Over the past few years, much has been written about the pass rates in South African schools. When it comes to school subjects, one of the most controversial suggestions of recent times was made in 2019 – to lower the mathematics pass rate to 20%. With so many in the country focused on that, there has been little attention paid to spelling, both in school and after school.

But spelling correctly isn’t just a South African problem, it’s a global one.

Read on to find out why spelling is important, what’s making your spelling worse, and how you can begin improving your English spelling immediately.

Why is Spelling Important?

No matter what career you go into, your spelling will be on show for all to see.

Even if you don’t write material for the public to read, most careers require that you make connections and network – which usually means that you’ll have to write emails, at the very least.

If your correspondence with other professionals has the occasional typo, it’s easy to overlook. But if words are consistently spelled wrong and you use poor grammar, it may make it harder for you to be taken seriously and progress in your career.

Beyond ensuring your communications are professional, the true power of spelling correctly is in making sure the recipient can understand your message as easily as possible.

In an email littered with typos and incorrect grammar, the reader may spend more time trying to decipher what you mean rather than engaging with what you actually mean.

Spelling in South Africa

school boy wearing backpack
With 11 official languages, not all South Africans are taught in English.

Although there have been multiple movements over the past few years to dismantle English as the primary language of instruction in high schools and universities in South Africa, global business still speaks English – so it’s vital to not only be able to speak the language, but to write English correctly, if you have ambitions of an international career.

With 11 official languages and under 10% of the South African population speaking English as a first language, it goes without saying that perfecting their English spelling is a low priority for many South Africans.

But if you’re a native English speaker, or an English as a second language speaker, who wants to improve your spelling, you’ve come to the right place.

How Texting Affects Spelling

person using smartphone
Texting makes it easy to get into the habit of shortening words, using slang and neglecting proofreading.

When mobile phones first came to South Africa, users had a 160-character limit to the SMSes they wanted to send or they’d be charged for multiple SMSes. Remember, these were the days before data, WhatsApp or any social media – so getting your point across without using too much airtime was paramount.

So, because of the character limit, a text that might have looked like this:

Hey! How are you? It was great to see you last night. I think I left my jacket at your house. Are you coming to Sam’s braai on Saturday? Please bring it with you so I can grab it. Enjoy your day.

Looked like this:

Hey, hw u? It was gud 2 c u last nyt. I think I lft my jacket @ ur house. R u cming 2 Sam’s braai on Sat? Pls bring it wit u so I can grb it. Njoy yr day.

By the time messaging apps like MXit, BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) and WhatsApp came along, South Africans were already in the habit of shortening their texts, and social media platforms like Twitter (with 140-character limits) didn’t help.

These days, most messaging and social media platforms don’t have character limits, and Twitter has increased their character count to 280 characters – but yet, text speak persists.

To illustrate how pervasive text-speak is, in South Africa it goes beyond just English spelling. Recently, the word ‘sbwl’ has become a trending topic on South African Twitter. If you’re not a regular on the platform, you’re excused for having no idea what it means. ‘Sbwl’ is short for ‘sabaweli’, a Xhosa word meaning ‘to crave’. So, on Twitter, you might say something like, “Sbwl a cold Coke and a hot bae this Dezemba.”

Notice how many of those words are misspelt or unique to social media? That’s because, in the modern age, purposeful misspelling isn’t just about saving time or fitting into character limits – it’s about showing that you’re part of the tribe, and that you understand the meaning of the content, whereas someone who isn’t part of the tribe might get hung up on what ‘sbwl’, ‘bae’ and ‘Dezemba’ mean.

While being up-to-date with the latest social media slang is an accepted part of being a young person, it won’t get you very far in your next exam or when putting together an introductory email in the professional world.

How to Improve Your Spelling

woman working on laptop
You can start improving your spelling immediately by proofreading your statuses, captions and Tweets.

If you’re under the age of 40, chances are you’ve engaged in text-speak at some point in your life. If you’re under 30, you’ve probably spent more of your life writing in text speak on social media and instant messaging platforms than you’ve spent spelling words correctly in semi-formal and formal settings, like exams and emails.

That kind of conditioning can be hard to undo, particularly if you aren’t a strong speller to begin with.

The easiest way to begin improving your English spelling immediately is to stop writing in text speak, and make correct spelling part of how you write – regardless of what platform you’re writing on.

Most smartphones these days will autocorrect incorrect spelling, so you may not even notice if you’re spelling words wrong, but it’s important to always pay close attention.

For example, if you spell a word incorrectly often, or use a large amount of slang on your phone, your phone may even autocorrect your correct spelling to the incorrect spelling or slang – and that’s not very helpful when you’re trying to improve.

Once you’ve given up text speak, the next most important thing you can do is to start proofreading everything you write. It may sound ridiculous to proofread your next Facebook status or Instagram caption, but, just like weaning yourself off text speak, the intention is to make proofreading an integral part of how you write so that one day, you don’t even notice you’re doing it.

Additional Tips and Tricks

scrabble tiles spelling Read More
There are many tips and tricks to help you improve your spelling.

Read More

Whether you enjoy current events, celebrity gossip, sci-fi or literary fiction, as long as you’re reading, you’re improving your spelling. The more types of materials you read the better, as you’ll expose yourself to more words. Seeing words written down helps create pathways in your brain, helping you recognise when a word looks correct and when it looks incorrect.

Word of the Day

Sign up to a Word of the Day service where you get a new word sent to you every day. Make a point of memorising the spelling and meaning of the word, and if you want to, even try to work it into your casual conversation. This has the double benefit of teaching you to spell new words, while improving your vocabulary.

Know the Enemy

There are some words that you just find difficult to spell and you don’t know why. Some examples of common difficult words include ‘because’, ‘knowledge’, ‘answer’, and ‘recipient’.

When you come across new words that you find difficult to spell, memorise them and make a point of paying extra attention to them when proofreading things that you’ve written.

Spelling and Grammar Check

While spelling and grammar checks on your smartphone or laptop aren’t always reliable, they can be a huge benefit in helping you recognise words you consistently spell wrong. If you can, turn off auto-correct and instead instruct your word processing program to notify you when you spell a word wrong – usually this means you will see a read squiggly line that draws your attention to words you’ve spelled incorrectly. This allows you to see where you’re making mistakes and gives you the opportunity to correct them yourself.

Memorise Mnemonics

A mnemonic device is a learning technique that helps improve your memory. One of the most famous mnemonic devices is ‘Betty Eats Cake And Uncle Sells Eggs’ to help remember the spelling of B-E-C-A-U-S-E.

Here are some other mnemonic devices to help you remember how to spell commonly misspelled words:

  • CHURCH: CH on the right, CH on the left, and U R (you are) in the middle
  • OCEAN: Only Cats Eyes Are Narrow
  • HERE/HEAR: Remember, you HEAR with your EAR.
  • SLAUGHTER: SLAUGHTER is LAUGHTER starting with an S

Write down the words you commonly misspell and try make your own mnemonic devices to help remember them.

If you’re still having trouble learning how to spell correctly, why not consider approaching a tutor for help with your English spelling?

Need an English teacher?

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Diona is a award-winning copywriter and digital strategist from Belgrade based in Johannesburg.