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Teaching L2 Spelling

unpublished circa 1999


This paper suggests that spelling has been unduly neglected in the teaching of English. It analyses a corpus of students’ spelling mistakes in terms of problems common to many students, such as the spelling of idiosyncratic single words and pronunciation-based problems, and problems with sound/ letter correspondences for vowels, consonants, consonant doubling, <i>/<y> alternation, sound-based mistakes and transposition of letters. It sketches typical problems of students with eleven first languages. It argues that the teaching of spelling should rely partly on checking a set of frequent mistakes as one-off items, partly on explanations of spelling rules for sound/letter relationships and for letter combinations and position, partly on drilling of particular aspects such as doubling.

Note some phonetic symbols will appear odd unless you have Ecological Linguistics IPA font.

Spelling has been almost completely ignored in teaching methodology, in course-books and in research into second language learning. In so far as anybody thinks about it at all, spelling is dismissed as one of those inevitable problems about English, like the weather: oh dear, English spelling is terrible and we need to grit our teeth and bear it. Yet, beyond a certain stage, perhaps the majority of student’s mistakes in written English are to do with spelling. Spelling mistakes are often felt to be a sign of lack of education; while accent and grammar can be excused, spelling mistakes can be unforgivable. Leaving the teaching of spelling to haphazard correction cannot be in the students’ best interests.

This paper looks at 1498 mistakes from L2 students of English, collected from ten-line samples of the writing of 375 students with diverse first languages doing an entry test for an English university, described in Cook (1997), and amplified from the Longman Corpus of Learner English to get at least 100 errors from eleven groups with different L1s, typically taken from 30 or so additional pieces of student work, namely: Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Urdu.

The writing systems of the world either use large numbers of individual characters corresponding to meanings, as in Chinese or make use of a small number of letters corresponding to sounds, as in English. This division is echoed within the individual person. A user of English has both a store of visual examples of high frequency words (Seidenberg, 1985) and a complex set of rules for relating sounds and letters. The word the is processed as a visual sign <the>, not as three separate letters <t>, <h> and <e>; the word pen is, however, processed by applying the rules for how the letter <p> corresponds to /p/, <e> to /e/, and so on (angle brackets are used to refer to letters <b> just as slant brackets are used for phonemes /b/). English is famous for the number of one-off exceptions that have to be stored as individual items, such as yacht
or of.

  1. Problems for many learners

Some problems afflict many students virtually regardless of their first language.

1. Single words

Because English relies on a store of individual words, students need to learn some words as one-off items. Indeed L2 users of English performed better at irregular high-frequency words than at regular low-frequency words (Brown, 1970). One way of establishing which words these are is to compare the frequency lists for English supplied by the British National Corpus (BNC) with the mistakes found in our corpus. The following 21 words appear both in the top 200 BNC words and more than once in our corpus: because, can (neg), could (neg), different, from, government, have, life, people, really, said, their, think, to, too, very, where, which, will, would, you.

A second way is to list the words that are most often misspelt by L2 users. 27 words are misspelt more than five times, including five from the first list: accommodating, because, beginning, business, career, choice, definite, develop, different, describe, government, interest(ing), integrate, kindergarten, knowledge, life, necessary, particular, professional, professor, really, study/student, their, which, would. Some of these words have many alternative misspellings; because for example is spelt as beause, beaucause, becase, becaus, becouse, becuase, becuse and begause.

Together these two lists show crucial errors that students need to guard against. Learning these 43 words as individual spellings in itself goes some way towards curing the students’ most common mistakes. Many also occur among native speakers, for example definite, different, government, their, where. Teachers can protect the students by checking that they know the spelling of these words and by teaching them those that they get wrong.

2. Pronunciation-based problems

Unlike native speakers, students may not know the actual sound system of English, and so will appear to use the wrong letters. Two main areas are:

  • confusing English sounds, in particular /e/ and /i/ as in beg (big), endiveduoly, fredges

  • adding vowels after final consonants and in between consonant clusters. Spoken English has not only Consonant-Vowel (CV) syllables as in who /hu:/ but also final consonants in CVC one /wŠ n/ and clusters of more than one consonant, say CCVCC grasp /gr‡ :sp/. Students with L1s without final consonants or clusters of more than one consonant often pad out the structure with an ‘epenthentic’ vowel (Broselow, 1983), leading to extra vowels in spelling such as addrese, courese, adovocated and subejects.

Pronunciation practice is going to be more rewarding with these problems than practice in spelling, not only the contrast between phonemes but also the structure of the English syllable.

3 Spelling-correspondence problems

The most difficult aspects of English spelling for many students are the complex correspondences between sounds and letters. In ‘shallow’ writing systems such as Spanish, the relationship is close to one letter to one sound; in ‘deep’ systems such as Chinese there are minimal links between character and pronunciation. English is far from shallow, a full account of its spelling taking 535 pages in Carney (1994).

To give an overall idea, the pie-chart below gives the proportions of mistakes found in the various categories to be discussed. These categories are straightforward adaptations of the traditional types used in the spelling literature, for example Brooks, Gorman & Kendall (1993) for L1 children and Bebout (1985) for L2 adults. The majority of mistakes, 59%, consist of the omission and addition of vowels and consonants, substitution coming second with 30%.

(i) Vowels

  • choosing between <a>, <e> and <i> in word endings with <an>/<en> frequantly, relevent, appearence, importent; with <el>/<al>/<il> hostal, leval, fossal; and with <ate> definately, definetely.

  • deciding whether to use <e> or <i> to correspond to /’ / devided, dicided.

  • knowing which written vowel corresponds to schwa /‘ / activeties, grammer. Since many unstressed vowels are pronounced as /‘ /, the spellings have to be remembered as one-off items, equally difficult for native speakers as seen in destinct and divice (Author, 1997).

  • wrongly omitting vowels, particularly <e> when absent from the spoken form in the middle of words intresting or ‘silent’ <e>s joks, and in the combination <ie> belive.

(ii) Consonants

  • choosing between the three consonants <s>, <c> and <t> recognice, tradisional, spetial, particularly in words with Latinate endings.

  • interchanging <m> and <n> confortable, amd (and).

  • omitting consonants, particularly <c> before <t> or <k> charater, chiken, <h> in <wh> what and <ch> psycology, the ‘silent’ <r> of British English before consonants coner, <s> oberved, and <n> in words such as crimial, eough, surprisingly 11.7% of total consonant omissions.

  • inserting extra consonants, particularly <t> with <gh> enought, <r> Tuersday and initial <h> hability, in the latter case overlapping with pronunciation problems for /h/-less L1s.

(iii) Consonant doubling

One common mistake is the doubling of consonants, amounting to 14.4% of all mistakes and 43.3% of mistakes with consonant addition or omission. In English writing, unlike languages such as Spanish, single and double consonants do not correspond to different sounds but follow complex orthographic rules: doubling occurs after primary-stressed short vowels full unless they are more than two syllables from the end celery, before <le> little, in some Latinate words with a prefix command, and in several other ways (Carney, 1994). Mistakes consist equally of adding an unnecessary double consonant (48.3%) and omitting a necessary second consonant (51.7%). Some may be due to pronunciation problems when students do not know whether a vowel is short or long.

(iv) <i>/<y> alternation

The use of <y> as a final letter corresponding to /’ / causes confusion, leading both to its omission studing and to the failure to change <y> to <ie> before <s> implys. Other problems include <y> for /’ /in some Greek-derived words analise, <y> as part of <ay> alwais or <oy> joyning, and past tenses in <aid> payed, again familiar from native speakers.

(v) Sound-based

Students may spell accurately according to the sound but produce the wrong combination of letters for a particular word, some 5.6% of all mistakes. The commonest is the use of <dge> for /d½ / colledge but there are also frequent spellings of <ee> for /i:/ feever and <er> for schwa /‘ / nerses. An extreme example is higher archary (hierarchy). This also includes confusion between words that are either homophones such as there/their/they’re and passed/past or near-homophones quiet/quite.

(vi) Transposition

Transposition of letters comes to 4.9% of all mistakes. In consonants the worst offenders are digraphs such as <th> strenght and <tc> Ducth, in vowels <ie> freinds and <ei> thier. Some consonant vowel pairs also alternate, particularly <ce> patienec, <le> handels and <or> from (form).

Throughout this section L2 users’ mistakes are not very different from those of native speakers. Most of the spelling mistakes mentioned here can for instance be duplicated in the manuscript of Wordsworth’s Prelude (Parrish, 1977), whether incorrect doubling vullgar, addition of vowels anixious or omission of consonants taugh (taught).

B. Problems for speakers of specific L1s

Nevertheless some problems are clearly caused by the students’ L1 sound or writing systems. Previous accounts of some L1 groups can be found for Spanish (Bebout, 1985), Arabic (Ibrahim, 1978), and Welsh (James, Scholfield, Garrett, & Griffiths, 1993).

  • Arabic. Arabic problems mostly concern pronunciation, seen in the high proportion of substituted vowels obundant, additional ‘epenthetic’ vowels punishement and phonological mistakes manshed (mentioned). Only Arabic speakers substitute <c> for <q> cuickly

  • Chinese. Characteristic Chinese mistakes are the omission of consonants subjet and the addition of <e> boyes.

  • Dutch. Dutch speakers have no distinctive mistakes apart from double <kk>wekk.

  • French. < French speakers wrongly double consonants comming and substitute vowels materiel.

  • German. < The omission of <e> is typical happend, as is the substitution of <i> for <e> injoid. A unique mistake is telephon.

  • Greek.< Greeks substitute consonants, particularly <d>/<t> Grade Britain, double unnecessarily sattisfaction and transpose sceince. A unique mistake is <c> for <g> Creek (Greek).

  • Italian.< Italian students particularly omit consonants as in wether (whether) and fail to double < biger.

  • Japanese.< Consonant substitution is common gramatikal, as are the addition of epenthetic vowels difficulity and CV transposition prospretiy. The distinctive Japanese mistake is the exchange of <l> and <r> grobal, most obviously derived from the pronunciation difficulty with /l/ and /r/ but also related to the transliteration of Japanese words into romaji, the roman alphabet system used in Japan.

  • Korean.< Consonant omission looms large fators, as do lack of doubling poluted and omitted vowels < therefor.

  • Spanish.< Consonant omission is common wich, as is both lack of doubling til and unnecessary doubling exclussive.

  • Urdu.< The typical mistake is leaving out vowels somtimes and consonants, particularly final <d> and <t> lef, woul.

C. Teaching Spelling

What can teachers do about the mistakes seen here? At the moment there is little choice of teaching materials specifically for spelling. The only available L2 title seems to be Digby & Myers (1993), Making Sense of Spelling and Pronunciation, though there are several L1 titles that cover some of the same ground such as Parker (1994) Test Your Spelling and Davis (1985) Handling Spelling. None of them cover the range of mistakes outlined here, mostly concentrating on sound/letter correspondences, homophones or ‘silent’ letters.

One approach is to explain the rules to students, say an outline of the main correspondences for consonant doubling, or to get them to read an accessible account of English spelling such as Carney (1997). Such explanations need to be based on detailed descriptions such as Carney (1994) rather than on the traditional folk explanations often offered in primary-school classrooms such as "Magic e waves its wand to make the vowel say its name". Even if such explanations benefit some students, they may confuse others who do not need them.

A second approach is to check that students can spell the particular words that give most problems, whether in general or for their specific group, say definitely, careful, occurred and will. This means treating them as one-off instances to be learnt by rote rather than general rules. The set of 45 items given above can provide a basis for this.

Thirdly specific drilling practice can be given on particular rules, say the change of <y> to <ie> before <s> carries, so that troublesome groups of words or word-endings can be tackled. A common L1 approach is to take particular affixes that give problems, say the <e>/<i> choice in prefixes <de> decide or the suffixes <ly> and <ful> truly, careful. One difficulty is that many of the rules of English rely on a difference between what Albrow (1972) calls the ‘basic’ system as in back, the Romance system baroque, and the exotic system amok. While it may be educationally useful for native children to appreciate the diverse origins of English vocabulary, this is an unnecessary extra burden for most L2 students.

An argument against teaching spelling is the wide-spread use of spelling checkers within word-processing programs such as Word; do students actually need to know the right spelling when the computer will find it for them? Spelling checkers, however, create problems of their own since they accept any spelling that corresponds to an English word even if it is not appropriate in context; a familiar example is letter transposition, form/from or sue/use. The advantage is that spelling checkers can be set to trap the writer’s own typical mistakes; for this reason an article such as this which deliberately includes wrong spelling is very hard to check. The help that checkers provide is limited for non-native users who may not be able to decide between the alternatives presented. They are also unavailable in circumstances when students precisely need to demonstrate their knowledge of English, such as filling in forms and writing examination answers. They do, however, provide a new teaching exercise in which the student are asked to correct written texts with various common mistakes, say some of those above, and to check how the computer handles them.

Above all teachers and students should be encouraged to see some of the merits of the English spelling system, so obvious that they are never stated and yet so basic that both students and native speakers rarely make mistakes with them. One example is the cunning eighteenth century invention of spelling a morpheme in the same way regardless of its different pronunciations, as in the use of <ed> for regular past tense despite its three pronunciations /id/, /t/, and /d/. A second example is the convention that only grammatical items may be spelt with two or less letters, thus contrasting I/aye, to/two, an/Ann, and many others. A third example is the convention for English surnames to have either a double consonant or a final <e> when they are homophones of nouns, Hogg/hog and Rowe/row. English spelling is a complex and sophisticated system that has far more to it than the correspondence of letters and sounds. Teachers and students may be helped if they understand some of the systematic elements in English spelling. Teaching spelling can contribute as much to the students’ ability to use English as the teaching of pronunciation at a far less cost in time.


Albrow, K.H.< 1972. The English Writing System: notes towards a description. London: Longman.

Bebout, L.1985. ‘An error analysis of misspellings made by learners of English as a first and as a second language’. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 14/6: 569-593.

Brooks, G., Gorman, T. & Kendall, L. 1993. Spelling It Out: the spelling abilities of 11- and 15-year-olds. Slough: NFER

Broselow, E.1983. ‘Non-obvious transfer: On predicting epenthesis errors’ in:: S. Gass and Selinker, L. (eds.). Language Transfer in Language Learning. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House. 269-280

Brown, H D. 1970. ‘Categories of spelling difficulty in speakers of English as a first and second language.’ Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour 9: 232-236

Carney, E. 1994. A Survey of English Spelling. London: Routledge

Carney, E. 1997. English Spelling. London: Routledge

Cook, V.J. 1997. ‘L2 Users and English Spelling’. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 18/6: 474-488

Davis, J.1985. Handling Spelling. Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes

Digby, C. & Myers, J.1993. Making Sense of Spelling and Pronunciation. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice-Hall

Ibrahim, M. 1978. ‘Patterns in spelling errors’. ELT 32: 207-12

James, C., Scholfield, P., Garrett, P. & Griffiths, Y. 1993. ‘Welsh bilinguals’ spelling: an Error Analysis’. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 14/4: 287-306

Parker, V. 1994. Test Your Spelling. London: Usborne

Parrish, S.(ed.). 1977. The Prelude, 1798-1799 by William Wordsworth. Cornell University Press

Seidenberg, M.S. 1985. ‘The time course of phonological code activation in two writing systems.’ Cognition 19: 1-30