Top Tips for IELTS

Spelling and IELTS – a test and some tips

Is your IELTS target band 7? Or do you want to improve your IELTS listening from band 6 to band 7? Or from band 5 to 6? Here’s some really practical advice – think spelling. Spelling matters not just in the writing paper but in listening and reading too, where if you misspell a word, you get no mark. Indeed, it’s really quite common for candidates to miss as many as 5/6 answers because of poor spelling and that can certainly change your band score.

Down the page there is an interactive exercise for you to test your basic spelling. If you have any problems you will also find some tips on how to improve it. There are definite skills to learn here.

Test your spelling

Here is my interactive IELTS spelling test. It is not in IELTS format because I want to focus purely on the spelling issue. However, there is a listening element to the test as you will 10 short sentences using IELTS language. Please note that all the words are taken from the first 500 words in the General Service Word List – a selection of the 2000 most useful words in English.

Test your basic spelling for IELTS or click the image below

Test your basic spelling for IELTS

Test your basic spelling for IELTS

Some advice

If you got less than 100%, you need to work on your spelling. This can be easier said than done as English spelling is famously horrible. Here are 10 top tips to help you improve.

10 steps to better spelling

Tip 1 – Know the problem

First of all, if you can’t spell, you’re not (necessarily) an idiot. English spelling is horrible for one very good reason – what we say and what we write are often two very different things.  Consider a word as simple as “women”.  If you wrote down what you hear, it might be something like “wimmin”.

So, step number one in my programme is to not to think too much about how the word sounds when you write it.

It’s important to make this connection because in many languages what you say and what you write are the same thing. As English is different, you need to think in a different way when you spell in English.

Tip 2 – Learn to look at words

The next tip may sound strange, but it is key. It is to learn to look at words, see them as pictures. As I say this may sound weird, but it does work. Some of the best spellers of English are speakers of Asian languages which use pictures or ideograms instead of letters. They tend to  spell well in English because they see words as pictures.

Here’s what you do:

  • look at the word and take a picture of it
  • use your eyes as if they were a digital camera
  • zoom in on it
  • focus carefully
  • click
  • close your eyes and see the word in your head
  • now ask yourself what the third letter of the word is
  • what’s the second last letter?
  • how about the fifth letter?

A miracle! It works. Told you so. The point is to think with your eyes and not your ears. The really, really good news, however, is that once you start to do this, once you have looked at 200 words or so in this way, the process becomes almost automatic. What happens is that your brain changes channel and learns to “see” words and not just hear them.

One excellent site to help you with this is BBC Skillswise Look, say, cover, write and check. The words it focusses on are elementary, but it is excellent for learning the skill. An alternative is lookcover, which uses the same approach but also allows you to type in your words to test.

Tip 3 – Write words down.

To me this is obvious: spelling is writing. Therefore if you want to learn how to spell a word, you need to write it down. Curiously, this is something that many learners miss.

Tip  4 – test yourself

Again, this may sound obvious, but it’s something many people miss. Repetition is an important part of language learning: typically, to learn how to use a word properly you need to use it around 6 times. I would suggest that the same applies to spelling – once you have spelled a word correctly 4-5 times, then it is learned.

How do you test yourself? One old fashioned way is to write the words you want to learn down one side of a piece of paper. Fold the paper over and write the translation down the other side. Look at the translation: can you remember the word? Can you spell it?

Tip 5 – Look for spelling patterns

English spelling may look random, but there is at least logic to it. This logic is found in spelling patterns or combinations of letters that are repeated fro word to word. Most of you will be familiar with “-ation“, so let’s look at one you may not have thought about – “ture”. Look at these words

  • future
  • culture
  • furniture
  • picture
  • lecture

They sound much the same and are the spelled the same way.

Now let’s suppose you hear the word “architecture” in the listening; you know it’s the word you need, but you have never written it before. Can you spell it? On a good day, yes. Many low level books introduce the word “architect” , so you ight be able to guess this much:


Now, all that remains is to guess the “cher” sound is in fact the “ture” spelling which you know from other words. I would emphasise that this will be a guess, as “cher” does have other spellings in English. But now at least you have a chance.

lookcover is a good place to start here as it organises words by sound and spelling.

Tip 6 – Think grammar

This leads me onto the next related step. grammar and spelling are connected. A suggestion is to notice common endings for nouns, verbs and adjectives. There will be some guesswork involved here, but it can help to be aware that “ence” is a very common way for nouns to end.

If you focus on this, you will be able to avoid misspelling “difference” as “differents”. A really common problem that can be avoided this way is the “to” “too” “two” issue.

Tip 7- Don’t learn everything- focus on key vocabulary

The dictionary is a big book and you can’t possibly read it all. Still less can you learn to spell all the words. A good resource here is the General Service Word List or the Academic Word List, as they contain the words you are most likely to want to use in IELTS.

Another simple suggestion is to keep a list of words you commonly misspell and focus on these first.

Tip 8 – Read as much as you can

In my experience, the best spellers are people who read lots. The idea is that if you read and read, you simply become used to “seeing” the right spelling of a word without having learned it.

Tip 9 – Use the computer

I hate Microsoft, but it can help you. If you turn spellcheck on when you use a computer, you get corrected when you misspell. It’s not perfect, but it will help you identify some errors anyway.

Tip 10 – Learn to check – with your pencil

Lastly, but by no means least: check your spelling. Once you’ve written, go back and read it again. Spelling should always be on your personal error correction list . I would only add that this works best if you have a written/mental list of those words you personally get wrong.

Another small point is that you check with your pen/pencil in your hand: that way you are much more likely to see the mistakes. If you just read with your eye, you tend to see what you expect to see and so do not find the mistakes.

If you’re a teacher – Johanna Stirling’s Spelling Blog comes highly recommended.

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2 Responses to Spelling and IELTS – a test and some tips

  1. Roro November 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful website, it helps a lot! I don’t have words to express how grateful I am.

  2. Ravi November 25, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    This website on IELTS is a class apart with focus on different practical problems of students and various links for possible help. Thanks for all your benevolence.

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