Spelling Chaos

wooden dice with letters in disarray and the word chaos
imagesource: www.bigstockphoto.com

Do you use Canadian or American spelling in your classroom? Do you “correct” your students when they write color instead of colour? Have your students ever asked why you write metre when their dictionaries say meter?

A Trivial Matter?

Some people consider spelling a trivial matter.  These people are probably not immigrants studying English in a LINC program or international students at the University of Guelph scaling that mountain called English.  They are probably not Arabic students, who have always spelled from right to left, but now need to retrain their brains to spell from left to right. Spelling is a huge roadblock on their journey to English competency.

Did you know that Italian children spend much less time learning spelling than English children? That’s not because they inherit better spelling genes, but because Italian only has about 400 irregularly spelled words.  Compare that to the 3500 common English words that don’t conform to spelling rules. Consequently, even after our students master English phonics, their writing will probably still contain many spelling errors.

In 1755, when English spelling was standardized in Dr. Johnson’s authoritative dictionary, little thought was given to matching each phonetic sound with a specific spelling pattern.  In fact, words with identical pronunciations, such as there and their, were each given a unique spelling.  Since then, English pronunciation has changed considerably, and foreign words have entered the language with their foreign spelling, further increasing the spelling chaos.  

Simplified Spelling

Many people have attempted to simplify English spelling. Noah Webster took a stab at it in his American Dictionary of the English Language.  Thanks to his efforts, Americans now spell words like centre and metre with “er”, and harbour and colour without the silent “u” Generally, Canadians have not adopted these logical changes. 

A most eloquent advocate of simplified spelling was George Bernard Shaw.  He wrote:

 A moth is not a moth in mother,

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there,

Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.

And then there’s dose and rose and lose

Just look them up- and goose and choose.

And cork and work and card and ward.

And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go, then thwart and cart.

Come, come I’ve hardly made a start.

In his will, Shaw left an entirely new phonetic English alphabet that some reformers wish would be adopted in the English-speaking world.  Although that’s probably not a realistic option, it’s not difficult for individuals to figure out a simplified spelling system.  If we droppd al silent letters and reemovd unnesesary dobl consonants, owr riting wud stil bee eesy to reed.  Ther ar eeven websites that provide free programs to convert tradishunal spellng to simplified spellng.

Yet, we are tied to traditional spelling out of habit, and because variations in spelling imply ignorance.  How much value should ESL teachers give to spelling, or what percentage of a grade should be given for accurate spelling? Very little class time is dedicated to spelling instruction, yet students are expected to use traditional spelling in their assignments. When students ask how to learn spelling, I tell them to pay attention to spelling when they’re reading English material, and I direct them to spelling websites.

What solutions have you found for the difficulties spelling presents?


Marinelli, C. V., Romani, C., Burani, C., & Zoccolotti, P. (2015). Spelling Acquisition in English and Italian: A Cross-Linguistic Study. Frontiers in psychology6, 1843. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01843


If you are reading this blog, then you’re probably familiar with my world, a world that spins around teaching, grammar, pronunciation, sentence structure, Canadian culture, and all things English. I’m fascinated by the places where cultures intersect: when Asia meets America, South touches North, and desert dwellers converse with snow shovellers. I see these things every day in my class, and they are the things I want to post about. After teaching EFL in China, and computer skills in LINC, I started teaching EAP at the University of Guelph, and sixteen years later, I’m still at it. I earned a BA in English literature from the University of Waterloo, and a B.Ed from Western Ontario University. I also have my ESL Part 2 and TESL Certification.


7 thoughts on “Spelling Chaos”

  1. I agree whole-hardheartedly! Spelling is difficult. I used the All About Spelling Series with my kids. It is based on the Orton Gillingham method designed for kids with reading and spelling issues. It worked really well and I learned loads of spelling rules. (I thought I knew most of them LOL). Now I teach these rules to my students. They appreciate having a “rule” to apply.

  2. Spelling has recently become a hot topic in one of my classes. Thank you for this post. I’m going to use it in my class!

  3. I wish I could say the same. Some of my students are preparing resumes, even at low levels. When I check my with my colleagues in recruiting and placement they still tell me that Canadian spellings are still more acceptable to potential employers. For that reason alone, I share those funny spelling rules. And I remind them it’s now easy to spell check using English Canadian setting as default language on computer.

    1. Good point. I hadn’t thought about resumes and how Canadian employers might regard simplified spelling.

  4. The problem with changing the spelling to match pronunciation is that we eventually lose our connection and ease of communication with the rest of the English speaking world as our written language diverges as much as our oral language has and continues to do. It particularly affects our vowel sounds and specific sounds like ‘r’.

    1. if we can understand each other in speech, is that a big deal? someday we might reach the Dutch and Afrikaans situation; but phonetic spelling would make sure we know about it, as opposed to blundering under the delusion that we speak the same language when we do not.

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