First Things First: Selecting Words to Study

"But you have to take on the whole English language all at once!" said somebody once, talking about her problems with learning to spell.

You can see what she meant. There are thousands of words in the language and you may want to use any of them at any time. This seemed to mean to my troubled friend that you had to learn them all at once. A lot of people feel that and of course it puts them off even starting on the task.

But you don't. The truth is that, whatever you write, there are some words that you are certain to use again and again and others that you are very likely to use very often. These words account for 95% of all that anybody ever writes. So the trick is to start with the words which you know you are going to have to write most often.

How can you know which these words are? On this web site there is a section called The 150 Commonest Words. Also, there is a little booklet, the Alphabetical Spelling List Book Two, which tells you which they are and puts them in order of frequency of use. If you use that booklet, you will have three huge advantages:

First, you will never need to guess at a common word again nor drive yourself mad looking it up in a dictionary, something a lot of people find extremely tiresome and, often, just too difficult ("If you can use a dictionary, you don't need it; if you need it you can't use it", not quite true of course, but I am sure you see the point). With the booklet you can find the words easily and write whatever you like.

Second, you can be absolutely sure that when you learn a word from the list it is really worth learning, because you know you are going to need it again and again.

Third, because you look at it and write it so often, you can't help getting lots of practice with it and practice in spelling certainly makes perfect As long as you are always very careful to practise the correct version! You must keep checking!

It lists all the words we all use most often, in alphabetical order, and divides them into seven Target Levels. Level 1 are the most often used of all, Level 2 those not used quite so often but still very frequently and so on to Level 7, which are words you may need to write from time to time but not all that often. Of course, there are thousands of other words in English which don't appear in the list and you will have to look those up in a dictionary. But you aren't going to need those words very often and you won't mind so much battling with the dictionary if it's only now and then.

What gets shaky spellers down is having to worry all the time about the same words which have to be written again and again and about which they are terribly confused because they have already written them wrong so often. It is those "little", "easy" words, as people often say, which give such a bad impression of your writing if you get them wrong and make you feel so hopeless and helpless. Actually the commonest words are not always little and often anything but easy - what about through? - but they are impossible to avoid, so you have just got to learn them if you are ever going to write anything!

USING THE LIST: As a rule it is best to work from your own free writing. Incidentally, it is important to do plenty of writing because you do need practice. Have the list and a piece of rough paper handy whenever you write. When you want to write a word you're not sure of, look it up in the list and copy it into your writing carefully so you know it's correct. At the same time copy it on to your piece of paper, along with its Target Level, which you will find opposite the word in the list to the right. Keep on writing, checking and noting troublesome words like this as you go along until you have finished the writing. Although most people don't like doing this, it is helpful to go over your writing again when you have finished and you may pick up other words which you missed at the time.

To deal with the spelling, look at the list you have made on the rough piece of paper and start with any Level 1 words you find there. Study these words with the drill, LOOK, COVER, WRITE CHECK, which you can find by clicking on Learning Individual Words. If there are a lot of them, choose four or five and forget about the others for the time being. Keep these words about you, in your pocket, on the dressing table, stuck on the fridge, any old where so that you can keep looking at them any old time. Test yourself from time to time and don't despair if you take a long time to learn them. These words are probably ones you have had trouble with for ages and you have got to get the old bad spelling out of your head as well as replacing it with the correct one. It is always easier to learn new words you haven't tried before and so haven't ever got wrong.

When you find you are getting 90% of the Level 1 words right, you move on to Level 2 and so on up the Targets. It will probably go very slowly at first because the Level 1 words not only keep cropping up again and again but they are also much the most peculiar in their spelling - just because they are so common and everybody has been messing about with them over the centuries. However, they do contain nearly all the "difficult" but common English "letter-strings", -ing, -ight, -ough etc., so that , while you are learning them, you are also learning patterns of spelling which will turn up again and again. You don't, in fact, have to learn every word individually once you've got started and the more you learn the easier it will be to learn the rest.

The most important thing of all is to prevent those common words being spelled incorrectly again and again. They are the ones you must be sure of to make progress.

Whether it is your own spelling you are worried about or you are helping someone else, once someone has learned to use the list they can manage their own spelling programme, find words, learn to spell them, check their spellings, monitor their own progress and set new targets. They can see for themselves when they are improving; they don't have to rely on somebody else to know if they are getting better and there is nothing that cheers you up and encourages you to go on with the struggle like having unambiguous, objective proof that you can do to-day something you couldn't do last month. So the list is a great motivator, along with its other useful qualities.

All the same, all learning goes better if the learner has someone to encourage them, to remind them to get down to work, to look at what they have done and notice the good bits (most important) and the bad bits (also important, point them out but don't harp on them), to talk to them about how to do the drills and manage the task. There are some people who can struggle grimly on without any encouragement, but not many, and there is no pleasure like seeing someone you are fond of tackling a difficult task, overcoming a previous failure and succeeding!

This list is called ALPHABETICAL SPELLING LIST (Book Two) and its ISBN number is 017 410 2801. It is published by Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., Nelson House, Mayfield Road, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey KT12 5PL. It costs about 5 and, if you can't find it in bookshops, you can order it direct from the publisher.

Good luck!