Instructor Guide: Spelling Variation

black woman writing

Learning to identify spelling variations common in African American English will help you to support students’ authentic voices.

Student writers may vary their spelling, including for rhetorical reasons, based on the sounds of African American English.

For example, all varieties of English may vary their production of consonant clusters at the end of words, but African American English uses this pattern more widely than other English varieties.

guests varies with gues

In writing, this pattern relates to spelling variation in past tense verbs. Students who vary their production of consonant clusters may spell past tense verbs the same as the present tense forms:

  • accustom as accustomed
  • gossip as gossiped

How to Respond to Spelling Variation

Recognize that the examples above could be spelling variation or tense variation. Draw students’ attention to the feature by posing questions to determine what might be at play, as in the following example:

“Do you want to write accustomed here for a past tense spelling? If you’re aiming for past tense, pay attention to the spelling. If you’re aiming to write in Standard English, past tense uses the suffix –ed.”

It can also be helpful to go over these -ed and consonant cluster examples as systemic language variation in class. In focus groups discussions, students have revealed to us that they didn’t understand why their -ed variation was corrected and penalized until reading this section!

How Not to Respond to Spelling Variation

An instructor may respond to this pattern as about grammar rather than pronunciation and spelling:

  • “make tenses consistent”
  • “use past tense”

In some cases, the absence of an -ed suffix may indicate variation in tense rather than spelling. However, keep in mind that there also may be cases where a student pronounces and spells the past tense form of particular words in particular contexts without –ed. Comments about tense may thus not recognize this pattern in students’ language. 


You may not always be able to distinguish language variation from typos, especially when it comes to spelling. If you suspect that something is a typo, rather than directly correct or penalize, you can ask “typo?” Phrasing your comment as a question suggests that you defer to their linguistic agency as the writer, while allowing you to point out what could potentially be a proofreading issue.

If you want to ensure that students have proofread as a way of preventing typos, assign reading out loud as part of the assignment. This activity can be completed in class with a partner or outside of class with a family member or friend. If you assign proofreading out loud as homework, students can attach a brief note to their paper explaining who they read to and what they figured out by reading their paper out loud.

See Sample Papers with Feedback for more examples of how to respond and how not to respond.

Return to: The Instructor Guide Homepage