Headbloom Blog

Advice for poor spellers

A friend (who is a native English speaker) emailed me the following note after we’d discussed the problem with recognizing sound-alike words like pique-peak-peek. (He had intended the first word in a previous note to me but had written the second.)

He wrote:
“I’m lucky to have an intelligent fiancee to keep me on track when it comes to spelling. In the same way that some people just don’t get computers, I have that problem with spelling. I always have and I probably always will. It’s frustrating! I wonder whether there are specialists out there for such a problem. Any ideas?”

My response:
Having good spelling is a combination of three things. It’s one-third memory (you just have to learn some difficult words), one-third logic/analysis (learning where the word comes from and looking at the shape of the word), and one-third assertiveness (taking ownership of continuous learning).

In the example of “pique” (if hearing it is your first contact—as opposed to reading it), you have to think, “OK, it sounds like ‘peak’ but I don’t think it has to do with mountain tops; it sounds like ‘peek’ but I don’t think it has anything to do with peek-a-boo, so it must be something new.” If you know French-origin words (like unique, boutique, antique, mystique… ), you may be suspicious that there could be a connection there—and then go look it up.

I keep a paperback dictionary (American Heritage) in my car. Whenever there’s a new word on the radio, I look it up—at a stop light—or have my passenger look it up. (Just ask my groaning daughters about growing up with a word-nerd for a dad!) One word a day. Little by little. You CAN improve your word mastery. It just takes a commitment. And a willingness to give up saying, “I can’t do this, spelling is hard, I’m no good at it.” The more you pay attention, the more you see it’s not completely random. There is a system out there. It’s a little harder because English borrows words from Greek, Latin, French, German, and other languages. That’s why English has the largest vocabulary of world languages. And why the spelling system is more complex. However, it is do-able!

I hope this helps. Go get a dictionary. One from a used book store will cost a buck. And maybe subscribe to Word A Day in your email. Good luck!

By the way, did you know that English is one of the few languages that has spelling bees? Most world languages are written so phonetically that spelling is not a challenge.

Alan Headbloom