How can I help my students with spelling and writing difficulties?


SOME time ago a reader wrote to ask, “How can I help my students with spelling and writing difficulties in lower secondary school?”
This is a common concern to many teachers, and it is perhaps most critical in upper primary school, where students are preparing to sit for examinations that will determine whether they can go on to high school or not.
English is a particularly difficult language to write and read. Many languages use a spelling system where there is one—and only one—letter for each sound. Once you have worked out that system, you can correctly write any word you hear and correctly pronounce any word you read. In schools using languages with this kind of alphabet, children do not need spelling lessons or spelling tests after first or second grade. In fact, many children can learn to read and write at home with their parents.
Spanish and Tok Pisin are good examples of these kinds of languages.
English is as far from this ideal as possible. We have more sounds than we have letters, so some letters stand for more than one sound. The letter “a”, for example, is used for the different sounds in “ate”, “father”, and “cat”. For some sounds, we need two letters put together, where an ideal system would use one. In an ideal English spelling system, for example, the word “thing”, which has only three sounds, would be written with three and not five letters.
There is also the opposite problem, of one sound being spelled by more than one letter or group of letters. The “sh” sound can be spelled by “sh” (as in “shampoo”), but also with “s” as in “sugar”, “ti” as in “station”, “si” as in “extension”, or “ch” as in “chic”.
Finally there is the problem of silent letters, such as the “gh” in “light” or the “s” in “island”. These usually represent historical changes in the language, where the spoken language as changed, but the written language has not.
All of these present formidable problems for learners and their teachers, especially in situations where there is little English in the environment outside of school. But there are a few techniques teachers and parents can learn to make the heavy learning barriers easier for children to overcome.
The most important way to help students learn is to encourage them to read. Reading anything will help to reinforce how words are spelled. Many schools do not have libraries, but yet they have televisions or laptops. This is a poor choice of priorities. Having a library and encouraging students to read is by far the best way to reinforce word and spelling patterns. As with learning any kind of skill, there is nothing like repetition to help children learn.
Some successful schools have “reading hour”, where everyone on the school campus—students, teachers, and visitors sit and read. One school in Fiji even did away with regular English classes and used the time for private and silent student reading time. The students at that school tended to do better in examinations than students who had regular English classes. But of course to try such a programme, schools need a very well-stocked library.
In class, teachers can show students patterns in English spelling. They can point out the different ways that one sound is written. For example, the sound in the word “eye” can also be spelled “igh” as in “night”or “i + final -e” as in “fine”, as well as, of course, “eye” (or “aye”). Learning these rules will help students.
While some words in English have completely inconsistent and idiosyncratic spellings, most words can be sounded out if you know the rules for that particular combination of letters. Teachers can group words into word families: the “-ight” word family, the “-ation” word family, the “-sion” word family, and so on.
It goes without saying that to use these word family groupings properly, teachers need to make sure students are pronouncing words correctly. If a teacher pronounces “bat” and “bath” or “pin” and “fin” the same way, students cannot be expected to keep the spellings separate.
Many of the more difficult words in English come from Latin and Greek, the languages of education in Europe centuries ago. As these words came into English, they brought the original spellings from these ancient languages, even if the pronunciation changed to fit the English sound system. In Greek, for example, it is common to start words with “ps”, but in English this is a combination of sounds that appears only in the middle or end of a word (such as “stops”). If we teach students that the Greek word for “soul” or “mind”,“psukhē” and that became English “psycho”, had a “p” in Greek that we write but do not say in English, then they can learn to listen for words such as “psychology” and “psychiatry” that start with this Greek root and have a silent “p”.
Many times these roots are used in a number of words with similar meanings, so by learning the meaning and spelling of one root, students learn about many words at once.
Students like stories, and teaching them using word-stories like this helps them remember spellings and meanings much more than if we just give them lists of words to learn in isolation. In the preceding example, if we teach students about the original meaning of the word and talk about how fields of study such as “psychology” and “psychiatrist” deal with how our souls and minds operate, they will be likely to remember the meaning of “psycho-“ and apply it to new words they come across. They can even be encouraged to make up new words with this root.
Learning how to read English is not easy, especially for people who have to learn it as a foreign language.
For Papua New Guineans, English is a door to a world of knowledge. Teachers who use imaginative techniques to sound out English words and learn about word families and who make sure their students have access to a well-stocked library can give their students a most valuable gift—a love of reading.

  •  Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.


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