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Remedial Spelling in EFL

Copyright © Johanna Stirling 2003

(for spelling practice activities click here)

(My book on Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, info here)

This report will focus on the difficulties that some learners experience with spelling, particularly those whose general language level markedly exceeds that of their writing. As this often applies to Arabic students, we will explore their specific problems.The report sets out detailed recommendations for the teaching of spelling in various situations. It is arranged as follows:


The Problem for Students

Specific Problems for Arabic Speakers

The Problem for Teachers

What is Involved in Learning to Spell?

Suggestions for Teaching Spelling in General English Classes

Suggestions for Teaching Spelling in Low Level Reading and Writing Classes

Some Specific Areas of Study



I want you to teatch me how I can make my spilling moor beater. I prames you that I will do my best.

It was such cris de coeur that persuaded me that I needed to find out more about how to teach spelling to our EFL students, especially those whose oral and aural skills are considerably better than their written ones.(The quote above comes from a student who coped well in an upper intermediate class, until he had to write, that is.) Although poor spelling is not their only obstacle to better writing, it is a stubborn one that I feel is often brushed over. Many of these students, are intending to go on to British universities. They needto be able to spell.  As a teacher I felt that it was an area that I knew very little about and one that is all but ignored in EFL literature.  I confess I have been guilty of the worst kind of ‘teaching’: telling students that they are not very good at something and then not being able to really help them to improve. Colleagues expressed similar feelings of helplessness and guilt.  

  In the course of this project I researched EFL literature and materials on spelling, but also looked briefly at how spelling is taught to children in schools and to adults in Basic Education schemes (Adult Literacy).  I interviewed some of our students at Bell Norwich who consider that they either are or have been poor spellers.  Teachers also filled in a questionnaire on the subject.   


The problem for students  

  First let us consider how students perceive the problem.  I interviewed 7 students who confessed to being or having been poor spellers.  Five of these were Arabs, the other two were from the Far East. All the students I interviewed claimed that spelling was no problem in their own language and they did believe that their English spelling was improving, but nearly all felt that considerable further improvement was essential.  The main reason given was to be able to cope with future academic study in Britain.  

  Let us consider for a moment why we need to be able to spell well, in both academic and everyday life.

  1. Writing is an important method of communication in certain situations and it is helpful if the reader can easily decipher what the writer means.

  2. People are often judged by their spelling – if that shows care then they are assumed to be conscientious in other areas of life.  It can be embarrassing to be unable to spell simple words, especially when trying to express complex ideas.

  3. It gives the writer more self-confidence and from this grows a willingness to experiment more with language.

  4. If students hear a new lexical item and can make a realistic guess about its spelling, they can check its meaning in a dictionary.  Also writing it may help them to ‘fix’ it in their minds.

  Accepting these reasons, my students complained that English spelling was so difficult. They perceived it as not representing the pronunciation of words; there are silent letters, and so many different ways to spell one sound (and ways to sound one spelling).  This cannot be denied.  Invaders from abroad and early printers have bequeathed us odd remnants of language that we have assimilated. We also have a rather inadequate alphabet, only 26 letters for about 44 sounds.  However, English spelling is not as irregular as it at first seems, in fact it is generally estimated to be over 80 per cent regular (providing ‘regular’ is taken to mean that most words are constructed according to a rather complicated system of patterns relating to their sounds).  Frustratingly however, it is the commonest words which are most likely to be irregular. 

  Another difficulty that relates specifically to learners of EFL is not being able to identify pronunciation distinctly enough to spell words.  This is a particular problem with vowel sounds and other sounds that do not have direct equivalents in students’ own language e.g. /p/ and /b/, /l/ and /r/, or /f/ and /v/.  

  There are added problems of course for students whose languages use a different alphabet or have a non-alphabetic system, such as Arabic, Japanese and Chinese.  They have a great deal more to learn than those who also use the Roman alphabet, but the latter also have problems where a letter has a different sound value, eg in German the letter v = /f/.  Those with very phonetic languages such as Italian may over generalise about spelling based on phonetics.  

Sometimes we cannot blame the language or the L1 difference, some students are just weak spellers.  Margaret Peters, writing about native speakers, identifies two reasons for poor spelling, weak visual memory and weak auditory memory, and compares these with the performance of good spellers: [i] 

Good spellers

Students with a weak visual memory

Students with a weak auditory memory

  §        hear new words and can associate them with the right letters

  §       can break words into parts and write those parts

  §       probably see a word in their minds and can read it off

  §       just need to proof-read carefully – can often see their errors

  §       have a clear idea of symbol-sound relationship

  §       do not remember how a word should look

  §        are not necessarily poor readers

  §        make attempts that are recognisable e.g. cof for cough

  §       are the most common types of poor spellers

  §       can not relate sounds to symbols

  §       can not hear distinct parts of words

  §       make random arbitrary guesses at spelling

  §       are probably poor readers

  Peters also identifies 5 kinds of error that poor spellers often make:

  1. wrong initial letters – this indicates a serious problem and suggests that the student probably is unable to read.  They may need some work on phonics.

  2. using wrong phonic alternatives- student uses a ‘legal’ spelling pattern for this sound but has chosen the wrong one for this word (eg pensil) or an ‘illegal’ one that is, however, phonetically appropriate eg perfikt

  3. misspelling affixes – often because they are not seeing the affix as a separate identifiable part of the word

  4. misspelling of an unstressed syllable –this may be because they are not clear which vowel is represented, especially when there is a schwa sound, or they miss it out completely. 

  5. confuse single and double consonants [ii] 


   Specific problems of Arabic Speakers

  “All aspects of writing in English cause major problems for Arabic speakers, and they should not be expected to cope with reading and writing at the same level or pace as European students who are at a similar level of proficiency in oral English.” [iii]
Swan and Smith in Learner English

  Arabic spelling follows a simple system and is virtually phonetic.  One sound equals one letter.  Arabic has 32 consonants and 8 vowels (including diphthongs), so a lot fewer vowel sounds than English and the short ones are almost allophonic.  Meaning is carried by consonants and long vowels only. Arabic words never start with a vowel.  In fact vowels are often not shown in Arabic writing (except for example in the Koran and in books for children).  When they are shown this is by means of small marks above or below the word.  For this reason Arabic speakers tend to confuse or gloss over short vowel sounds and as a consequence have problems writing them.  The most common confusions are between /I/ and /e/ (bit and bet), / Q / and / O: / (cot and caught) , /eI/ and /e/ (laid and led) and /@U / and /Q / (hope and hop).  If students cannot distinguish between these sounds orally and aurally they are unlikely to be able to write them. As far as consonants are concerned /p/ and /b/ are allophonic as are /v/ and /f/.  /g/ and /k/ are often confused and / T / and /D/ (thin and that) may cause problems.  In some dialects there is no / tS /  ‘ch’ sound.  In Arabic the /r/ is pronounced much more strongly so they may not hear it in English and therefore not write it.  Some initial consonant clusters such as 'spr', 'str' do not occur in Arabic and students may insert a short vowel letter.

  They also have the challenge of reading from left to right and when writing they may transpose two or more letters e.g. 'tow' for ‘two’ or 'waht' for ‘what’.  In addition, students often experience problems keeping their writing on the line, which makes it more difficult to recognise if the word is the correct shape. 

  The aspects of spelling that the Arab students I interviewed said they found particularly difficult were:

  §       all vowel sounds,

  §       /p/ and /b/, 

  §       double/single letters, 

  §       digraphs (eg -ch, -ph “in my language c is c and h is h!”), 

  §       silent letters, 

  §       the letters g, c and k.   



The problem for teachers

  Several Bell Norwich teachers answered a questionnaire on how we could help students with spelling. 

Most teachers felt they did not or could not give enough systematic help to weak spellers, as a result some students reach a high level class without being able to spell.  Several very experienced teachers admitted that they did not know how to go about teaching remedial spelling (myself included).  Teachers felt strongly that they needed more training in this area. There was also a need, many felt, for more self-access materials, though it was pointed out that sometimes the students with the most serious problems were the least likely to use them.  The idea of special low-level reading and writing options was also felt to be useful.  One further suggestion was displaying posters with spelling rules on classroom walls.  


What’s involved in learning to spell?

  In order to be able to spell well a number of language processing skills are needed. 

 1.     Students need to know the alphabet and sounds that letters represent, discriminate between similar looking letters and be able to copy.

 2.     Students need to be able to hear and probably pronounce the word they want to spell.  However research suggests that deaf children spell better than hearing children of the same reading age as they rely more on strategies of visual perception.  This is encouraging news for our students as poor listening is seen as a handicap to spelling.

 3.     Then learners have to remember the phonemes in the right order and the which letters represent those phonemes.  They have to call to mind ‘rules’ about spelling patterns.  Good spellers recognise the probability of letters occurring in certain sequences.  Plenty of handwriting practice reinforces the ‘muscle memories’ of these letter sequences.

 4.     If the phonemes can be represented by alternative spellings learners have to decide which to choose for a particular word and learn these.

 5.     There may be irregularities, such as silent letters, that they need to learn.  These spellings just have to be memorised, an onerous task as they include many of the most common words.  Students therefore need to employ strategies to remember these just as they remember names, perhaps symbols in their own written language (eg Chinese) or any other information.

 6.     They often need to think about associated words they know with the same root or a similar meaning and be able to consider the affixes separately.  In other words students need to learn to look at the internal structure of words.

 7.     The appropriate spelling of homophones is needed for the context: Too is a correct spelling of /tu:/ but not in I have too brothers.

  Most of the Arabs I spoke to said that they had learnt spelling in their own countries by memorisation rather than any rules or cognitive strategies.  One Japanese student said she had had a similar experience but when a private teacher had later explained some rules to her, her spelling improved greatly.  Experience suggests that we mainly spell by memorisation but refer to rules we have learnt when we cannot remember. This seems to be the key to learning spelling. 


Suggestions for Teaching Spelling in General English Classes.

  A multilingual general English class usually comprises a mix of learners with different levels of spelling and varying needs.  So below I will outline some general methodological hints I have gleaned from my research that we might usefully apply to all classes.



Encourage students to hand-write new words and practise longer pieces of writing. 

If students use spellcheckers or learn spelling any other way on computers they also need to hand-write the words

The more often students write the more they will develop a ‘muscle memory’ of sequences or strings of letters that are often found together.  By hand-writing words they are more likely to fix patterns in their mind.

Encourage extensive reading

Somebody’s skill as a reader may not make them a good speller, but it can suggest to them when they might have made a mistake.

Draw students’ attention to the internal structure of new words, e.g.

  -        how parts of the word are similar to parts of other words with a related meaning.  Get them in the habit of associating unknown words with known ones.

  -        any affixes 

  -        any ‘hard spots’ – i.e. parts of the word that they may find difficult to spell like silent letters

(All this of course depends on the word and can usually be done very quickly)

Before students copy new words into their vocabulary books they need to notice features that will help them to remember.  For example, pointing out the similarity between the spelling of sign and signature may help them to remember the silent g.  By being able to recognise affixes in a word they can break it down into manageable parts.  The ‘hard spots’ can be underlined or overwritten with a different colour to help fix it in the visual memory.

Make sure students know the names of letters of the alphabet and can talk about vowels and consonants (remember y, w and u can represent both)

Learners need the tools to be able to discuss spelling.

Teach some spelling rules/patterns that:

  -        apply to a large number of words

  -        have few exceptions

  -        you can describe simply but exactly

(see below for useful ones to teach)

There are many helpful rules and patterns which help students who are unsure of a spelling, but there are many irregularities as well.  Some rules are so complicated that they are unlikely to be remembered or perhaps even understood.

When correcting spelling errors in written work draw attention to why a word is wrong, e.g. underline or overwrite the problem part of the word. Then write the whole word (unless you want the student to self-correct) rather than just indicating where they should insert letters with a ^.


“The teacher’s job is not to correct mistakes the pupil has already made but to help him not to make the mistake next time” (Torne) [iv]

Students are more likely to remember a correct spelling if they see the whole word written correctly as well as having the specific error pointed out.

When students are writing in class and one asks for a spelling,

  -        get the student to try writing it him or herself. 

  -        ask the student if it looks right 

  -        if it is wrong (and you think it is a useful word for them to know how to write) write the word on a piece of paper or the board and get the learner to memorise it without writing.  

  -        Remove the word before they write it.  

  -        Check their spelling.

By trying to write the word students are going through a useful process of thinking about its structure.  They should be encouraged to exercise their visual memory by trying to recognise if the word looks correct

If students just copy a word or have it dictated to them they do not have to use any processing skills.  If they have had to learn the word even for a few seconds it forces them to notice features of the word and are more likely to remember in the future.

Spend some time on learner training: 

  q       Students put problem words on cards and keep them in their pockets and test themselves.

  q      Encourage them to analyse how they memorise anything in their own language.

  q      When students learn words they can try this commonly taught system:

  ·       LOOK – say it to yourself, trace the word with your finger, explore the ‘hard spots’

  ·       COVER

  ·       REMEMBER – try to see word in your head or trace it again from memory

  ·       WRITE – from memory.  

  ·       CHECK the spelling and repeat the process if  necessary.  

  q      When students have learnt new spellings they should try to use them later in the same day, in their diaries for example.

  q      They should try words out on scrap paper to see if they look right

  q      Encourage them to guess first letters so they can look words up in a dictionary

When written homework is returned students should identify misspelled words, decide which are important and then learn these spellings as above.

We do not want to just teach spelling but also strategies for improving spelling skills and working out how to spell difficult words


Suggestions for Teaching Spelling in Low Level Reading and Writing Classes.

 All the points above should be borne in mind, but as there will be a much greater emphasis on developing spelling skills and assuming that all the students in the class struggle with English spelling, here are some further points to consider.  



Students need to understand that

  1.     there are more sounds (44) than letters (26) 

  2.     patterns can be learnt

  3.     knowledge of vowels and consonants is important

  4.     there are lots of strategies to help them improve their spelling

  5.     the spellchecker on the computer has limitations – it is only really useful when students can spell well enough for alternatives to be considered, 

  6.     they can relate how they remember spelling in English to how they remember anything in their own language

Learners with spelling problems have often been told or perceive from experience that the English writing system is so chaotic that learning it is just about impossible, an insurmountable task.  A teacher can show that this is not so and there are ways of tackling it

Even more work on the visual characteristics of words, such as looking at the overall shape.  Helping them notice that the shape of the word 'baby' looks different from the shape of the word 'paper'.

Cuisenaire Rods could be used for this

Lots of different ways to try to help students exercise their visual memory.

 Do not try to teach them the whole phonemic alphabet.  A few symbols to clarify differences may be useful,  (Some Arabic students write the English words phonemically in Arabic script, which is fine if they have a good ear for the sounds as most of us cannot check their transcriptions)

Knowledge of the phonemic alphabet would be very useful but impractical with students who are already struggling with symbols.

Encourage students to keep spelling logs.  These differ from vocabulary books in that they can be arranged by types of spelling patterns and just include words for active use that they may find difficult to spell.  This could be started in class and students could add words that they come across belonging to particular spelling patterns.  It could form a separate section of their vocabulary books.

Spelling logs can be used for a student’s own reference when he or she wants to write a word again and for learning spellings.  It is also useful to be able to group words of different spelling patterns or sounds.

Teach commonly occurring spelling patterns and rules.  Acknowledge that there are exceptions, but only teach common ones.

Patterns and rules will help students attempt spellings they do not know and help them recognise whether their attempts are right or not.  It is more helpful for them see the language as having some regularity and patterns than to dwell on its difficulties.

Get students in the habit of noticing common factors affecting spelling patterns in new words as this makes them more memorable.  Some useful clues:

 1.     Does the spelling depend on a short or long vowel e.g. can/cane

 2.     Is this spelling pattern found in single and multi-syllable words, e.g. –ic not in single syllable words

 3.     Position of spelling patterns – e.g. qu- never ends a word.

  4.     Is this spelling pattern usually  accompanied by another letter

Hopefully students will start to pick up patterns or letter strings that make up words so they can make better informed guesses about what is and is not right

Try to integrate other skills into spelling lessons.

Use games, personalisation, etc. 

Listening will strengthen visual-auditory recognition (phoneme awareness) of the aspect of spelling you are focusing on.

It will all be much more meaningful and motivating than dry spelling lessons.  Students may struggle with spelling because of negative affective factors arising from boring repetitive lessons in the past. 

Make these classes as visual as possible 

Make layout and whiteboard work very clear.  Use different coloured pens to highlight spelling patterns for example.

So students do not need to cope with difficult text in order to understand your lesson

If ability is mixed in the class ask learners to “do as many as you can” or “do at least….”

Poor spellers usually produce worse work when they feel under pressure or hurried.

If you give spelling tests focusing on a particular spelling pattern, 

  1.     give marks for getting the pattern right as well as marks for getting the whole word right.  

  2.     You could give some unfamiliar words incorporating the same pattern in this type of test too, but nothing too difficult.  

  3.     Also include some words from patterns previously learnt (warn students of this).

  4.     Get students to keep records of their spelling test results.

  1.     This is a way of rewarding students for having learnt the pattern without penalising them too much for making errors elsewhere.

  2.     If students have learnt a pattern they should be able to apply it to unfamiliar words too.  

  3.     Recycling is important.

  4.     Students feel more motivated if they can see their progress and know that their tests are being taken seriously. 

For irregular spellings teach some mnemonics, e.g. “necessary has a coat and two socks”, then encourage students to make their own.

Some spellings just have to be learnt and students should explore different ways to do this.  Making their own mnemonics will be more motivating and memorable.

Use games which involve finding words within words like “Find an animal in separate” (rat) but avoid anagrams and crosswords. 

Finding letters in sequence that make words aids memory of spelling but anagram-type games where the letters have to be mixed can cause extra confusion and are only fun and useful for good spellers.  Arabs are generally unfamiliar with crosswords. 

Only teach one spelling pattern per lesson

To avoid overload and confusion


Some specific areas of study

Area of Study

Activities or Hints


phoneme awareness hearing ,identifying and writing sounds in words E.g.:

all vowel sounds

/b/ and /p/

/v/ and /f/

/k/ and /g/


If students cannot distinguish between different sounds, they need pronunciation work, including minimal pairs).  They could also write short rap or comic poems all containing the target sound.  If learners have problems hearing final consonants, play Last Letter, First Letter (one student gives a word, the next gives a word starting with the last letter of the first word etc)

Tree or Three or Ship and Sheep very useful.  See also Pronunciation Games and Pronunciation Tasks.


Different pronunciations of a letter e.g. –c=/s/ or /k/.  This is often influenced by another letter (see notes >) so students need to use the correct following letter.

The ‘magic e’ is the most common and important as it changes the vowel sound.

Dictate lists of words containing e.g. /s/ and /k/ sounds- students deduce spelling 



Mnemonic:  “when e comes at the end of the word the vowel says its name”.

c + i, e or y = /s/

 otherwise /k/

g + i, e or y =/dz/, otherwise /g/ (some common exceptions – girl, get) 

Vowel + consonant + e = long vowel sound

Where a sound has more than one spelling students have to choose the right letter eg e or ea for /e/.


Students should be encouraged to guess spelling by associating words to other related words they know as stems generally stay the same

Where there are no rules words have to be memorised.  One way to do this: show a word for 10 seconds (on a flashcard?), cover and students remember for 10 seconds.  Then they write.  Show card again for them to check.

Students keep logs of words with similar patterns  

Teaching English Spelling: A Practical Guide by Ruth Shemesh and Sheila Waller (CUP) is excellent for this huge area of work

Also see Joanne Kenworthy’s Teaching English Pronunciation (Longman) pp106 –9 for information on digraph vowels

Use mnemonics for those that are difficult to remember e.g. i before e except after c.  There is a practice exercise on i.e./ei in Feedback (p41) by Jane Sherman (OUP)

Composite consonants (or digraphs) pronounced as a single phoneme eg –ch, ph, sh.

Students just need to be taught these almost as if they are extra letters of the alphabet. 


Homophones (complete or near) and homographs

Do not initially teach them together, though you may want to contrast them later in the course

British vs American spellings – best to teach only one system and acknowledge other spelling if students mention it

Silent letters




These need to be memorised, but there are certain common patterns to look out for. 

See Teaching English Spelling p259 -268



Letter strings or patterns – some letters are commonly found together whereas others are rarely juxtaposed.  If students recognise these they can make more informed guesses about spellings that they don’t know.  Some of these strings also appear only in certain positions in the word, e.g. wh- is never at the end, -gh for /f/ is never at the front.

A game called “Don’t Say the Word”: one student gives a letter, the next student must give a letter that can follow (other students can challenge if they think a word cannot be made from this combination of letters).  The aim is not to finish the word as play continues around the class.

Students keep notes of words with certain strings in their spelling logs and add to them.


Double vs. single consonants.  In English doubling a consonant does not affect the pronunciation of that consonant sound but may change the preceding vowel sound.  

Rules for doubling consonants (cvc) are reasonably simple when adding –ed,-ing,-er and  -est.  These need to be taught

This is one area of spelling that is dealt with quite thoroughly in EFL materials, so should not be difficult to find

Endings: suffixes etc.  Students have to know how to spell the suffix and any changes to the stem (for example dropping the e or if words end in y).


full becomes ful in suffix


plural s endings, f > ves

Give students words with the ending and they write the stem word.  Then vice versa.

Adding suffixes to words ending in y see Feedback p70


some confusing endings –              ible/able






Beginnings of words are important if students want to use dictionaries.  Some are particularly difficult, such as words beginning with p where the 2nd or 3rd letter is r

di or de

in or en

Memorisation via mnemonics and other means already mentioned


It is important that students can identify syllables so they can break words up into more manageable chunks.

Beat or clap the syllables out so students can learn to recognise them.

Regularly ask students how many syllables.


Students need to know the   consonants and vowels in order to understand rules.


Not usually a major problem but may need to do some work on y and w which can be used as both.



In conclusion then we can see that although there are plenty of problems facing our students when it comes to spelling, there is also valuable help that we can give them.  We must first endeavour to identify and understand their problems and recognise that we can teach them to develop this important skill.  A wide range of strategies for improving spelling should be introduced.  To back this up we can show that there is some degree of regularity to the patterns that we find in English words, although the students will meet a disproportionate number of irregular spelling in very common words.  These patterns or ‘rules’ can be taught as a fallback for when other strategies fail.  While unfortunately there is rather a shortage of material for teaching spelling in EFL, we can employ and adapt many of the techniques we use in other areas of our work to enliven spelling lessons and make them more effective.   Some of the methodology and techniques can be used with general English classes to teach spelling more explicitly to all.  There are many more which will be of great use with low level writing classes, where development of spelling skills is a priority and more time can be devoted to it.

This, coupled with guidance in how to use effective self-access materials, shows our students that we take their spelling problems seriously and that they can overcome this obstacle to their progress and ambitions. 

 [i]   Peters M, Spelling: Caught or Taught (Revised) Routledge and Keegan Paul 1985

 [ii] Ibid

 [iii] Swan M and Smith B, Learner English CUP 1987

If you found this article useful, you will like my new book, coming soon:

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners For more information about the forthcoming book





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