How to Improve Spelling

8 Proven Strategies

These tips to improve spelling have been drawn from a combination of educational studies and interviews with spelling bee experts.

Whether you are young, old, or in between, if you're serious about dramatically improving your spelling, I recommend you print this page out and read it from beginning to end several times.

I realize it's a longish article, so feel free to go and get yourself a cup of coffee first ;-)

How To Improve Spelling #1

Images Before Rules

When I went to school, we were drilled in long lists of spelling rules. The most famous of these, of course, was the infamous 'I before E, except after C' rule, but there were squillions of others. Let me tell you two major drawbacks to this approach to spelling...

Firstly, the English language has exceptions - not just a handful, but a bucketful of them - to just about every spelling rule you'll ever be confronted with. Because our language is such a collage of other languages, it is impossible to describe it using a bunch of simple rules.

In fact, it is for this reason that Spelling Bees have come to play such a big part of English-speaking culture. Did you know that in more predictable languages, like German, they don't even have spelling bees. Why? It would be too easy.

Secondly, and this is the most important of all, our brains don't master spelling through rules. Suppose I showed you a misspelled word (which I won't - as per the next tip!), and then you correctly tell me that it is misspelled. What would you say if I asked you to explain how you knew it was misspelled? In virtually all cases, the answer is simply this 'It just doesn't look right'!

What does this tell us? It tells us, and research confirms this far more rigorously, that our brains acquire spellings through images. What we learn to recognize is not this rule or that rule that a word follows, but rather the picture of the word (the experts call this a Mental Orthographic Image).

The secret to correct spelling - well, there are several, but this is a biggie - lies in exposing your brain to the image of a word over and over again. Moreover, the image needs to be quite large (larger than the words of a typical printed book or Web page) and free from other distractions.

Flashcards, whether electronic or the 'cards in a shoebox' variety, are perfect for implementing this.

How To Improve Spelling #2

Avoid Looking at Misspellings

This one follows logically from the previous tip, but I thought I'd highlight it because it's a mistake you'll see made in classrooms frequently.

People sometimes think they are helping you learn to master a tricky spelling by showing ways in which it is often misspelled. Bad mistake! Just as repeated exposure to word-images is responsible for most of our ability to spell words correctly, it can also be responsible for our tendency to spell words incorrectly - if, that is, we keep staring at commonly misspelled versions of words. The solution is simple.

Don't do it - make sure that all of your spelling lists are full of correctly spelled words only.

How To Improve Spelling #3

See It, Hear it, Say It

Involving several senses in the learning process can really speed up word-acquisition. Each time you see the new word, don't just look at it (although that is very important too!), find out how it is pronounced and say it aloud. If possible, get somebody else to help out by saying the word too.

Not only do the different sensations (seeing, hearing, saying) work together to help ingrain a new word, but if you're rehearsing for a spelling bee your study pattern needs to simulate the competition itself. If you were to study by just staring at word lists, you would be completely thrown when faced with a word verbally - even if you know it cold!

Click here to see an example of a free Word of the Day I send out to emphasize these points.

Note how I not only include the word's definition and pronunciation, but I also add a big attractive picture to help make the word stick.

After the picture I provide a little story about the word, often with some example sentences, and occasionally even a video where you get to hear people actually pronouncing it correctly.

If you think this sort of thing might help, feel free to sign up below sign up here. It's free and only takes couple of seconds.

How To Improve Spelling #4

Target Your Specific Weaknesses

Word study has to be personalized if it is to be efficient. When you receive a spelling list from a teacher, or download one from a website, it will typically contain a large number of words you already know. In fact, research conducted in American schools has shown that typical spelling lists handed out to students contain as few as 25% unfamiliar words!

Although you need to revisit familiar words occasionally (more on that later), you will improve spelling far more rapidly if you filter out all the familiar words. Not just by crossing the familiar words out - which still leaves distractions all over the page - but by constantly recreating new lists filled only with the words you are not confident with.

Sound obvious? Perhaps. But research has shown that almost no students study this way. We seem to feel obliged to go over and over the list that was handed down to us by an authority figure, as if there was something innately special about it. There can't be, because a teacher, or an educational body, cannot tailor their lists to suit individuals.

If you want to progress as rapidly as possible, you need to take charge of your own spelling program.

How To Improve Spelling #5

FIRST Test, THEN Study

But how do you tailor a spelling program to what you don't know, if you don't know what you don't know? A good question indeed, and I'm very glad you asked ;-)

Traditional teaching requires us to study a set amount of material for weeks on end, and then tests us at the end to see how well we mastered it. There are several weaknesses in this approach. For one thing, and this recaps on a point I made earlier, you may then be devoting far too much precious time on things you already know. For another, you can take a very long time to find out that your study has been ineffective. The solution?

Test yourself first, and then develop a study program around the weaknesses you found in your test. This also means that you don't have to make guesses at what you think you already know.

How To Improve Spelling #6

Form Relevant Associations

Disorganized lists of words and facts are very difficult to remember. There is a well-known strategy for achieving almost miraculous feats of memory when it comes to recalling long random-looking lists, and that is to make extensive use of images and stories.

The idea then is to group words together into meaningful lists, where each list has a clear theme. You can then use pictures, stories, and other clever memory devices to glue the words in each list together.

This practice can also help reinforce distinctions that are often accidentally blurred. You may forget the spelling of a specific word, but just by remembering the group it belonged to you can be confident about the correct spelling.

The suffix -OUS, for example, usually sounds just like the suffix -OSE, making it difficult to remember which words end in which suffix. Rather than disperse these words indiscriminately through your spelling lists, it is far more effective to group all the -OUS words together in one list and all the -OSE together in another list.

When you are testing yourself, these words will be thrown at you randomly, of course (just as they are in real life!). But when you go to retrieve a word from your brain, it will be connected to its neighbors through a mnemonic, a story, or one of your own ingenious inventions ;-)

If you'd like to really master the art of memorizing lists in this way, I'd thoroughly recommend you check out Ron White's Memory in a Month e-Course. Ron is a two-times US Memory Champion, and he knows what he's talking about.

How To Improve Spelling #7

Time Repetitions Carefully

There are far too many words in any dictionary to rehearse every word every day. It would take most of us a whole year to get through it once. Not to mention the fact that most of us would die of boredom well before we got to the end!

But words have to be repeated many times (experts say 6 or 7 is typical) before they become a part of our working vocabulary. So how can we possibly master a long list of words in a reasonably short period of time? The answer lies in carefully timing your repetitions.

Once you have successfully spelled a word on three or four occasions, remove it from the frequently-tested list. You know it. Move on. Other words need to be rehearsed more frequently (daily or weekly, depending on your success rate).

Don't test yourself on a given word too frequently though. It is possible to recall words from your short term memory (e.g. if you just tested yourself a half an hour ago) but then fail to recall the word a week later. Leave at least a day between repetitions of any given word.

How To Improve Spelling #8

Stay Motivated

Well duh! Of course being motivated is important, but why bother adding it as a tip? Because many people might think that being motivated requires you to enroll in a 'positive-thinking' program. Not at all. I'm not really talking about that kind of motivation. I mean keeping the brain alert throughout your study sessions, and ensuring that you're always enticed to keep going.

Here are a few tips that help keep you on the job when it comes to what may seem like a very monotonous task - SPELLING.

Work with others — Many people find group work more stimulating than solo study sessions. In addition to the obvious reasons that groups can break the monotony, there are a couple of not so obvious ones here. Firstly, by divvying up spelling tasks (finding all words having a certain tricky-to-spell quality, for example), you can pool your resources. Secondly, the only way to test yourself on spelling a word from its pronunciation is if you get another person to pronounce it! When you work in groups you can take turns of testing each other, and the sessions are not only more useful, but far more entertaining.

Regular feedback — Test yourself frequently and in small batches. Getting feedback after six months of hard slog is no fun at all. Getting a score out of 20 on a daily basis, every single time you sit down to study is far more rewarding and motivating. This 'immediate gratification' plays a big part in the appeal of computer programming to many students. When you write a computer program and execute it, the computer tells you immediately whether you've made a mistake or not. Instant feedback works wonders for most people.

Focus on unfamiliar — This one was already mentioned right at the start of this page, but I'll say it again here in a different context. Repeating long lists of familiar words, stumbling across a new and interesting word only every now and then, is boring. By weeding out all the familiar words, only revising them occasionally, and filling your lists with weird and wonderful words that you're just not 100% sure about, keeps your mind alert, interested, and far less likely to drift on to something going on outside.


So, how does that make you feel? A daunting list? It is. But, as I said before, if you work with others you can cut the work required tremendously. And hey, there are no real short cuts when it comes to improving your spelling. What these tips do is help you stream-line the process, enabling you to make the best use of your study time possible, and avoid all the dangerous red-herrings out there.

If you'd like more tips on spelling, vocabulary, and other word learning skills, just add your name below and I'll send them to you from time to time...

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