Common Spelling Hurdles for ESL Learners and How to Overcome Them

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English is a language known for its quirks and irregularities, making it a challenging to learn. For ESL (English as a Second Language) learners, navigating the intricacies of English spelling can be particularly daunting. However, by understanding common pitfalls and employing effective strategies, ESL learners can overcome spelling challenges and enhance their language skills.

Silent Letter Strategies

Silent letters add an extra layer of complexity to English spelling. These letters appear in the spelling, but they are not pronounced. 

TIP: When you learn words with silent letters, use the Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check spelling activity. Click on the speaker to hear the word again, repeat it once as it is pronounced and then try and say it exactly how it is spelt. 

Here are some examples of words with silent letters:

  • lamb: The newborn lamb had to be fed by hand.
  • thumb: The killer was trapped by his thumb print.
  • bomb: The disposal squad quickly defused the bomb.
  • debt: Many people are in debt to their bank.
  • gnome: There is a garden gnome in the garden next door.
  • gnat: A gnat is a small biting insect.
  • knee: He needs ointment on his cut knee.
  • knife: The knife is made of stainless steel.
  • calf: One of our cows recently had a calf.
  • salmon: Is salmon is a healthy food?
  • chalk: These cliffs are made of chalk.
  • yolk: He liked egg but not the yolk.
  • wrapper: At break-time I took the wrapper off my biscuit.
  • wrestle: We saw the policeman wrestle the burglar to the ground.
  • wrist: She wore a gold bangle on her wrist.
  • wreck: There is a rusty old wreck on the reef.

Irregular Verbs Made Easy 

Irregular verbs can be challenging because they do not follow the typical pattern of verb conjugation.

TIP: Learn irregular verbs in their base forms, their past simple forms, and their past participle forms. Use our printable flashcards to help you test your memory.

Here are some examples of irregular verbs in English:

  • say: say - said - said
  • see: see - saw - seen
  • seek: seek - sought - sought
  • sell: sell - sold - sold
  • send: send - sent - sent
  • set: set - set - set
  • sew: sew - sewed - sewn
  • shake: shake - shook - shaken
  • shine: shine - shone - shone
  • shoot: shoot - shot - shot
  • show: show - showed - shown
  • shrink: shrink - shrank - shrunk
  • shut: shut - shut - shut
  • sing: sing - sang - sung
  • sink: sink - sank - sunk
  • sit: sit - sat - sat
  • sleep: sleep - slept - slept
  • slide: slide - slid - slid
  • smell: smell - smelt - smelt

Suffix Success

Suffixes are put on the end of a word to change its meaning or function. Things get complicated because sometimes the root word changes before the suffix is added. 

TIP: Learn about how different suffixes change the spelling of root words in Unit 9 and Unit 34 of the Spellzone course. Use the Listen and Spell activity to test yourself.

If you add a vowel suffix to a word which ends with a consonant, you must double the consonant. Here are some examples of this doubling rule:

  • flapping: The bird was flapping its wings.
  • getting: My spelling is getting much better.
  • runner: The runner showed great endurance.
  • spotted: We spotted a kingfisher on the river bank.
  • biggish: The promotion will be a biggish step up for her.
  • jogger: The jogger runs five miles a day.
  • funny: Bob's wedding speech was very funny.
  • snobbish: I don't like snobbish people.
  • snappy: He was very snappy when he was hungry.
  • setting: The house is in a tranquil riverside setting.
  • hidden: I have hidden my sweets from my brother.
  • trodden: I think you have trodden in something smelly.
  • dipped: I dipped my foot in the freezing water.


Homophone Hacks 

Homophones are tricky words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings and often different spellings.

TIP: Make learning homophones fun with our pattern recognition, problem solving, and voice and vocabulary spelling games. You’ll be an expert in no time!

 Here are some common homophones from everyday words:

  • their: Their means 'belonging to them.'
  • there: Don't put it here, put it over there.
  • they're: I wonder why they're so late.
  • your: Can I help you with your bags?
  • you're: You're looking very smart today.
  • to: We went to the party.
  • too: The cake mixture was too runny.
  • two: The two of us will go together.
  • some: I can toast some cheese.
  • sum: The sum of 10 and 10 is 20.
  • by: The plane was delayed by fog.
  • buy: She wants to buy a new dress.
  • bye: Bye is another way of saying 'goodbye'.

While English spelling may present challenges for ESL learners, targeted practice and effective learning strategies can help overcome these obstacles. By addressing common spelling mistakes head-on and providing ample opportunities for practice and reinforcement, ESL learners can enhance their language skills and become proficient spellers in English. Begin your spelling journey today with a Spellzone free trial.

12 Apr 2024
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"I have just subscribed and look forward to continuing to use Spellzone. I have been really impressed with the program during the trial period and the students gave very positive feedback. Many thanks."

Teacher, International School, Geneva