Spell the smart way

01 Dec 2018


Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Illustration by Ahmed Amin

Those of you who have watched a spelling competition know what a nerve-wracking experience it can be, both for the participants and audience. I, for one, am really awestruck by the calm and poise with which children face the mic to spell words that most of us can’t spell.

Yes, I couldn’t spell many of these words when I was their age and I still can’t spell some of them. And I have also conveniently forgotten the spellings of a few since the arrival of spellcheck. It is my weakness at spellings that makes me admire spelling bee participants even more.

makes me admire spelling bee participants even more.

There is justification for spellings being so confusing and difficult to many people. English orthography, or the English spelling system, is no doubt confusing, despite the many rules that govern it. One of the reasons is that there are exceptions to these rules which allow the spellings of various words to deviate from the rules. In such cases, language experts say that it is easier and more effective to remember the exceptions. And the other main reason is the inconsistencies in English language word pronunciation, all thanks to a system of phonetics that school children today perhaps understand better than I do because they are introduced to it while I wasn’t.

Interestingly, even native speakers also find English spellings difficult and the rules confusing. For instance, the Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw was a strong critic of English language and spelling rules, so much so that when he died in 1950, he left money in his will for the development of a new phonemic alphabet.

He famously made his point against the rules by claiming that the word ‘fish’ should be spelled as ‘ghoti’ — gh for /f/, as in cough; o for /i/, as in women; and ti for /sh/, as in nation.

English is a language that has incorporated a lot of different influences over the years and absorbed many foreign words into it. So knowing the root or origin of a word is also helpful in getting its spelling right. Besides this, there are many ways to improve spellings, some technical and some simple things that people do all the time.

So let’s look at what these ways are. Who knows, maybe next year you too can take part in Dawn’s Spelling Bee competition and emerge a winner!

Learn the rules and their exceptions

Yes, we have to go the old-fashioned way first by learning the rules of spellings in English. Ok, I know, this is hard and boring — but you can at least try to learn and identify common patterns and combinations of letters that can help you in getting the spelling of a word right.

Among the key rules that helped me were those related to silent letters, because they are the most baffling for me. For instance when the letter ‘k’ is paired up with ‘n’ at the beginning of a word, the ‘k’ is not pronounced, e.g. ‘knife’, ‘knight’, ‘know’, and ‘knee’.

Exceptions to the rules are fewer, so it is easier to learn the spelling of the few words that don’t follow the rules.

Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Illustration by Ahmed Amin

Watch English programmes with subtitles

This is a fun way of learning both the English language and its spellings. You can do it once you satisfy your parents that what you are watching is suitable and it is not during your regular study timings.

Subtitles help you see how the words you’re hearing should be spelled. And because you are doing this as a fun activity, you will be absorbing in sentence structure and spellings effortlessly. So the next time you are writing something and you spell it wrong, it will just not seem right to you. Your visual memory will help you here.

Get the pronunciation right

Mispronouncing words is a common reason for getting spellings wrong, because you will spell a word the way you think it sounds. This can lead to a common confusion again, because many words in English are pronounced differently from the way they are spelled, e.g. ‘Wednesday’ is pronounced ‘Wensday’, so in such cases you will have to learn its spelling without depending on its pronunciation. Practice is the key here.

Read a lot

This is the best way to learn anything in the world, not just language and spellings. But to learn spellings and English in general, I will recommend reading things that you enjoy, as it will make it easier to absorb new information.

Don’t read bad English

Please do not turn to social media to do all your reading. No, internet forums, chats and social networking sites are full of very poor spelling and grammar.

Each person there seems to have developed their own grammar and spelling, and the worst part about this is that others find it cool and they quickly copy it. In fact, the weirder the spelling, the more the words stand out and the more popular that way of writing gets.

Picking up a bad habit is very easy, and so is the case with spellings. Try to limit your exposure of English to high-quality written sources, such as newspapers, magazines and books.

Mind your text

Text messages and chatting have done more harm to spellings and grammar than anything else. The casual language used in texts and instant messages stops kids from understanding how to write and speak properly.

‘Textese’, the heavily abbreviated text messaging language, has already added many new abbreviated words into the English dictionary and it can lead to other unforeseen problems in the future for the English language.

Force yourself to always write full proper spellings of words. I know it will take a little longer to compose a message but if you don’t, one day you will end up writing ‘u’ instead of ‘you’ in your exams and assignments. And this time of text-speak is definitely not encouraged or acceptable in the professional world.

Note it down

Have a notebook for noting down words you find difficult to spell or those you want to learn the meaning of. This spelling and vocabulary notebook, with different sections for each of these of course, should be a quick reference guide for you. And by writing down something once at least, you are more likely to remember it.

As it will contain only words that you find difficult in some way, it will be a reference book customised for your own needs!

Writing and spelling in any language is more difficult than speaking it, but there is no need to despair. The more you expose yourself to English in the written form, be it through reading or writing, the better you will get in your spellings — provided you don’t rely in spellcheck.

Learning is a lifelong process that is best done in ways that you enjoy and suit your style of learning. So experiment with different ways to improve your spellings, and there is no doubt that you too can confidently spell any word that comes your way. Good luck!

Published in Dawn, Young World, December 1st, 2018