Difficult Spelling Words
Teacher's Advice

Difficult spelling words may seem to occur frequently in the English language. But they are not as frequent as you may think. About 10 per cent of them are unpredictable. The remaining 90 percent can be worked out with a little knowledge.

Try Different Methods

How your child copes will depend on what they already know and how they tackle a new spelling word. Adult students I have taught feel as if they are in a spelling minefield until they understand these different approaches to spelling …then they stop seeing spelling as being a huge obstacle.

How Difficult Spelling Words Can Be Spelled

Here is a list of difficult spelling words I gave one of my students to test her spelling ability. You will notice that every one of the 21 words tested contain errors. By analysing each of her spelling mistakes, I was able to  identify the individual spelling patterns she needed to learn. Once she had been taught these she was able to spell this list and other similarly spelled words perfectly. I will show you how to do this yourself, below.

How to Tackle Difficult Spelling Words

  • sound out the letters in the word and write them down
  • understand that the English language has adopted many words from other languages eg. French and Greek. This means that there are some words with recognisable letter patterns from those languages
  • know about prefixes and suffixes, which are groups of letters that get tacked on to the front and backs of root words. Here's an example...mis is a prefix meaning wrongly. When mis is added to the  root word spell (meaning to spell wrongly) it is spelled misspell. Unless you know that mis is a prefix you might spell it mispelled with only one s.
  • break difficult words into smaller chunks, called syllables, so that they don't seem so big and overwhelming. Take the word philanthropy. First break it up by tapping out the rhythm of the word. There are four syllables. Here's a hint. Each syllable must contain at least one vowel for any word to be spelt correctly. Remember the letter 'y' is also counted as a vowel. Now write it...phil an thro py. Many capable spellers automatically use the syllable approach. Once taught, this method makes the spelling of difficult words so much easier
  • find quirky and fun ways to remember difficult spelling words. I had an adult student who couldn't spell the word 'Monday'. For 57 years he had tried. I told him to imagine that he had the weekend off to relax and went back to work on Monday. On that day he began to earn money for the new week. Every time he practised the word Monday he would turn the letter 'o' into a coin. He never forgot again.
  • use the three senses, sight, sound and touch to practise difficult spelling words. Use your eyes to look carefully at the word and notice anything unusual about it. Use your ears to hear the sounds of the letters as you spell them. Then feel your wrist and fingers forming the letters as you write them. MRI scans have shown that this sends blood flowing to three parts of the brain simultaneously rather than just one. This means that you are much more likely to remember the spelling than if you use just one of your senses.
  • notice patterns in words and see how many words you can find with that same pattern. Make up memorable, fun sentences with the words. If your child is learning the ow sound in a word like clown, teach your child this sentence… The clown with a frown went to town in his brown dressing gown. Ask them to draw it. They will find it easier to remember because it rhymes and they have a visual memory from drawing it.

How To Solve Spelling Mistakes

Below is a table containing some examples of spelling mistakes and how I solve them with my students. In the boxes on the left you will find a misspelled word followed by the correct spelling. In the boxes on the right I have included explanations, tips and ways to learn them.

Try Several Approaches

There are endless lists of what appear to be difficult spelling words...unfortunately, far too many to include and discuss on any one website. The best advice I can offer is that you help your child approach each tricky word armed with the the range of approaches mentioned above.

When I diagnose a student's spelling, I become a spelling detective. Often I discover they have repeated the same kind of mistake several times.

They might, for example, have difficulty with silent letters and consistently leave them out. Alternatively they might not be aware of the different ways of spelling the sound ear. Often there are several faulty patterns that need correcting. Once the student realises this, mistakes can be corrected quickly.

It is an exciting step forward. Almost immediately their self-esteem lifts and they tackle spelling as an adventure rather than becoming paralysed by it.

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