter patterns will be a big help. For example, surely you already know that the letter “q” is always followed by the letter “u” as in the words “queen” and “question”.. Also, for some reason in the nature of the English language, no word can end with the letter “v” without a silent “e” at the end. Therefore, we have glove, move, live, etc.

The /k/ sound There are more letter patterns but for the moment, let’s look at an important one. The sound /k/, not the letter “k”, is sometimes spelled with the letter “c” and sometimes with the letter “k”. If the sound comes before the letters “a”, “o”, or “u”, or before any consonant, the hard sound (like someone coughing) is spelled with the letter “c”, as in the words, “cat”, “cup”, “coat”, “cover”, “cut”, “cable”, “clean”, etc. Before the letters “e”, “i”, or “y”, this hard sound is spelled with the letter “k”, as in the words, “keep”, “kite”, “whiskey”, Kevin, kipper, funky, monkey, etc.

The letter “c” and the /s/ sound The letter “c” usually has the sound /s/ before the letters “e”, “i” or “y”, such as in the words cell, celery, cilantro, receive, incipient, cyber, etc. On the other hand as explained above, before the letters “a”, “o”, or “u”, the letter “c” represents the hard sound as in the letter words, “cat”, “cup”, “coat”, “cover”, “cut”, “cable”, “clean”, etc.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but you can learn them by making up little reminders as you learn the words that don’t follow the rule. To remember a few of them say, “The kangaroo and the skunk like to skate”.

The /g/ sound A similar pattern involves the sound /g/, not the letter “g”. The sound /g/ sounds like someone choking or like Lady Gaga’s name. This sound is sometimes spelled with the letter “g” and sometimes it requires a “u” after the “g”. If the sound comes before the letters “a”, “o”, or “u”, or before any consonant, it is spelled with the letter “g” alone, as in the words, “goat”, “gum”, “glove”, “go”, “Gus”, “gas”, “glue”, etc.

Before the letters “e”, “i”, or “y”, this sound is spelled with the letters “gu”, as in the words, “guitar”, “guess”, “guy”, guilty, etc. There are many exceptions to the rule, but as with the sound /k/ you can learn them by inventing little reminders as you learn the words that don’t follow the rule, such as “Get the gilded gelding!”

Rules of adding “es” to:

  • make the plural of nouns ending in s, sh, ch, or x,
  • and the third person singular of verbs ending in s, sh, ch, or x.


One kiss – Two kisses

One lunch – Four lunches

One fox – Three foxes

One lass – Many lasses.

One tax – Many taxes

One ass – Many asses


Tax – NYC taxes our income.

Fish- He fishes for salmon.

Crunch – She crunches up her old cereal boxes.

Pass- John passes all his tests.

Words ending in the letter “y” Words that end in this letter “y change the “y” to “i” before adding any suffix or other word ending, unless the suffix begins with the letter “i”. Look at the following examples:

  • The word happy changes the “y” to “i”, adds the suffix and becomes happiness
  • The word beauty changes the “y” to “i”, adds the suffix and becomesbeautiful
  • The word plenty changes the “y” to “i”, adds the suffix and becomes plentiful
  • The word try changes the “y” to “i”, adds the suffix and becomes tries

BUT… If the suffix starts with the letter “i” (for example “ing”), the word try does NOT change the “y” to “i”. It adds the suffix and becomes trying. If we add the ending ish to the word boy, we get boyish.

Doubling the Final Consonant:

a. Words ending in an accented short vowel or any spelling of a special English vowel sound (as in the words “bird”, “turn”, “word”) double the final consonant so that the word has the original sound when a vowel suffix is added..

For example:

remit – remittance

upset – upsetting

occur – occurred

confer – conferring

refer – referred

concur – concurrent.

BUT… If the accented vowel is not short, the word does not double the final consonant. Wait a minute! What is an accent? An accent (not the way you talk, like an American accent) is the stress or emphasis on a syllable. We say the word “telephone” with the accent on the first syllable. It is TELephone, not telePHONE.

For example:

reload – reloaded

defeat defeating

delude deluding

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b. Words ending in a consonant in which the accent is not on the last syllable do not double the final consonant.

For example:

open – opening

holler – hollering

recover – recovered

c. Also if the words ends in a silent “e”, the “e” is dropped and there is no doubling.

For example

forgive – forgiving

pure – purify

refuse – refusal

fame – famous

globe – global

convince – convincing

The author of this article is Frank Gerace and it is taken from his book: ESL Learners CAN WRITE RIGHT!