How’s your spelling? How would you get on with ‘accommodate’, ‘rhythm’, ‘conscience’ or ‘occurrence’ if I asked you to spell them without looking at them? If you find it difficult, you’re not alone – over half of adults in a recent survey had trouble spelling commonly used words.

In one of my roles I’m an editor, and yet when I took the spelling test of the most commonly misspelled words put online by The Telegraph, I fell down on ‘occurrence’– how many ‘r’s does the darn thing need?! I realise just how reliant I have become on my computer’s spell checking function – and 40 per cent of people in the survey (by Nick Jr UK TV) confessed that they rely on autocorrect technology to monitor their spelling. I suspect reliance is a lot higher than that, in fact, especially in younger people.

How to improve one’s spelling? The obvious answer is to read more, so that you see words spelled correctly and will learn them. But in fact, the jury is out on this, and research is mixed. Learning to spell in the classroom is certainly influential. But what reading can definitely do is to improve your vocabulary – there, the research is unanimous.

Improving vocabulary

By the time a person reaches adulthood they have a vocabulary of around 30,000 words, at least; more in some cases. You will use hundreds in your everyday speech. We learn many words by hearing them and repeating them until we get them right. But reading is also key: the Institute of Education (IOE) recently analysed the vocabulary test scores of 9,400 people in a simple quiz that asked participants to match words with similar meanings.

The IOE compared the scores of people at the ages of 10, 16 and 42. It found that those who had regularly read for pleasure at age 10 scored a decent 67 per cent aged 42, while those who had read infrequently as children only scored 51 per cent. Getting into good reading habits as a child sets you up for life. Tutors, teachers and parents can all encourage such good habits in their pupils and children.

The IOE research also showed that it’s not just reading, but what you read that matters. People who read what it termed ‘highbrow’ fiction made the greatest improvements in knowledge of vocabulary between the ages of 16 and 42. Readers of quality newspapers (including online versions) made more progress in vocabulary than people who did not read newspapers.

Viewing habits can also extend the number of words you know. Research by Oxford University Press published in 2014 showed that children regularly used what one might consider obscure terms in their written work because of the influence of popular culture. For example, they increasingly used ‘ocelot’, ‘nether’ and ‘spawn’ because of the popularity of the game Minecraft. The word ‘minion’ was declared children’s ‘word of the year’ following a 250 per cent increase in its usage because of characters from the film Despicable Me. So don’t condemn popular culture for ruining our children’s way with words!

However, what young people do need is exposure to more, and more interesting, vocabulary. Anything we can do to encourage this will help them in later life. The fact is that graduates of the top Russell Group universities scored 81 per cent in vocabulary tests at age 42 – one suspects that they were encouraged in wide, and regular, reading habits from the very start.




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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.