Spelling is a big problem for many IELTS candidates – especially those who have a different alphabet in their own language. In this lesson, I give you quick test to see how good your spelling is with 25 common spelling mistakes. Then I explain why spelling problems happen and give you a few handy hints on learning to spell better.
Entry test – how well can you spell?
You really do need 100% here. Just one mistake in IELTS listening could mean that you don’t emigrate to Australia. One mistake can change your band score. Can you avoid these common spelling mistakes?
The problems of English and spelling
This is not a complete list at all – sadly. But if you understand the problems, then you have better chance of finding an answer. Try looking at these common spelling mistakes and examples to see what I mean.
1. Double letters
English is not very logical in the way we double letters: we write reference but referred!
accommodation – the problem here is two “m”s and two “c”s.
2. Lost sounds
What I call lost sounds are letters we write, but swallow when we speak. We write “separate” but we say “seprate”
difference – this word has two syllables when we speak, but three when we write!
3. Homophones – two words that sound the same
How do you spell to? How do you spell two? How do you spell too? It just depends on what you want to say!
accept and except – these are two words that sound exactly the same, are spelled very differently and mean almost exactly the opposite!
4. Funny sounds
Some English words you just have to see before you can spell them. They sound quite different to the way they are spelled.
furniture – here “t” is really “tsh”. Odd.
5. Silent letters
Some letters in English are silent. Often these are at the beginning of words: knee and knowledge for example.
design – this sounds the same as “line”!
6. Stressed and unstressed sounds
English has a nasty habit of changing the sound of the word according to its form. We say advertise (eyes) but advertisement (iss). This makes spelling much harder. You can’t just listen to the word and decide how to spell it.
resign and resignation – resign sounds the same as line, but the ig in resignation sounds the same as dig
7. Spelling rules don’t work
Have you ever been told about “i before e except after c”? This is a nonsense rule I’m afraid. There are more words in English that go ei than ie – with or without c!
Receive and weight – both these words go ei, one has a c the other doesn’t. So-called spelling rules are dangerous friends.
8. Problem suffixes
A sensible way to learn to spell is to learn patterns of words. For instance, it’s good to see that the suffix -ation is spelled that way in most words. But, as I say, there are very few rules:
Capable and responsible: Horrid. In one case we add able and the other ible.
9. The schwa sound
What’s this? This is what some/most teachers call that “ugh” sound in English. The problem is that it can be almost any combination of letters, as it’s the normal way we make an unstressed vowel sound. Again, spelling and listening are quite different things.
doctor, computer, thorough, data, obvious etc etc etc
10. Your own language
The final problem (for now) is your own language. English has a habit of borrowing words from other languages and changing the spelling.
Environnement and environment: if you’re French the first spelling is perfect – just not in English!
4 ways to spell better
There is no magical solution – it can take time and effort to spell better. Here though are 4 ways that can really help you:
1. Read lots
People who read lots tend to spell best Why? Spelling is really a looking activity. The more you see words, the more likely you are to be able to spell them. If you are interested, you may look on The Really Boring English Blog for something more technical. This was an activity I was shown by the great and good Annie Roberts and it really does work.
2. See patterns
English spelling is not entirely mad. There are patterns and it helps to recognise the most common ones – things like “ment” and “ous”.
3. Write words down
Is this too obvious? Spelling is largely a habit. If you write words down, you are more likely to learn to spell them. Why? Reading may be good, but it is passive. Writing is even better for learning because it is active. It is not a bad idea just to write the word 4 or 5 times – boring but effective.
4. Record your mistakes and test yourself
Different people make different mistakes. You want to know what yours are. So make a note of all the spelling mistakes you make and test yourself on them until you get them right.
Exit test – any better now?
This, perhaps boringly, is the same test as you started with. Good spelling can be about about repetition.