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Why are English words so hard to read and spell? Posted by on Jan 21, 2014 in English Language, English Vocabulary

Do you have trouble with your spelling in English, don’t worry you are not alone. Read on to find out more about why spelling is so difficult in English.

I have read that English has 1,100 different ways to write the 44 different sounds made by the 26 letters in the English alphabet. That is a lot of ways to spell just a few sounds! All of these different spelling combinations result in some of the tricky English words like:

  • Homophones – words that have the same sounds but are spelled differently
  • Words with silent letters

and

  • Spelling rules that have exceptions.  For example here is a great spelling rule in English: “i before e, except after c” as in the word ‘piece’ ‘relief’ and ‘receipt.’ This rule works most of the time, but not with these words: ‘weird,’ ‘conscience’ – these are exceptions to the rule!

There are many reasons for all of the crazy spellings of words in English.  For some words, the pronunciation has changed over time, but the spelling was not changed. Other words have been borrowed from other languages, and kept their original spellings, but English speakers have decided to pronounce the words according to English pronunciation rules.  There are other reasons too, but what matters the most is learning how to pronounce words even with their funny English spelling. Here is a great website for you to use to help you learn how to recognize and pronounce strangely spelled words in English. This website looks at words like:

enough – where the ‘ough’ is pronounced ‘uff’
and
through – where the ‘ough’ is pronounced ‘ew’

and it gives you some hints on English spelling rules.

I hope you find this website as helpful as I do.

You may also want to look back on these other posts I have written about spelling in English:

How do you spell that again?

Spelling test

Rules for Spelling Differences Between British and American English

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


Comments:

  1. Greg Brooks:

    Please tell me where you read that English has 1,100 different ways to write the 44 different sounds.
    My own estimate is about 280, so I’m very curious.
    Thanks in advance

    • Gabriele:

      @Greg Brooks Greg,
      I found that number in David Sousa’s book How the Brain Learns to Read (Second Edition – 2014).
      Parts of this book are available online through Google Books. The numbers I’m referencing were on page 40 of this book.
      Hope that helps.
      -Gabriele