Hard spellings

Pupils hung up about hard spellings? Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton offer some hints.

Programmes like the BBC's Hard Spell remind us all that spelling is often associated with "being clever". Many of our pupils assume you're born either a good or bad speller. That's not helpful.

Because spelling is so closely linked to the way we present ourselves in writing, it can undermine our self-esteem and levels of confidence.

Those newspaper advertisements - "Embarrassed by your spelling?" - play on these feelings of inadequacy.

Good spellers can end up thinking that they are bad spellers because of a small scattering of blind-spot words.

All teachers can give pupils strategies to spell more accurately. The history teacher who tells her pupils that she remembers how to spell "government" by saying it aloud in two parts - "govern" and "ment" - is fulfilling an important role. She is demystifying spelling, showing that we all have strategies and devices to help us spell words correctly.

The teacher who tells the class of the mnemonic he uses for "necessary" ("never eat chips eat sausage sandwiches and raspberry yoghurt") is again illuminating a subject that for too many of our pupils is daunting.

But telling pupils to learn spelling through "rules" is not always helpful.

There are simply too many exceptions. Relying on sound patterns can also be confusing. Take "separate", for example, a word that many adults misspell.

The problem lies in its two unstressed vowels. Sound alone won't guide you to use an "a" rather than an "e". For example, the last "a" in the adjective "separate" sounds just like the "e" in "diet" or "omelette", the "o" in "ballot" or even the "ai" in "villain".


Approach hard spellings by exploring word families. Think about "hide" and "hid", close members of a single word family, but with completely different pronunciation. Think about the word family of "separate". Suggest pupils link the adjective "separate" with the verb "to separate" so they can hear a clue to how to spell it correctly. The noun "separation" also helps, as does the etymological link to "part". "We separate things into parts" might be a mnemonic.

In other words, rather than seeing difficult words in isolation, encourage students to make links with other, related, words; to pause in their writing and to think of other members of the word family that might give support.

So a useful spelling hint is: make connections. English spelling is all about word families, and the best way to remember difficult spellings is to look at the rest of the family.

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