Spelling and IELTS

My students, new to London, are always surprised that the popular tourist destination, Leicester Square, is actually pronounced as ‘Lester’ because of the 3 silent letters in Leicester [ice] that we use to write the word but not spell it. There are many more really common words that contain silent letters, like knee, island, answer.

That IELTS students struggle with spelling is completely understandable, as the spelling of some English words can appear random and quite illogical, with little relationship between the way something is pronounced and the way it is written.

Why is this? Well, according to the website howtospell.co.uk, English has evolved over the centuries and retains words and influences from the various groups of people who settled in the British Isles. There was no commonly accepted system of spelling and people in the past spelt the same words in different ways. Even Shakespeare spelt his name differently on documents. The way we say certain phonemes or letters has changed too so, although they may have been spelt as they sounded when the first dictionary was compiled, we now say them differently but the spelling hasn’t changed.

It’s therefore tempting to simply accept that spelling mistakes are inevitable when writing English, and to focus more on improving accuracy in other areas like grammar or punctuation. However, I tell my students that, because vocabulary accounts for 25% of the mark in the writing paper, accurate spelling is really important. If you make a lot of mistakes your mark for this criteria will be lower than it could be! Also, it’s worth remembering that correct spelling is vital in both the listening and reading paper - you might have done all the hard work and heard or found the correct answer but if you spell it incorrectly, you won’t get a mark. So if you really want to maximise your potential IELTS score, you need to pay attention to your spelling.

You might be thinking here, this is easier said than done. The English spelling system is too confusing and inconsistent and, unless you’re a native speaker, you’ll never be able to remember how to spell all the words in the language. But, in fact, there are some rules for English spelling that you can learn and the good news is that 75% of English words actually do conform to some kind of rule!

In reality there are only about 400 words, which are completely irregular and don’t follow any rule at all. The bad news is that these are the words that are used frequently, so you just have to learn them.

So, if you want to get to work on your spelling, here are some things you can do. Firstly, have a look at the list of the most frequently used words in English and check you know how to spell them – these are called ‘Dolch words’ named after the man who listed them. You can find them here http://www.dolchword.net/dolch-alphabetical-word-list.html.

Next, download a list of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language; even native speakers also have problems with these, for example recommend and separate – the link below has a list and provides some good online practice.


Are there any words on this list that you’re not sure of and/or words you often use? Put the list somewhere prominent where you will see it often, for example on your fridge. Set yourself a target to learn 5-10 words a day and, to help memorise them, use the ‘say, cover, write, check’ method, like you probably did at school – spell the word aloud a few times, cover it with your hand or a piece of paper, then write it next to the original and check if you got it right.

Then you could take this one step further, by identifying the spelling mistakes you frequently make when writing, for example forgetting to drop the final ‘e’ when adding ‘ing’ to a word that ends in ‘e’ - decide becomes deciding or changing the ‘y’ to an ‘i’ when adding a suffix – rely becomes reliance.

Try this simple but effective exercise, which my successful IELTS students find helpful - the next time you practise writing a task 1 or 2 answer, do it on the computer with the automatic spell and grammar check turned off and, to make it realistic, stick to the time limit you would have in the actual test.

Once you’ve finished writing, turn the spell check function back on to reveal any spelling mistakes, and then copy and paste these words onto a separate document. Have a close look at this document; did you make careless mistakes because you didn’t check your work properly? Are any of the words ones that are commonly misspelt and/or do you see any patterns - are suffixes causing you problems or do you often get the ‘i and e’ the wrong way round in words like receive or review?

Once you have identified the spellings you need to work on, you could either use the say, write, cover and check method to memorise them or create your own list on the website Spelling City https://parents.spellingcity.com/english-language-learners/

It’s an interactive American website which makes spelling fun!

As we said earlier, the majority of English words do conform to rules, so take some of your IELTS test preparation time to revise the spelling rules you might be having trouble with, by looking at the following resource https://www.une.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/10673/WC_Spelling-rules.pdf

Or go to a website like https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/skillswise/spelling/z6c6d6f for some extra practice!

I hope that this blog has convinced you that spelling matters and that there are some concrete things you can do to improve yours, after all making fewer spelling errors could be the difference between getting a low score or the score you want and deserve!