American Vs. British Spelling in ELT Materials

One of the first decisions that an editor has to make is whether to use American English or British English spelling. For a company with an international audience, that decision can be daunting. For an ELT materials publishing company, that decision affects not only teachers who are fluent in English, but also students who are learning English—learners who will likely be confused by spelling variations.

How did ESL-Library come to the decision to use American English spelling?

Good question! After all, we are a Canadian company (Canada follows British English spelling, for the most part) with subscribers from all over the world. But, in the end, we decided to go with our largest market, the USA. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. Almost all of the team members at Red River Press (home to ESL-Library and Sprout English) come from English-teaching backgrounds, so we are aware of the frustrations that English teachers and learners face when dealing with materials that don’t use the same spelling system as the country you’re in. I myself worked at an ESL school in Vancouver, Canada, that used textbooks from both the US and the UK. I saw the confusion that different spellings sometimes created for my students. Let’s face it—English vocabulary and spelling is tough enough without having more than one variation per word!

Does ESL-Library address spelling variations?

Yes, we do! One thing we strive to do is to include a list of all the words with spelling variations in every lesson. If you’re doing one of our lessons, check out the Answer Key / Teachers’ Notes at the end of the lesson. There is usually a box called Spelling Notes with a list of how words are spelled in America vs. other English-speaking countries. We also suggest challenging students to spot those words within the lesson and see if they know the alternate spelling. For example, you could ask, “Who can find the word favorite? What pages does it appear on?” and “Who can tell me another spelling of favorite?” (for lower-level learners), or “Who can find a word in this lesson that is spelled differently in the US / Canada / the UK?” (for higher-level learners).

Should you teach spelling variations to your students?

Even though spelling variations can be a pain, we feel it’s something that students should be exposed to in the classroom. The Web is a huge part of most students’ lives, so they come across both American and British spelling on a regular basis. Preparing them to encounter these spelling variations (see my three suggestions, below) and dealing with these variations in class will cause less confusion in the long run.

Three suggestions for dealing with spelling variations with your students:

Check out the article American Vs. British Spelling on our sister site, Sprout English. In that article, I offer the following suggestions in greater detail.

1) Provide students with an American / British spelling comparison list.

2) Point out spelling variations within a lesson.

  • Point out the words that have an alternate spelling as you’re working through a lesson.
  • Check out the Answer Keys for almost all ESL-Library’s lessons…we’ve already found the spelling variations for you (look in the box called Spelling Notes).
  • Challenge your students to find those words in the lesson and see if anyone can tell you the alternative spelling.

3) Tell students why American spelling is different from British spelling.

  • Check out the History section (point #3 in the article).
  • In a nutshell, back in nineteenth century America, Noah Webster (of Webster’s and Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries) decided to make spelling changes to distinguish American English from British English and to better reflect the pronunciation of certain words.

We’re curious to know what our fellow teachers do. Do you go over spelling variations in class? Do you use materials from different countries, or do you stick to textbooks from only one country? Have you ever changed the spelling within a lesson before handing it out? Leave us a comment below and tell us about your experiences with English spelling.


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