American Vs. British Spelling

How many words are there in the English language? Global Language Monitor estimated that number was 1,013,913 on January 1, 2012. Most dictionaries list the number of current words at around 150,000. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary has entries for 171,476 words in current use.

English spelling: The number of words notwithstanding, spelling in English is a lot more difficult than in other languages. Many languages have a limited number of sounds; for instance, a, e, i, o, and u only have one pronunciation each in many languages. English, however, has 26 vowel sounds alone! Outside of vowel sounds, many English words have spelling that doesn’t match the pronunciation, with words such as knight, cough, phone, etc. Also, there aren’t many rules for English spelling, and the few rules we do have are often broken (consider the i before e, except after c rule: chief, but their).

American vs. British spelling: To top it all off, there are also spelling variations that differ by region of the world. The most prevalent difference is American spelling vs. the spelling of other English-speaking countries, which primarily follow British spelling practices. These differences can be frustrating for teachers and students (not to mention business owners, government workers, and many others.). At my old school in Canada, we used textbooks from both the US and the UK, so students were exposed to both American and British spelling on a regular basis. Figuring out how to present these spelling differences to students was a challenge.

Students have enough trouble learning the spelling of the many words they come across without introducing a second spelling variation into the mix. But, with the exposure they get on the Internet these days, the reality is that they will see English in all its forms on a regular basis. So what can teachers do to prepare their students for the spelling variations they’ll see? Three suggestions include handing out a comparison list, pointing out differences within the lesson, and telling students the history of the changes. 

1. Comparison lists:

If your students have access to a list that compares American and British spelling, they’ll expect to see these changes and will be less confused when they come across them. English Club, Oxford Dictionaries Online, and Tysto have good lists.

Another fun activity to do with students is to go over vocabulary differences between countries. Kids who grew up with American or Canadian English will find “lorry” (British English) instead of “truck” (North American English) amusing, and vice versa. English Club, Oxford Dictionaries Online, and have some great lists. The last one includes visuals and would be great for kids. Showing lists like these was always very popular with my students! I often cut up the word pairs and had students try to match them up.

2. Pointing out the changes within a lesson:

There is no right or wrong time to introduce spelling changes to students. It may depend on your students’ level, age, and/or materials you use. If you teach young or beginner students and you’re only using one text for the session, I would probably hold off teaching this difference until they were a bit older or higher level. If you teach teens or adults, I would introduce these differences early on because they usually find it interesting and respond well (but I would wait for a while if they were really low beginners). Regardless of level and age, if you deal with materials that present both spelling variations, it’s probably best to introduce this topic early on in order to minimize confusion.

So how does Sprout English handle the spelling differences for our international audience? Though we are a Canadian company (and Canada follows UK spelling rules, for the most part), our sister site, ESL-Library, has a large American audience, so as a company we stick to American spelling. We really wish we could do both, but since we can’t, we try to include information about the spelling differences in our Answer Keys. (Sprout English’s Word Bank includes such notes, and most of our new lessons will as well.) Recently, Sprout English’s Facebook fan Selina asked if there were any way to edit our lessons into British spelling. Unfortunately, there isn’t, but we include the American/British variations in the Teachers’ Notes when we can. We also suggest challenging your students to find those words within the lesson (i.e., ask, “Who can find the word “favorite”? What page is it on?”) and see if they know the alternate spelling (i.e., ask, “Who can tell me another way to spell this word?”). Explain to your learners that some words are spelled differently in the US, and explain why (see History, below) if they’re curious. Some common spelling variations within our lessons include (American/British): favorite/favourite, color/colour, neighbor/neighbour, neighborhood/neighbourhood, and center/centre.

3. History:

Students might be curious as to why the American spelling of some words is different from other English-speaking countries. In a nutshell, Noah Webster, a nineteeth-century lexicographer (yes, the Webster of Webster’s and Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries) is responsible for the changes. Webster decided to make spelling changes for two main reasons: 1) to spell words in a way that reflects how they are pronounced, and 2) to make American spelling distinct from British spelling. Some of his changes have even spread to the UK, such as dropping the k from musick, but most of his changes affect American (and sometimes Canadian) spelling only. It looks like this won’t change anytime soon, so English learners are stuck with facing two spelling variations of many English words.

So what do you think? Should teachers expose their students to both the American and British spelling of a word, or just stick to one or the other?



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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.

4 Responses to “American Vs. British Spelling”

  1. Ken Kuo

    Great article, Tanya. I teach Business English in Southeast Asia, so I always explain the differences between British English and American English. My already eager adult learners already set the stage when they ask why there are variations in what they read and hear from people of many background speaking and writing in English.

  2. Bonifacio Paniagua

    Well Tanya, Good point. Let me tell you that my students here in the Dominican Republic are not so interested in British English and that´s because most Domican poeple abroad are in the USA, I can understand that point, but I give them examples or reason why they should study British English as well as American English , and always I try to motivate them to do it. One example I give them is one experience I had when I went to work in a cruise ship and the English I had to listen, write and spoke there was the British one, so it was very difficult for me cause the English we learn here in the Dominican the American one and from that exerience and on I started to find out much more about British English.

    • Tanya Trusler

      Giving examples or reasons why students should study both spelling systems is a great suggestion! Thanks for your personal example, Bonifacio.


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