Five reasons why English spelling is so difficult

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Does it sometimes feel like just as you’ve got to grips with a spelling rule, you are faced with a number of situations where that rule doesn’t apply? You’re not alone. Here are five reasons why English is such a hard language to learn…

  1. English words are from all over the place
    The English language has been heavily influenced by European invaders; art, music and literature; the colonisation of other countries; and immigration. Even common-sounding words can originate from far-away places, such as: ‘rucksack’ (borrowed from German) or ‘pyjamas’ (borrowed from Hindi).
  2. There are different ways of spelling the same sound
    Because English is so full of borrowed language, words that may sound alike when you say them aloud aren’t always spelt similarly. The words ‘tall’ and ‘shawl’ rhyme, for example, but the ‘aw’ sound is spelt differently in each.
  3. This can sometimes include words that sound exactly the same
    Words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings are called heterographs. The words ‘hair’ and ‘hare’, for example, sound the same, but mean different things. Sometimes, to make things even more confusing, words can be heterographs in some accents, but not in others. In most American accents the words ‘merry’ and ‘marry’, as well as the name ‘Mary’, are all pronounced the same!
  4. Some words have totally different meanings but are spelt and pronounced the same
    These words are called homonyms. The word ‘ball’, for example, can refer to both a toy and to a formal dance.
  5. What about words that are spelt the same but are pronounced differently?
    Yes, perhaps unfortunately, these exist too! These words are called heteronyms. The words ‘desert’, ‘tear’, and ‘number’, for example, can all mean two different things depending on how they are pronounced.

It can all get a bit overwhelming, but in the next post we’ll discuss why good spelling is worth the effort. Meanwhile, why not check out the Spellzone course? It will take you through all the spelling rules and give you tips for dealing with those tricky exceptions. You can try some exercises for free, or sign up to see them all. Don’t forget to have a go at the word activities and games!

What are some of the words you’ve found most difficult to remember how to spell? Are there any words that confuse you every time?


21 Apr 2013
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"Thank goodness for Spellzone during this remote learning phase. The site is easy for students to navigate independently and they're really enjoying the activities and spelling games. You get an awful lot for your money with Spellzone. Really reassuring is the very prompt response with helpdesk queries. I've very rarely needed the helpdesk, but when I have, the issue has been addressed and sorted within a very short time."

Sarah Taggart, Oasis Academy Lord's Hill