Monday, June 06, 2011

Tips for Remembering English Spelling

Are you having trouble remembering how certain English words are spelled? You’re not alone! Native English speakers often have trouble with spelling, too. English has phonetic rules – rules dealing with pronunciation. (For an example of this, see #2 in this post about irregular verbs for some common phonetic rules that affect irregular verbs.) If you learn some of these rules, you will find that they will help your spelling as well as your pronunciation! However, there are also words that don’t follow phonetic rules.

What can we do about these words that don’t follow the phonetic rules? Fortunately, there are some “memory tricks” (or mnemonics) that can make it easier to remember. I’ll show you a few memory tricks that are helpful for remembering English spelling.

For example, sometimes it’s confusing whether a word should have “ie” or “ei.” Should we spell “recieve” or “receive”? “Piece” or “peice”? “Pie” or “pei”? There is a spelling rule for this! (And it’s an old rule – it’s been around a long time.)

“i” before “e”
Except after “c”
Or when sounded like “a”
As in “neighbor” and “weigh.”

Now, there are exceptions to this rule, like “science” and “ancient” and “height” and so on. You might want to put them on a “special cases” list. Then you can use flash cards to work on these. (More about flash cards in a little while!)

There are other tricks to help remember how to spell confusing words. In particular, there are some words that are pronounced the same way but have different spellings, like “red” (the color) and “read” (as in “Tom read a book last night.”) These types of words are called “homophones.” How to remember which one is which? Let’s look at an example.

“Principal” (the headmaster of a school) and “principle” (a rule) are homophones – they’re said the same way, but they have different spellings and therefore different meanings. We can remember that “principal” is a person, because

A principal is a prince of a pal.

(A “pal” is a friend – like a “pen pal,” or a friend who you write letters to.)

Sometimes acronyms (a word made from the first letter of each word – or almost every word – in a sentence) are helpful in remembering confusing spellings. “Affect” and “effect” are not homophones, but many times when they are spoken, their pronunciations are so similar that it’s easy to confuse the two. How to remember which spelling is which?

The acronym RAVEN comes to the rescue:

R – Remember
A – Affect
V – Verb
E – Effect
N – Noun

This helps us to remember that we spell “effect” with an “e” when we are using the noun, and we spell “affect” with an “a” when we are using the verb.

Sometimes, it’s just difficult to remember how a certain word is spelled. Is it “oshin” or “ocean”? “Wensday” or “Wednesday”? Acronyms can help here, too.

OCEAN: Only Cats’ Eyes Are Narrow

Other tricky spellings can be remembered with short and/or silly sentences:

“Beleive” or “believe”? ==> Do you beLIEve a LIE? (The “i before e” rule also works here.)

“Acceptable” or “acceptible”? ==> ACCEPT a TABLE.

Here is a list of commonly misspelled English words:

effect / affect
it’s / its
lose / loose
their / they’re / there
then / than
weather / whether
your / you’re

Other Tips for Spelling

What about words that don’t have any easy rule or tricks to remember their spelling? What do you do then?

Make a list of “problem words” – words that you keep on misspelling. These you will probably have to practice until they get into your long-term memory. Flash cards are an excellent way to do this. You can use a flashcard program (like the one found here). The nice thing about using a program like this is that it focuses on the cards that you have trouble remembering. It quizzes you more frequently on these, so you don’t have to spend as much time with cards that are easier for you to remember.

You can also make your own flashcards and carry these with you. Then you can work on them whenever you have some spare time. Make some cards out of paper that’s a little bit heavier, so they won’t tear so easily. (In the US, we often use “index cards” when we make flash cards.) On each card, write a word on your spelling list. On the back side of the card, you can write what the word is in your native language.

After you’ve written all your spelling words on the flash cards, you will have a stack of spelling word flash cards to work on. Flip them over so you see the word in your native language.

Start: Read the first card.

Step 1: Say what the word is in English.

Step 2: Spell it out loud.

Step 3: Check yourself.

a. If you spelled it correctly, put it in the “good” pile.

b. If you did not spell it correctly, or if you had to think longer than a few seconds to remember how to spell it, put it in the “bad” pile.

Step 4: Pick up the next card, and go back to Step 1.

Read all the flash cards in your stack of spelling words until you get to the last card. When you finish going through the stack, you’ll have two piles: the “good” pile and the “bad” pile. You can put the good pile aside and leave them for tomorrow. Take the bad pile and go through them again, like the first time. Words that you spell correctly go in the good pile, words that you don’t spell correctly go in the bad pile.

Keep on repeating with the bad pile until all the cards have moved from the bad pile to the good pile. You’re done for the day!

Repeat this process every day. As you improve, you should notice that the bad pile gets smaller day by day, even on the first time you go through the pile.

If a card is in the good pile for several days in a row (for example, every day for a week), you can move it to a “once a week” pile. You know these cards fairly well now, so you don’t have to review them every day – once a week will be often enough. If you forget how to spell one of your “once a week” cards, move it to the bad pile for your daily review. Eventually, though, all your cards will move to this “once a week” pile.

In the same way, you can create a “once a month” pile. These are cards that are in the good “once a week” pile for several weeks. This pile will have cards that need review only once a month. If you forget how to spell a card in the “once a month” pile, move it back to the “once a week” pile. By the time a card moves to the “once a month” pile, it has gone into your long-term memory. This means that you know it fairly well, and you don’t have to review it so often. You’ll probably remember it for the rest of your life!

Good luck with your spelling!!


Randi said...

Just a quick correction to the below statement in this post. While the RAVEN acronym is correct, the below statement is not. It's the opposite. "Effect" is the noun, and "affect" is the verb.

"This helps us to remember that we spell “effect” with an “e” when we are using the verb, and we spell “affect” with an “a” when we are using the noun."

wordsmith said...

Duh, and I knew that! That's what happens when you proofread your own stuff - you see what you want to see.

I'll fix it - thanks!