You are standing in front of your ESL class, looking out at eager faces and minds ready to absorb everything you have to share about the English language.
You see faces filled with hope and expectation, young people ready to learn, and something inside you drops. You feel sick, even. You know you’re in trouble. As eager as these students are to hear what you have to say, you know that before the day is out they have a good chance of being confused and discouraged. Why? Because it’s time to teach spelling. You may be great at getting the letters of words down on paper, or you may struggle with it almost as much as your ESL students. If you’re the former, you should be thrilled. But if you are the latter, like most English speakers are, you may be discouraged about teaching your ESL students something that doesn’t even make sense to you. Either way, keep in mind these tips for teaching spelling to ESL students that you won’t see in the spelling book. If you do, you may find that achieving excellent spelling in English is possible though takes more than just knowing your ABCs.
Help Your Students Become Excellent at Spelling
Letter Your Classroom
No, I don’t mean sending post every chance you get. I do mean posting words wherever and whenever you can. Label the objects in your classroom. Put titles on your bulletin boards. Display posters that are text rich. Post pictures with captions beneath them. The more you can use words in visual ways around your classroom, the more aware your students will become of English letters and sounds. And the more aware they are the better chance they have at being successful spellers.
When students are learning new languages and new words, they often see the words in print. This visual information hits students’ eyes all at the same time, and it’s a lot to process for language learners. Spelling, however, is a sequential task. No one can spell correctly if they do not get the letters in the right order. Listening, unlike reading, is a sequential activity. You cannot say or hear every letter of a word at the same time. When you take the time to spell words orally for your students, it gives them a sequential processing of the letters, those same words and letters that they will later have to spell sequentially on their papers. Giving them sequential input up front will help them when they are later tasked with spelling the words either orally or in writing.
Keep in Mind Learning Challenges
Depending on the age of your students, learning disabilities may play a big part in spelling struggles. If you have students who change the order of letters or write them backwards, consider having them tested for dyslexia or other letter processing conditions. Sometimes the mistakes your students make have less to do with the language itself than with how their mind processes that language. And language students cannot necessarily communicate their confusion to you. What might look like a language learning issue might actually be a language processing issue. So take care of your ESL students and be on the lookout for any behavior that might indicate a learning condition.
English Isn’t As Phonetic As It’s Cracked Up To Be
Theoretically, English uses a phonetically based spelling system. However, many English words that you will be teaching your students are not spelled the way they sound. In some cases, it is because the spelling of the words has remained constant over many decades while the pronunciation of the same words has changed. In other cases, the words have been borrowed into English from other languages that use different systems of spelling. Help your students understand that while generally speaking English has a phonetically based system of spelling, there are many exceptions to the rules.
It’s Not Always As Easy As A, B, C
When you teach English as a second language, you are bound to have students in your class whose first languages do not use the Arabic alphabet. Their first language may be a character-based language, or it may use phonetic spelling with an alphabet completely different from the one we use for English. In such cases, not all mistakes may be from the act of “spelling” but may be from the use of an unfamiliar alphabet. Keep in mind the writing systems your students use in their first languages, and be understanding toward students who are not only learning a new language but a new alphabet as well.
Consider the Phonetic Alphabet
While the phonetic alphabet is extremely useful for teaching and perfecting pronunciation, it can come in handy for spelling instruction as well. Because some English letter combinations have multiple sound manifestations (think ough as in tough, bought, cough, borough, etc.), students may become confused when the same letters are used to spell different sounds. By giving your students both the correct English spelling as well as a transcription using the phonetic alphabet, they will begin to see that different sounds can use the same letter combinations.
Stress about It
Syllable stress can influence how a word is pronounced in English, though it does not affect how a word is spelled. This is particularly true for English words with multiple syllables. Unstressed syllables tend to have more neutral vowel sounds while stressed syllables tend to have more pronounced vowel sounds. However, stress does not affect spelling of words in English. Your students may become confused when “a” in a stressed syllable sounds different from “a” in an unstressed syllable, and that can have an effect on how your students spell those words. Take time, when you introduce new vocabulary to your students, to point out stress patterns and how the vowel pronunciation differs from the spelling in them so your students don’t overly rely on the way a word sounds to figure out how it is spelled.
No matter who you ask, they will likely agree that spelling in English isn’t as simple as it could be.
But that doesn’t mean your ESL students can’t be successful when it comes to the ABCs of English spelling. Keep these tips in mind when you teach vocabulary and spelling to your English as a second language students and you will be giving them the tools they need to achieve success. What spelling struggles do you see most in your students?