She insisted that her daughter not be penalized for misspellings–but spelling counts even out of the classroom, whether we like it or not. And millions don’t like it, and it’s no wonder. After all, English is not only loaded down with ninety spelling rules, they’re accompanied by about 3,500 exceptions! And forget about spelling a word the way it sounds. The first lines of this poem prove that:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through . . .

I’ll start by asking which of these words are correctly spelled. segue, dicotomy, bouillion, scissars, brouhaha, begger, shepard, lieutenent, calander, guaruntee. Are you sure? Remember that you can’t look them up. This is a test–just like the ones your child takes in school. Answers come later; for now, it’s enough if you’re starting to sympathize with the spelling-challenged.

Spelling demons abound—troublesome words loaded with silent letters (ache), and words that sound alike but are spelled differently (allowed/aloud). Then there are those troublesome double consonants where only one is sounded (allowed). Ever wondered about them? Educator James Cornish offers this explanation: During the Early English period, printers were paid by the letter. Adding an unnecessary one here and there increased their earnings—and messed with our heads forever after. As for those ninety spelling rules, the only one most of us recall is the “i before e, except after c,” but then weird neighbors come calling.

So now that you’ve taken a spelling test, been reminded of the vagaries of English, and are either a bad speller yourself or know one—perhaps your child–read on for some tips:

1. Talk often about the importance of spelling and play spelling games, such as Scrabble, Hangman, and Boggle.

2. Explain that all final copies, even worksheets, should be well-spelled.

3. Carelessness accounts for many misspellings, so remind your child to double-check by rereading the piece backward, starting with the very last word.

4. When unsure about a spelling, your child should circle it as she writes and look it up later.

5. Since looking up a hard-to-spell word can be a problem, consider investing in How to Spell It. Here, you find the word as you think it’s spelled, as in numonia, and right beside it is the correct spelling, pneumonia.

6. When asked to look over written work, don’t make the corrections yourself. Instead, place a light checkmark in the margin beside the line with the misspelling.

7. Frequently misspelled words should be recorded in a personal dictionary for easy reference. Just jot down the letters of the alphabet, each on a separate sheet of paper, together with several of their spelling demons.

8. For confusing words, encourage your child to come up with a mnemonic. (dessert: “Strawberry Shortcake is my favorite deSSert.”)

9. For repeatedly misspelled words, try VAKT (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Tactile). On a long sheet of paper, slowly write the word in cursive, saying it at the same time. Your child then traces it with a finger, while also saying the word. When ready, she turns the paper over and spells the word. If incorrect, these steps are repeated.

10. Help your child “hear” how some words are actually spelled, like “choc-o-late,” and “la-sag-na.”

11. Remind your child that a computer spell checker can reinforce correct spelling but also mislead. It doesn’t know, for example, that there’s a difference between then and than.

Answers: segue is correct. Correct spellings of the others: dichotomy, bouillon, scissors, brouhaha, beggar, shepherd, lieutenant, calendar, guarantee