Spelling Words

Top tips for spelling words you find difficult – no matter how confident a speller you are


Spelling words accurately is an important skill, and causes difficulties for many adults. Some rely on computer tools like spelling checkers to correct their errors. Unfortunately, editing software doesn’t identify common mistakes, like affect/effect, and your/you’re.

The good news is that there are now several strategies that can help even poor spellers improve and become spelling experts!


Tip # 1: Picture the words you want to remember


Many poor spellers learn to spell phonetically, that is, through sound. The trouble is that in English, not all words that look the same sound the same. For example, take ‘bough’ (rhymes with cow), ‘rough’ (rhymes with stuff) and cough (rhymes with off). And how can ‘right’ be spelled the same way as ‘write’? In fact, the English language is rife with phonetic traps, which makes trying to spell phonetically a bit of a minefield.

Research has shown that good spellers tend to visualise new words rather than hear them. They ‘see’ the word in their mind’s eye, so that when a word they’ve written doesn’t fit the picture associated with it, it almost seems to jump off the page. So, if you’re used to spelling phonetically how can you build this skill? Try this method, from the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming (O’Connor and Seymour, 2002):

1. Think of something that feels nice and pleasant, like a gentle walk in the sun or lunch out with friends. Adults learn much more easily when they are relaxed and comfortable, rather than tense or stressed.

2. When you feel relaxed, look at the word you want to learn for a few seconds.

3. Look up and to your left, and notice how much of the word you can remember seeing. Notice any gaps. Then look back at the word and fill the gaps. Repeat until you can remember the word as a complete picture.

4. Now write the word down. If you get stuck, look up and to your left to access the word picture in your mind’s eye. Check what you’ve written.

5. If it’s wrong, go back to step one and repeat.

6. When it’s correct, repeat the process but this time try and spell the word backwards. Yes, really. If you’ve learned it visually this will be easy. If you’ve learned it phonetically, it will be virtually impossible.

This strategy has been tested and improved the scores of both average and dyslexic spellers.


Tip # 2: Multi-sensory approach


A variation on the first tip is to use as many of your senses as you can to commit the word to memory. Use a mix of visual (mind’s eye), auditory (mind’s ear) and physical memory through the act of writing the word down. You can even try spelling out the word in different materials, like pipe cleaners or pieces of string, and tracing them with your finger as you say the word out loud.

The idea is that we all remember things through our senses of sight, touch, sound, taste and smell. Different people develop different preferences, and you may be unaware of exactly how you tend to recall information. It may also vary with the type of memory you are accessing (an event in the past as opposed to a maths equation, for example).

By using more than one memory system to remember a word, we have at least one ‘back-up’ if one of the systems fails us.


Tip # 3: Tell stories


This is a powerful memory technique, and you can use it to memorise an entire telephone directory if you wish (assuming you have the time and inclination…)

Take the word you want to learn and make a short story out of each of the letters. For example, to remember the word ‘PENGUIN’, I might invent a story about a Penguin Eating Nuts who Gallops Under an Igloo owned by my friend Neil. You get the picture.




Tip # 4: Identify priority words


Obviously all the above methods take time. Luckily, you don’t need to use every single word in the English dictionary every day, so find the difficult words that you use most often, and learn them using one of the above methods.

Your list is likely to be very specific to you. It might include words you use most frequently at work or school, in greetings cards, and in emails to friends.

Or, for lists of commonly misspelled words, look at Spelling Word Lists. If you’re happy relying on Word’s Spellchecker, I suggest you check out the pros and cons. And if you’re ready to give your new skills a try, check out the Quiz page.


Tip # 5: Use a spelling checker


While it’s a mistake to over rely on spell checking tools, they are useful for picking up common errors. For advice on how to use a computer to check for spelling mistakes effectively, follow this link to the Spelling Checker page.

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