How to make English spelling interesting (or even fun)

English spelling can seem difficult, random and endless even to native speakers, so there is an obvious need to liven its practice up in most EFL classes. Scrabble and Boggle don’t work very well with non native speakers, and dictations are usually dull and too teacher-centred for most communicative EFL classes. Here, then, are some other ideas, mainly usable for all ages from 6 to 60.


Hangman is a very popular game and there are many variations on it available in the separate article Problems, Solutions and Variations for Hangman in EFL Classes

Spelling code

Give students a worksheet with the alphabet labelled with a different number for each letter, e.g. A= 15, B =26, C =1. Say a word, and the students race to write the word in their notebooks (or on scrap paper), add the value of the letters and shout out the total (e.g. “Cab” = 1 + 15 + 26, so the students race to shout out “42”). This is obviously also good for practice of large numbers. You can add practice of the pronunciation of the alphabet by dictating the alphabet and values to them at the beginning of the game rather than giving them a handout or putting it up on the board.

Don’t finish that word

Students spell a word one letter at a time going around the class. Any student who can’t continue the game (e.g. by continuing C, A, T with E for “category”) or who can’t say what word they are spelling when they are challenged (e.g. if they randomly choose X after C, A, T just to say something and can’t think of any word that begins with those letters when they are asked by another student) loses a point and the game starts again with a new word. A variation on those rules is that a person who finishes the word in a way that can’t be continued loses a point. You might also want to take away points from anyone who challenges someone who can in fact continue the game.

Stop me when I’m all spelt out

This is similar to Don’t Finish That Word above, but with the teacher spelling the words. The teacher spells the word out one letter at a time and the students have to shout “Stop” when they are sure that the word is finished and can’t be continued.

Acronyms with everything

When the teacher says a word, students race to spell it and make a grammatically correct sentence from words that start with the letters of the word (in the same order), e.g. Armadillos Push Elephants for “ape”. Rather than making it a race, you could just give points for the most imaginative, most logical etc sentences after two minutes.

Homophones dictation

This is not strictly a dictation as you only want students to write down one word. Give them a list of homophones and read out a sentence where only one of a pair of homophones can fit, e.g. “The HARE has a reputation for going crazy in the spring” (rather than “hair”). The students must write down the word that they think fits. This links in well with a lesson on guessing words by context, and can be combined with the Spelling Code game above.

Minimal pairs dictation

This is similar to Homophones Dictation above, but with the pairs of words being slightly different in pronunciation. You can make this into more of a game by letting students guess the word after you say it with no context for ten points, or letting them listen to the word in context as a hint and then guess for five points.

Homophones journey

This is a variation on Pronunciation Journey from the Mark Hancock book Pronunciation Games that works with the same sentences as Homophones Dictation above. Give students a kind of tree diagram where each branch splits into two every couple of centimetres, with about 5 stages of splits, making about 16 branches at the top of the tree. Write different place names at the end of each of the top branches, then write two homophones at each place where the branches split. These can be the same two homophones for the whole “tree” or a different set for each level (making five pairs of homophones). Read out sentences with the homophones in as in Homophones Dictation above. The students must choose the right branch for the spelling of the homophone you haven’t used each time, taking the left or right branch each time and then shouting out the name of the place that is written at the end of the final branch they end up at.

Spelling journey

This is the same as Homophone Journey above, but with each branching point being between two different spellings (e.g. ch for /k/ and c for /k/) or different spellings of the same or similar vowel sounds.

Spelling same or different

Give each student one card with “The same” written on it and one card with “Different” written on it. They should lift up the right card depending on whether the second word you read out has the same spelling as the first one or a different spelling. You can do that with students trying to spot similarities in the spellings of the whole word (for homophones, homographs or for homophones and minimal pairs) or for just part of the word (different ways of spelling vowel sounds etc).

Homophones same or different pairwork dictation

Prepare a list of ten pairs of homophones, e.g. “pair” and “pear”. On the Student A worksheet prepare ten example sentences for ten of those words. On the Student B worksheet, prepare ten example sentences, some of them for the same words as the Student A sheet and some for the homophones. The students should read out their example sentences to each other and decide together if their underlined words have the same or different spelling (obviously without spelling them out to each other). It is also possible to do this without underlining the relevant words, so that students have to spot which words are pronounced the same and then work out if they are the same word or just homophones.

Minimal pairs same or different pairwork dictation

This is the same as Homophones Same or Different Pairwork Dictation above, but with one student having ten words with example sentences and the other student having different example sentences, sometimes with the same word in them and sometimes with similar words (e.g. “pit” and “peat” or “sing” and “thing”). You will need to choose minimal pairs that usually cause problems for most of your students, e.g. by sounds that don’t exist in their languages.

Pairwork crosswords

Prepare a crossword with words that the students know the meaning of but have problems spelling (e.g. “cough”) but without any clues. Try to design it so that the places where two words cross will help them with the spelling. Write half the answers in the Student A copy of the grid and the other half of the answers in the Student B version, e.g. all the Across answers in Student A and the Down ones in Student B. The students must listen to their partner defining the word on their grid and try to understand which word they are talking about it and write it in a blank of their crossword.

Board race

Two teams of students race to write as many words in the category you have decided on as possible on their side of the board before the teacher shouts stop. Possible spelling points include words that have “ch” with /sh/ sound or words in which “et” at the end of word has a silent T. If space on the board or space in the room means students can’t line up in front of the board or you can’t have two people writing on it at the same time, you can also play the game with teams writing on scrap paper.

Unique ideas

This is similar to the idea above, but is a good way of avoiding students just writing out lists of words that they already knew before the course started. Give each student a small slip of scrap paper and tell them what category of word you want them to spell, e.g. a word with “oa” in the middle or words in which “th” has the unvoiced pronunciation. They have to try and write a word that no one else in the classes also chooses. After thirty seconds or one minute, get students to show their pieces of paper at the same time, and anyone who has written a correct word that no one else has gets a point. Continue with the same or different categories.

Spelling story challenge

For example, tell students to write a story with as many words with IE in as possible

Spelling magazine search

Give students English magazines (it doesn’t matter if they all have the same magazine or different ones) and tell them a category of spelling that you want them to search for, e.g. words with two consonants and one vowel plus an E at the end. Let them start searching for those kinds of words as quickly as possible. You can make the winner the person who finds a word in that category the quickest, the person who finds the most examples within the time limit, or the person who finds one word in that category that no one else does. The same game can be played by flicking through textbooks, graded readers, dictionaries etc.

Stop the mistake

Start spelling a word and students compete to shout “Stop!” when you make a (deliberate) mistake. This can be done with you telling them the word that you are going to spell or not.

Add errors

Give students different texts with no spelling mistakes and ask them to add a certain number of errors. They then swap texts with another group and look for the mistakes. It is obviously best if you choose or write texts with commonly confused words in. So that it isn’t too easy to spot the errors, when adding errors students will need to write the text out again in full or add the errors on a computer and then print it out or turn off the spellchecker before letting the other team use the same machine. This is really good for preparation for exams with error correction in, e.g. FCE and CAE.

Chain dictation

Dictate a list of words, and students try to work out how all the words are similar, e.g. all the words are ones in which “ea” has an /i:/ sound. This game is more fun and challenging if you mix it up with ones where the things in common are not related to spelling, e.g. meaning (they are all kinds of animal) or parts of speech (they are all nouns). It is also possible to play this game with them listening but not writing the words down


This is a technique that is usually used to present a grammar point (it is sometimes called Grammar Translation), that can also be used to present spelling rules. Prepare a text that has many examples of words that illustrate the spelling rule that you want to teach (e.g. “I before E except after C”, maybe with a few exceptions). Read it to the class slowly without them writing anything. Do the same, but with you speaking more quickly and students taking notes. They then work together to produce a whole text that is as similar to the original as they can produce from memory and their notes, and then compare it with the original. You can then use this to elicit the spelling rule.

Spelling Call My Bluff

Prepare some unbelievable spellings that student certainly won’t know, e.g. the surname Clough. Read out the word and the correct or incorrect spelling, and see if students can work out if it is true or not.

Spelling British and American English Call My Bluff

Spelling Call My Bluff above can also be used to present or practise variations of spelling. Bluff sentences could include claiming spellings are different when they are actually the same, getting them the wrong way round, changing them in a different way, or wrongly stating whether Australians or Canadians use British or American spelling for the word in question.

Discussion questions

You can combine speaking and spelling practice with questions such as:

-Should spelling mistakes like Dan Quayle’s famous “potatoe” mean someone can’t become president?

-Are homophones more important nowadays because spellcheck can’t pick them up?

-Would a reformed spelling system make your life easier or not? (Because you would have to learn new spellings, but it would be more consistent)

-Should English spelling be reformed, and if so how?

-Is the “I before E except after C” rule useful despite the many exceptions?

-Is learning spelling good for your brain and personality?

-Are these kinds of correction are useful or not? (With examples)

-What is the best way to learn English spelling?

-Are spelling mistakes important, even if people can understand what you mean?

-Does the use of spellcheckers mean that we no longer need to learn spelling?

-Does working on learning the spelling also help you remember the meaning of the word?

Articles about English spelling

There are plenty of interesting articles about English spelling, e.g. the recent decision to ban the “I before E except after C” explanation in English schools. These can then lead onto discussion questions like those above


This is another kind of discussion question that could involve thinking about and so hopefully learning the spelling. Give students a list of words that they have difficulty spelling and ask them to rank them by the most important to learn, the most in need of spelling reform, the most difficult to remember etc. They can do the same for the most useful spelling rule, the most useful example of a spelling rule to remember, the most useful acronym for a difficult to remember word etc.

Learning spelling different ways experiment

Give a list of words to be learnt and ask different students to learn them different ways before the next lesson, e.g. putting them on the toilet door, testing each other in pairs or making up acronyms. Test them in the next lesson and discuss which method was best.

Poems and songs

These can be used by taking out the last word of a rhyming line and asking students to guess what word is missing (from their imagination or from a large list of words) and then listening to check. This can be used for the Magic E spelling rule or for different spellings of the same vowel sound.


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