Common ESL Spelling Challenges

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning to speak, listen, read, and write in English can certainly be a challenge. This lesson addresses some of the specific spelling challenges often facing English language learners.

Why Spelling Challenges Matter

Learning to speak, listen, read, and write in English can be challenging for your students. One thing that makes writing in English particularly difficult is its idiosyncratic spelling patterns, and learning how to spell in English is no joke! Misspelling words can make a huge difference in meaning, and also in how the writer is perceived by readers.

As you work with students on English spelling challenges, be aware that they may be struggling with English spelling because they are generalizing from spelling rules learned in their first language. Reminders of English spelling conventions will go a long way toward helping your students avoid errors.

While some aspects of English spelling can only be learned by practice and by increased reading, you can help your students by explaining some tricks and rules to make spelling a bit easier. This lesson addresses common spelling challenges faced by English language learners. While it is impossible to provide a comprehensive list of these challenges, the ones presented here are some of the most common.


One of the most difficult issues in English spelling is that there are so many homophones. These are words that sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently. Many homophones need to be memorized in order to be properly differentiated and learned. Here are some of the most common ones:

There, Their, and They're

There refers to location, as in The cup is over there, or begins a sentence, as in There are many children in this room. Their refers to possession: That is their house. They're is the contracted form of they are: They're coming to play this afternoon.

To, Too, and Two

To is a preposition, used like Please give it to me. Too refers to an excess or also: There are too many cars on the road, or James would like to come too. Two is a number: Two of the students stayed home today.

Other Homophones

These include affect and effect, except and accept, ate and eight, flower and flour, and many more. Help your students to learn these and spell them appropriately.

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