1. Basic Facts of English Spelling 3. Word Families  4. More Families 5.  Word Fun 6. Some Rules 7. More Rules 8. Weird Words Say-it-in-English Entry Page
Absolutely Ridiculous English Spelling

Lesson 2. Clues on How to Read and Spell Common English Words

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There are many books and tapes on English pronunciation in your schools, libraries and book stores, so we will not deal with that issue here.  When we talk about long vowel sounds or short vowel sounds, or any other sounds represented by written letters, it will always be the standard American English alphabet and sounds that we are referring to. Also, sounds such as Long I and Long O will be treated as individual sounds rather than as diphthongs (blended vowel sounds) as linguists would call them.

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1. Words spelled with -ought or -aught:

Words that end with -ought or -aught will almost always end with a sound similar to -OT  as in not. 

 This is a nice short list and will be easy to memorize.

 Then you will know that any word you hear with the /OT/ sound that is not on this short list will probably be spelled with the letters O-T.

 Examples: spot, clot, forgot, shot, trot, plot, not, got, rot, pot, sot, lot, jot, hot, dot, etc.


bought,  sought, thought,  ought, 

taught,  caught,

fought,  wrought, brought

  • Mr. Martin bought a new lawn mower yesterday.
  • The hiker sought an easier way to cross the stream.
  • I thought this lesson would be shorter.
  • You ought to finish this lesson before starting the next one.
  • The math teacher taught Mary how to solve quadratic equations.
  • Mrs. Johnson caught another mouse in the trap.
  • The Union Army fought the Confederacy in many battles during the Civil War.
  • It was horrible to see the mayhem wrought by the terrorists.
  • My grandmother brought a gift for us when she came to visit.

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There are no rules that cover all of the -ough words.  Some sound the same and others stand alone, but you need to learn them all. 

Bough, a tree limb, rhymes with cow,  a four-footed animal that gives milk. Bough also rhymes with bow, what a stage performer does after the show, bending at the waist toward the audience.  But then, how do you tell the difference between bow (rhymes with how) and  bow (rhymes with go), which is what one shoots an arrow with?  This is where the idea of CONTEXT comes in.  Context refers to the situation in which the word is used - what the other words in the sentence are referring to.  "After the archer shot an arrow into the bull's eye, he leaned his bow against the bough and gave a bow to the audience."  The words archer and arrow tell us that the first bow probably refers to the instrument with which an arrow is shot, which means it will rhyme with GO.  The second bow is used in a part of the sentence which includes the word audience, so this probably refers to the action of bending at one's waist as a sign of respect or appreciation and will rhyme with HOW or NOW.





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Through ends with a Long U sound and is pronounced the same as threw, what Sammy did with the baseball.  "Sammy threw the ball through the window."  How can you remember which is which?  Think about who threw something.  He threw ; She threw ; We threw ; They threw.  Notice the letter E in each of the words.    Remember that the word that means "sent an object flying by releasing it from one's swinging hand"  has an E in it, thus must be threw.  On the other hand, the train drove through the tunnel, with 'through' and 'tunnel' both containing the letter U.

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Rough, tough and enough rhyme with each other and end with the same sound as stuff.  Using the words in a rhyme might help you remember that they are spelled alike so if you know how to spell any one of them, you will know the others, also: Example: "I'm rough and tough and that's enough." or "How was my cruise? The seas were rough; the meat was tough; I've had enough." A less common word in this group is slough, meaning to shed dead skin.





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  • The huge bough of the oak tree broke in the wind storm and fell on the roof.

  • The famous actor made a deep bow to the audience at the end of the play.

  • English archers during the Middle Ages used powerful long bows.

  • The engineers dug a long tunnel through the mountain that blocked the roadway.

  • The pitcher threw a curve ball to strike out the last batter.

  • The path through the woods was rough and uneven due to the roots and rocks that littered the way.

  • The gardener had trouble cutting the tough stalks of the weeds that had invaded his flower bed.

  • I think I have written enough sentences for this lesson.

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  • Though rhymes with go or show.  In advertisements or informal writing it is often written as tho, which seems much more logical.  Though can be used as a conjunction or as an adverb in English.
  • Cough rhymes with off.  When Jim came down with a cold, he had to cough many times.
  • Another odd word is  draught, which rhymes with draft. This word, spelled the British way first and the American way second, has many different meanings:  a current of air; a document authorizing payment of money; a drink, plans for a building, signing up new players for professional sports teams, etc. 
  • British spelling includes plough, which is the same as our plow, to till or dig up the dirt in a farm field.  Plow rhymes with cow, now.

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  • Though there was a small chance of showers, we decided to have the picnic anyway.

  • The elderly man was embarrassed when he had to cough several times during the concert.

  • The home buyer was told she would have to pay the deposit with a bank draught.

  • I have used strips of foam rubber to prevent drafts around doors and windows.

  • In England, farmers plough their fields, but in Ohio, farmers plow their farm fields.

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2. The -ight dilemma: There are many words in English that end with the letters -ight and are pronounced kind of like "ah-ee-t", or like a long i + t. Hundreds of years ago, the gh was pronounced, but time and speech patterns changed; Now you just have to write the letters, not pronounce them. These words rhyme with  bite or kite.   -ight is a large family and when you hear that sound in a word, there is a better than 60% chance that you will be correct if you spell it with -ight.

  Common words in this group include: fight, light, night, might, right, tight, sight, insight, mighty, fighter, nightly, fright, delight, bright, knight, alight, enlighten, frighten, height, sightly,  plight.

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  • The cavalry prepared to continue the fight at the first light of dawn.

  • I decided I might take a walk each night after dinner.

  • You must turn the nut to the right to make it tight.

  • I was thrilled at the sight of the mighty whale splashing in the ocean.

  • The counselor had no insight into the motives of the fighter.

  • Nightly, I had to deal with the fright of walking home alone.

  • After spending hours cleaning the kitchen, it was a delight to see the bright, gleaming sink and faucets.

  • When the brave knight arrived at the castle, he had to alight from his horse.

  • The class waited for the teacher to enlighten them with the historical facts.

  • The rock climber tried not to let the height of the cliff frighten him.

  • The sightly young girl was troubled by her plight in the strange new town.

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2-A.  Eight = Long A sound +T.      eight, freight, weight rhyme with gate. Since there are only a few members of this family, you should be able to remember them easily. Try this: "What is the weight of the freight on car number eight?"   If you are able to spell any of these words, then you will know the others because the endings are all the same.

  •  Relatives of the -eight family are weigh and sleigh. These words keep the Long A sound, but without the T at the end. Weigh and sleigh rhyme with way and slay. 

2-B. A final member of this group is straight. Again, there is the Long A sound followed by T, and the word rhymes with crate, trait, and great.  There is also the word strait, a narrow stretch of water between two bodies of land, which rhymes with straight.

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  • There were eight coal cars in the long freight train.

  • The weight of the gate made it sag on its hinges.

  • The roofer wondered how much Santa's sleigh might weigh.

  • The shortest distance across the Strait of Hormuz is a straight line.

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3.  Words with beginning letters that are silent. A method often  used when learning to spell such words is to pronounce the silent letter to yourself every time you write the word. If you do that every time, you will not forget. But how, you may ask, does one know which words begin with silent letters if you hear the words but do not see them? That is simple....you cannot. That is why it is important to read as much as possible so you become familiar with just about any word you are likely to hear.

  • Silent P - psychology, psychiatrist, psychoanalysis, pneumatic, pneumonia. As you are preparing to write the word, say to yourself, "p-sy-chol-ogy", not "sy-chol-ogy" or "p-neu-mon-ia", not "neu-mon-ia".
  • Silent k - knife, know, knew, knit, knapsack, knuckle, knock, knickers. The same trick works with these words. EVERY time you write the word, pronounce the silent K to yourself, so as you write you are thinking, "k-nife", not "nife", and "k-nap-sack", not "nap-sack"
  • Miscellaneous: gnat, gnaw. Use the same method as with the Silent P and the Silent K.

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  • I took several psychology courses in college.
  • A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in illnesses of the mind.
  • Most tire shops use pneumatic wrenches to remove tires from cars and trucks.
  • Most serious hikers carry a knife on their belt or in their knapsack.
  • I do not know how to knit.
  • Many people knock on doors with their knuckles.
  • Two things that bother me are gnats that fly into my eyes and people who gnaw on their fingernails.

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4. Some of the most difficult words to learn to spell are also some of the most common words in English.  These words are difficult because they do not follow the normal pronunciation rules in English, so you cannot spell them by sounding them out.  Here are several of those words followed by their pronunciations.  You will find more such words and explanations in Lesson 5, Word Fun.

one - /wun/ ; to - /tu/ ; do - /du/ ; shoe - /shoo/ ; of - /uv/ ; was - /wuz/ ; two - /tu/ ; from - /frum/ ; come - /cum/ ; some - /sum/ ; were - /wer/ ; does - /duz/

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  • Please bring me one hot dog and two cups of tea.

  • We are going to do our homework after dinner.

  • The right rear shoe of your horse is loose.

  • The visiting professor was from Poland.

  • After much debate, the committee finally had to come to some conclusion.

  • John and Henry were wondering, "Does the bus stop at this corner?"

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5. More English words that are not pronounced in normal everyday conversation the way they are spelled: T or TT in the middle of a word often is pronounced like the letter D

water, often pronounced /wahder/ latter, often pronounced /ladder/ bitter, often pronounced /bidder/
batter, often pronounced /badder/ letter, often pronounced /ledder/ sitter, often pronounced /sidder/
better, often pronounced /bedder/ fatter, often pronounced like /fadder/ setter, often pronounced /sedder/
butter, often pronounced /budder/ litter, often pronounced /lidder/ matter, often pronounced /madder/

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  • Do you need to put water in the cake batter?

  • The batter will be better if you add real butter to it.

  • In judging the performance of the singers, we decided the latter was better.

  • Letters from charities seeking donations are often fatter than other letters.

  • Too many people think it doesn't matter if they throw litter from the car window.

  • Alice was bitter when she was fired from her job as a baby sitter.

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There are also situations in which a T at the end of one word followed by another word that begins with a vowel or an H will sound like D:

let her, often pronounced /ledder/ hit him, often pronounced like /hiddem/ hurt him, often pronounced like /hurdem/
let it, often pronounced like /leddit/ met her, often pronounced like /medder/ bit her, often pronounced like /bidder/
set it, often pronounced like /seddit/ bet it, often prounced like /beddit/ let him, often pronounced like /leddem/

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Glottal Stop: Sudden closing of the glottis, the space between the vocal cords in the throat, shutting off any further sound. Then there are situations where the Glottal Stop takes the place of final T's or T's between syllables and where final D's are not pronounced at all.  The final consonant of one word or syllable will blend with the beginning consonant of the next word or syllable. How is this related to Spelling?  It will show you that what you hear is not always the same as what you need to write.  The following chart will show you how some common phrases are spelled, then how they are pronounced.  The apostrophe ( ' ) will show where a Glottal Stop is often used in conversation.  Some of these are examples of careless speech habits and other are common practices to help English pronunciation flow more smoothly. 

hit the ball- /hi' thuh bawl/ had to go- /ha tu go/ or /hadda go/ Mister Martin - /mister mar'en/
shut the door- /shu' thuh dor/ the dog bit the boy- /thuh dawg bi' thuh boy/ shorten the rope - /shor'en thuh rop/
caught the fly ball- /caw' thuh fly bawl/ had to sit down- /ha tuh si' down/ or /hadda si' down/ feed the kitten - /fee' thuh ki'en/

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  • After striking out two times, Jose finally hit the ball.

  • Mother yelled at Johnny, "Will you please shut the door!"

  • Billy was excited when he caught the fly ball."

  • Larry's parents told him he had to go to school even if he didn't feel well.

  • After being teased, the dog bit the boy.

  • The teacher told the student she had to sit down."

  • Mister Martin was my math teacher.

  • The farmer had to shorten the rope holding the nervous horse.

  • Before going to school, Jenny had to feed the kitten."

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6. -ed endings that sound like T. There is a group of words that end with the suffix "-ED" , but are pronounced as if they end with the letter T.  The root forms of these words will end with -CK or -SS or -PP.  Here are some examples:

passed  sounds like past sassed sounds like sast trapped sounds like trapt
missed sounds like mist packed sounds like pact stepped sounds like stept
kissed sounds like kist picked sounds like pict tripped sounds like tript
mussed sounds like must pecked sounds like pect tricked sounds like trict
messed sounds like mest sacked sounds like sact strapped sounds like strapt
flossed sounds like flost socked sounds like soct flopped sounds like flopt
tossed sounds like tost sucked sounds like suct locked sounds like loct

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  • The truck driver was distracted when a loud car passed him and he drove past his exit.

  • Due to the mist thrown up by the tires on the wet pavement, David missed the street he was looking for.

  • When Michael's mother kissed him, she also mussed his hair.

  • John's friends messed up his room when they came to play video games.

  • Betty flossed her teeth every night before going to bed.

  • My brothers and I often tossed a baseball back and forth.

  • Louise got in trouble when she sassed her teacher.

  • After Richard packed his suitcase for the trip, his wife picked out other clothes for him to take.

  • The chickens pecked the corn thrown out by the farmer.

  • The worker was sacked, or fired, when he came to work late.

  • The airport was socked in when the heavy fog spread across the runways.

  • The tiny toys became trapped in the vacuum cleaner hose after they were sucked into the opening.

  • Fred stepped onto the bus too quickly and tripped over the threshold.

  • The burglar tricked the home owner and locked him in the bathroom.

  • The large fish flopped all over the table until the fisherman strapped it down.

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Try different ways to study.  People learn new information in different ways.  These are called "Learning Styles".  Some people simply need to read new information and it seems to stick in their brains as if it were glued there, or as if they had a video recorder in their heads.  Other people learn new things better if they hear it explained or described.  Still others need to use the new information in some way, such as reading it aloud or discussing it with someone or by writing it on a chalkboard or in a notebook.  Many people like to use a combination of these methods.  Here is a good rule to follow:  The more difficult something is for you to learn, the more you need to use extra channels to get the information into your brain.

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Receiving information into your brain through your eyes.  This can be by reading, watching a movie or video, watching what happens around you.  Motion, larger size and bright colors make SIGHT information easier to remember.  Receiving information into your brain through your ears.  This can be by listening to your teacher or other students in class; by listening to tapes, CD's, radio or other sources of sound information; by listening to yourself as you read or speak.  Receiving information into your brain through movements that your body makes.  This can be whole body movements such as running, skating, playing tennis, or movements of small parts of your body as in writing, drawing, or building a model plane.  Speaking also involves moving parts of your body.  Your brain will remember movements that you make time after time in the same way a path will be worn across a field if people walk the same way day after day Receiving information into your brain through your sense of touch.  Nerve endings in your fingertips and all over your skin can sense heat and cold, rough and smooth, and a variety of other textures and conditions.  Ways to use TOUCH to help you learn or remember new information: write words with your fingertips in sand (or salt) spread over a large tray; use finger paints to write or draw new information; use textured letters (made of carpeting, plastic, wood, metal, etc.) to spell out words.   This actually combines most of the other channels in one activity: the motion of your lips, tongue, cheeks, jaw, vocal chords, lungs; hearing the sounds that your speech organs make; seeing words on a page if the speech involves reading aloud; touch if you follow along on the page or chalkboard with your finger while you read. 


Assignment:  Write all the spelling words from this page in your notebook.  Allow 3 lines for each word.  On the first line, write the first two or three definitions of the word (if there are that many).  On the second line, use the word in a sentence that you make up.  On the third line, write the word one letter at a time as you say each letter aloud.  Look at the word carefully, then close your eyes and picture the word with each letter clearly visible.  Write the word with your eyes closed.  Repeat these steps until you are sure that you know the word completely.  When you have studied 10 words this way, get a friend or acquaintance to read each word to you as you spell the word and use it in a sentence.  

You can meet the Word Families on the next page.

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