Spell it Right

Spelling materials for EFL students  

Vivian Cook 
Spelling data
Obscure Writings
SLA Topics

Spell it Right …   Write    Rite  …   Wright

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English spelling is a crucial area for any EFL student. Even advanced students still make spelling mistakes, as indeed do native speakers. People’s level of literacy and education is often judged by their correct spelling as much as by their language competence.

Much more has become known about how English spelling works, not just as a way of writing spoken sounds, but also as a system in its own right. Research has looked at how learners transfer from one overall writing system to another and at the particular spelling problems that different groups of students have with English spelling.

Yet hardly no attention is paid to spelling in EFL teaching. It seems to be assumed that students pick spelling up as they go along without any specific teaching. Main course­books rarely mention spelling; there are few supplementary practice materials for teaching spelling to non-native adults. All that teachers can do is correct individual mistakes by the students or hand on the rules of thumb they learnt as children. Spelling checkers with word processing programs provide some help but are not available in precisely those situations such as form-filling and written examinations where spelling counts most.

There is then a gap for a book that treats spelling systematically and that practices and explains the features that EFL students continue to get wrong. The book needs to be usable both by individual students worried by their spelling and by teachers with classes —to function for self-help as well as for class use. It needs to allow teachers and students to dip into it for relevant help with particular mistakes rather than go through it in a linear fashion. The presentation has to be ‘solid’ in that people expect spelling to be a serious topic but ‘light’ in that activities have to be interesting and show immediate pay-off for the students. Choice of a title may well be crucial.

Spell it Right is aimed at students from FCE upwards. It includes a range of activities and tests that students can use by themselves and with others. Some students or teachers may prefer practice-oriented ways of learning, others to grasp the under­lying explanation for particular general problems.

Coverage of areas of spelling

English spelling has many different aspects:

i) the rules for relating sounds and letters form one area of spelling; the written letter <a> for example corres­ponds to 11 different phonemes, age, arm, about, beat, many, aisle, coat, ball, canal, beauty, cauliflower, and so on while the spoken diphthong /ei/ corresponds to 12 different spellings lake, aid, foyer, gauge, stay, café, steak, weigh, ballet, matinée, sundae, they. Students need to acquire the complex and mostly unstated rules for getting from sounds to letters and vice versa.

ii) the memory for whole word forms makes up another area. Frequent words such as the and idiosyncratic items such as yacht are stored as wholes in the memory rather than linked to spelling rules. Students need to be able to recognise or produce these without thinking about rules.

iii) orthographic rules about letters make up a third area. The letters c and k occur at the beginning of words such as cut, but ck occurs at the ends of words such as back. In particular there are common problems with the rules for consonant doubling in words such as referred or accommodation. Students need to have their attention drawn to some of the trickier orthographic rules.

iv) the spellings of words are also related to the grammar of the sentence. Function words can have one two letters I, an or by; content words must have three or more, aye, Ann or bye. Proper names that correspond to ordinary nouns use double letters or add <e>, hog/Hogg and green/Greene. Again practice or explanation of these grammatical aspects of spelling can be beneficial.

The content of Spell it Right also reflects students’ actual mistakes, taken from a corpus of errors made by adult EFL students from many countries and by native speakers. Some of the mistakes are common to both students and native speakers of English and derive from general properties of the writing system, for example the transposing of letters in freind for friend. Others are specific to the speakers of particular first languages; for instance Greek students substituting d for t in Grade Britain and Arabic students substituting c for q in cuickly.


The book has several inter-related sections.

1. word tests.
A set of tests checks whether the student knows the spelling of particular words, some individual instances such as address, some examples of general rules such as careful. Each test has the answers at the bottom. If the students get a word wrong, they look up the entry for the word in the section Remember the Right Spelling.

2. word lists

a) the 100 most frequent words in English —the, of, and, a, in, to etc—make up about 45% of the words in the British National Corpus of English. Students who get these right are secure in a high proportion of the English words they write. Getting any of them wrong is likely to be very noticeable.

b) the 100 most frequent spelling mistakes from L2 learners. Taken from the database, these represent continuing problems for many students, such as because (spelt as: becase, becaus, becouse, because, bacause, begause), beginning (beggining, etc), business (bussiness, etc), career (carreer/carrier), knowledge (noeledge) and study/student (studing/stydies etc). Getting these common mistakes right improves the students’ English at comparatively little cost in terms of time.

3. Individual exercises

The main section of the book consists of sets of exercises on particular areas of English spelling, covering aspects of the three general areas given above, such as:

· “y” endings —when y becomes ie before certain inflections – worried, industries

· doubling of consonants, e.g. careful versus full of care, with some British/Amer­ican differences such as travelling/traveling

· endings in ate and ite, definite

The exercises are varied in nature, usually providing the correct answers and the reasons behind them. Some exercises go outside spelling itself to get opinions and reactions from the students.

4. Remember the right spelling

This provides the follow-up to the word tests. With idiosyncratic words, students are given only an example sentence to study; with other words, students are given brief explanations and are guided to the relevant exercise in Section 3.

5. Group exercises

This section provides activities that can be done usefully within a group. Mostly they are traditional word games such as Ghosts and word puzzles such as Boggle. The intention is that these should be done competitively within the group or by pairs of students. They are general practice with English spelling rather than being focussed on specific points.

6. Background

This provides background information on topics that may be useful to particular individuals and groups such as:

i) language specific information 

This lists specific points for particular groups, namely speakers of Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Urdu, guiding them towards the words and exercises in the exercises seection or the Remember the right spelling section that may be of most use to them.

ii) differences between British and American spelling

This lists the major differences in spelling in North America and England.

iii) learner strategies

This suggests ways of learning spelling that different students can adopt.

 iv) the history of English spelling

This provides a short historical explanation of how the current English spelling system came into being


Section 1. Word Tests

This section tests particular words that often give problems. Decide which spelling is right, look at the answer and then follow-up any mistakes you made. All the mistakes you see have really been made by students.

                 Test 1

1. He is a very  (a) careful driver.
                          (b) carefull

2. He’s a (a) freind   of mine
              (b) friend      

3. She (a) payed the bill.
           (b) paid

4. I’ve lost her (a) adres.
                       (b) address.
                      (c) addres.

5. They put on (a) they’re  boots.
                       (b) there 
                       (c) their

6. I don’t know   (a) witch   to choose.
                           (b) which
                           (c) wich

7. She has done well in her (a) career.
                                          (b) carreer.
                                          (c) carrier.

8. He  (a) studys     too hard.
          (b) studyes
          (c) studies

9. My (a) knoledge      is small.
          (b) knowledge
          (c) knoeledge

10. She was very (a) definite about it.
                           (b) definate
                           (c) difinite
                           (d) definete

11. His attitude was (a) proffecional.    
                                (b) proffessional.                                 
                                (c) professional.
                                (d) professinal.

12. They are (a) analysing the data.
                     (b) analizing
                     (c) analising.


First check which you got wrong. The right answers were:

1 (a); 2 (b); 3 (b); 4 (b); 5 (c); 6 (b); 7 (a); 8 (c); 9 (b); 10 (a); 11 (c)

Now look at the Remember the Right Spelling section on pages 000-000 and work on the words you got wrong in test 1.

Section 3. Exercises

Y endings

Which of these English words have unusual spelling?
salary  m    safari  m    city m    play  m
m    Monday  m   try  m     ski  m     
m     deny  m        buy  m

Reason: very few words in English end in the letter <i>. Usually the final letter <y> stands for the unstressed sound // as in city and the letters <ay> and <oy> stand for the diphthongs /a/ and // as in play and boy; some­time the letter <y> stands for /a/ try.
ski, safari, spaghettiWhich of these words are spelt wrong?

studied   m    tryed   m       played   m
copyed   m   satisfied m    defied    m     
volleyed  m   prayed   m     carryed   m      
m   denyed  m     annoyed m
when a verb ending in a <y> with no vowel in front of it adds a past tense –ed, or a present tense <s>, the letter <y> changes to <i>, copy > copied, try > tried; if there is a vowel in front of <y> there is no change play > played  
tryed, copyed, carryed, denyed

Change these verbs into the past tense.
copy     deny      stay      vary     display 
enjoy    annoy    try     simplify     study  
: copied, denied, stayed, varied,
displayed, enjoyed, annoyed, tried,
simplified, studie  

Which past
tense in each pair is spelt right?  
m  payed m    staid m  stayed m
layed m  laid m      prayed m praid  m
sayed m said m  decayed m decaid m
Reason: a small group of verbs have irregular past forms with <aid> in written English; paid, said, laid. Be careful about these verbs; English people often make mistakes with paid.
paid, stayed, laid, prayed, said, decayed

Turn these verbs into the past tense and then tick which group each verb belongs to:
A) ayed/oyed/eyed, B) ied, or C) aid
   A   B   C                  
r  r  r      
r  r  r   
r  r  r

delay      r  r  r     
r  r  r     
r  r  r  
r  r  r     
r  r  r   
r  r  r     
r  r  r     
r  r  r    
r  r  r  
      r  r  r     
r  r  r   
r  r  r    
r r  r      
r  r  r     
r  r  r
r  r  r     
r  r  r

A. ayed/oyed/eyed: delayed, annoyed, destroyed, played, employed, displayed, prayed, destroyed, stayed, enjoyed, obeyed
B. ied: copied, studied, defied,  modified, carried, varied,  simplified  
C. aid: laid, paid, said

 A newspaper editor has written down the following notes from a journalist over the phone. Now it has to be turned into a report by expanding the words into sentences, by using past tense verbs and by checking the spelling for any mistakes. You have to do it for him.

Peter Brown say delivring jewellry when large man chase him. Try to run but man lay into him with bat. Fell into heap of trollies. Many injurys. Not know him or recognise him. People carry him into pub. Police say two rubys taken. Police looking for man who carry out many robberys in area.



Peter Brown said he was delivering some jewellery when a large man chased him. He tried to run but the man laid into him with a bat. He fell into a heap of trolleys. He has many injuries. He didn’t know him or recog­nise him. People carried him into the pub. The police said two rubies were taken. The police are looking for the man who has carried out many robberies in the area.

Choose the right endings in these sentences, then say if you agree with the sentence (y), disagree with it (n) or you don’t know (dk).

Choose the right endings in these sentences, then say if you agree with the sentence (y), disagree with it (n) or you don’t know (dk).

Choose the right endings in these sentences, then say if you agree with the sentence (y), disagree with it (n) or you don’t know (dk).

Choose the right endings in these sentences, then say if you agree with the sentence (y), disagree with it (n) or you don’t know (dk).

a. Shakespeare’s tragedies/tragedys are more popular than his comedies/ comedys                                  Yr  Nr   DKr

b. Monkies/Monkeys are more intelligent than donkies/donkeys

b. Monkies/Monkeys are more intelligent than donkies/donkeys

b. Monkies/Monkeys are more intelligent than donkies/donkeys

                                  Yr  Nr   DKr

c. Diapers for babies/babys are called nappies/nappys in England.                           
r  Nr   DKr

d. Manufacturing industries/industrys are the kies/keys to modern economies/economys.    Yr  Nr   DKr

e. Detective stories/storys are called myst­eries/mysterys in the USA.                      
r  Nr   DKr

f. Supermarket trollies/trolleys are
badly designed.              Y
r  Nr   DKr

g. Journies/journeys by air are safer    than journies/journeys by car.                       
r  Nr   DKr

h. Robberies/robberys are more frequent in cities/citys.    Yr  Nr   DKr

Reason: final <y> changes to <ie> before <s> except for words in <ey>

a. tragedies,  comedies: b. monkeys,  donkeys:
c. babies, nappies: d. industries, keys, economies
e. stories, mysteries: f. trolleys: g. journeys

Section 4. Remember the Right Spelling

This section gives you some sentences to remember for particular words you get wrong and directs you to more information for more general mistakes. Only look at the words you got wrong in the tests. Try to remember the example sentence with the right spellings; some people find it helpful to write them down. If there is a particular spelling point in a word, it is given in small capital letters. The sentences are intended to be easy to remember so they do not usually mean very much; you may remember them better if you make up some sentences of your own.

Test 1 Words

1 careful
[one <l> in words that end in <ful>, two <l>s in the word full itself; see p.000]
One careful man is worth two full of care.

2 friend

A friend in need is a friend in the end.

3 paid

[a small group of irregular verbs in <ay> have <aid> in the past tense: see p.000]

He paid the fine out of his pay.

4 address

[doubling; see p.000]

An address to go to is not a dress to wear.

5 there/they’re/their

[choosing the right spelling for these sounds depends on the grammar of the sentence; see p.000]
They’re putting their boots over there.

6 which
[the sound /t§/ is sometimes spelt <tch>, sometimes <ch>; see p.000. witch is a noun, which a function word]

Which witch is bewitching?

7 career

One ‘R’ is enough for a career.

8 knowledge

[the sound /n/ is spelt as <kn> in a small group of words: see p.000]
No knowledge, no future.

9 studies

[words ending in <Cy> usually change <y> to <ie> before <s> or <d> endings; see p.000]

A history student studies dates.

10 definite

[adjective endings vary between <ate> and <ite>; see p.000]
Definitely ‘I’ is in definite.

11 profession
[for doubling of <f> and <s> see p.000]

One ‘f’ for ‘profession’ keeps the professor happy.

12 analyse
[some Greek-derived words have <y> rather than <i>; see p.000]

Why do people need to analyse.

Word Squares

 Try to find as many words as possible in this word-square, left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and diagonal (left-to-right). You can do this in pairs and see which pair gets the most. There are more than 50 words here.

s             i           s          o         g         u         n         o         u         r

a            a         n         r          o         U         s          h         e         a

w           t          h         r          o         u         g         h         V         t

t            h         e         y         d         N         h         D         i           l

e            i           y         b          o         n         e         u         l          p

S             n         s          h         f          B          s          a         g         e

T            s          t          h         e         r          e         s          e         T

e            n         w         h         o         s          i           h         f          A

a            g         o         e         e         t          b          e         e         n

n            o         w         a         T          a         e         E         n         N

t            o         n         l          w         b          a         n         t          d