[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1982, pp9-19]
Also on this page: Timmie A Dropout.

SSS Conference 3: Teaching and Learning Spelling continued.

"Spelling errors made by phonologically disordered children."

by P. Robinson, R. Beresford, and Barbara Dodd.*

*Dep't of Speech, School of Education, The University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.


The spelling errors of eleven phonologically disordered children were compared with those of eleven normally articulating children. The groups were matched pairwise for age, sex, educational experience and reading ability. The subject pairs received spelling tests designed individually to investigate words pronounced correctly and incorrectly by the phonologically disordered children. The results indicated that phonologically disordered children make significantly more spelling errors, but that they made as many errors on words they pronounced correctly as they did on words they mispronounced. However, regularity of phoneme-grapheme correspondence was an important factor. Phonologically disordered children made as many errors for regularly spelled words as they did for irregularly spelled words. Their performance on irregularly spelled words equalled that of the control group. That is, phonologically disordered children appear to rely on orthographic representations of words, and have difficulty generating phoneme-grapheme correspondences.


By the time children reach five years of age they should have acquired the ability to use all the phonemes, i. e. speech sounds, of their native language appropriately. However, about 5% of the normal school population have communication disorders, and well over half of these children present with an inability to produce consonant phonemes correctly in the appropriate context. Usually the children can produce all phonemes in CV syllables, e.g. /tʃə/, but /tʒt/ church; and they also can usually discriminate phonemes, e.g. /tʃ/ - /t/, chip-tip, but their spontaneous speech is marked by:
(1) reduction of consonant clusters, so that train becomes [teɪn]

(2) limited range of final consonants, e.g. all word final consonants may be omitted or signalled by a glottal stop so that bed becomes [bəʔ]

(3) a limited range of phonemes used contrastively, e.g. fricative sounds such as /ʃ/, /tʃ/, /s/ may be realized as /t/ so that ship, chip, and tip are all produced as [tɪp], and

(4) lack of a voice-voiceless distinction, so that pin and bin would both be realized as [bɪn].
Teachers often report that children with a spoken phonological disorder also have difficulty learning to read. Their most frequent comment is "Since I can't understand a word he says, I don't know whether he's reading, or making it up." However, teachers rarely complain about the children's spelling performance, and this is reflected in the literature.

Few studies have been directly concerned with the relationship between the mispronunciations and the misspellings of children. Schonell observed in 1934 that "if a child constantly pronounced inaccurately, he not infrequently spelt inaccurately, and the nature of his written errors have remarkable similarity to the nature of his spoken errors." However, Carrell and Pendergast (1954) and Ham (1958) found no such relationship. Thus the literature is limited, and the results contradictory.

The study I am reporting here was designed to answer the following questions:
(1) Do children with a spoken phonological disorder make more spelling errors than children with normal speech?

(2) Are mispronounced words more likely to be spelled incorrectly that words pronounced correctly?

(3) Do phonologically disordered children, like normal children, have more difficulty spelling words which have NO strict phoneme-grapheme correspondence, e.g. night, than regularly spelt words, e.g. bit?


Eleven phonologically disordered children, who were all receiving speech therapy, but attending normal schools, were matched individually, with normally speaking children from their own class for age, sex, and their teacher's assessment of their reading ability. Note, however, that some teachers felt that the reading ability of some of the phonologically disordered children was the poorest in the class. The age range was 7 years, 1 month to 10 years, 8 months. Thus 22 children were tested, 11 in each group, for spelling ability.

The results showed:
(1) Children receiving speech therapy for a phonological disorder made more spelling errors than did the control, normally speaking subjects (351.2 plays 245.9).

(2) Children with a phonological disorder made as many spelling errors on words they pronounced correctly as they did on words they mispronounced (178.2 plays 173.2).

(3) Phonologically disordered children made the same number of errors on irregularly spelled words as they did on regularly spelled words (169.3 plays 181.9).

(4) Whereas the normally speaking control subjects made significantly more errors on irregularly spelled words than they did on regularly spelled words (98.3 plays 147.8).

(5) The phonologically disordered subjects made significantly more errors than the control subjects on regularly spelled words (169.3 plays 98.3). There was also attend for the phonologically disordered subjects to make more errors on the irregularly spelled words, but this was not statistically significant, i.e. both groups made similar number of errors on irregularly spelled words.
These results indicate that 7 to 10 year old children who have a spoken phonological disorder also have difficulties in spelling. This appears to be due to a particular difficulty in generating phoneme-grapheme correspondences, since they are much worse than normal children in spelling words that have a 1:1 sound/letter relationship; but are equally bad /good at spelling irregular words.

In one way these results are like those found for deaf children in a similar experiment. I found that profoundly prelingually deaf children also make as many errors when spelling regular words as they do spelling irregular words (Dodd, 1980). This would seem to indicate that phonologically disordered children have a problem using auditory information, even though, of course, they have no sensory hearing loss. Thus, they would have to rely heavily on orthographic information when learning to spell, as do deaf children.

However, this cannot be the sole explanation for the phonologically disordered children's poor spelling abilities. Several studies have shown that deaf children can spell remarkably well; some experiments have indicated that deaf children spell better than normally hearing children matched for Chronological Age. One simple explanation for this surprising finding is that hearing may detract from spelling accuracy in languages lacking exact phoneme grapheme correspondence. It is possible to argue that there are so few invariant phoneme-grapheme correspondences in English orthography that being deaf may be an advantage in learning to spell.

However, it is obvious that phonologically disordered children's poor spelling abilities cannot be solely accounted for by an inability to fully use auditorally derived information, they would appear to have additional difficulties.

In hope of finding some clues that might indicate the nature of these difficulties, we examined the types of spelling errors made by the phonologically disordered children and their control group. Perhaps the most striking finding from the qualitative analysis was that normally speaking children's spelling errors were easy to classify, whereas the phonologically disordered children's errors were bizarre.

Table 1. Mean (%) Spelling Errors.

 Phonologically Disordered Children Normally Speaking Children
 RegularIrregularTotal RegularIrregularTotal
84.693.6178.2 45.977.9123.6
84.788.3 173.252.469.9122.3
Total169.3181.9 351.498.3147.8245.9

Thus, as you can see from these typical examples, classification of the phonologically disordered children's spelling errors was virtually impossible, since so many had to be labeled "Other Errors."

We did find, however, that 25% of the control subjects' spelling errors were phonetic alternative spellings, e.g. erth for "earth', whereas only 6.5% of the phonologically disordered children's spelling mistakes could be classified as such.

One further finding of interest was gained from comparing the errors of the two oldest phonologically disordered children with the younger phonologically disordered subjects. The older subjects made many more error-phoneme/ grapheme correspondences, e.g. if they said leloo for 'yellow', they were more likely to spell the word yellow. Thus, they seemed to have better use of a phonological strategy for using sound to letter spelling rules. Perhaps a longer period of reading and spelling practice and instruction had established the use of the strategy which had not yet been grasped by the younger phonologically disordered children.

In summary, the phonologically disordered children tested made significantly more spelling errors than normally speaking children, both in words they mispronounced and in words they pronounced correctly. They made as many errors when spelling regularly spelled words as they did for irregularly spelled words, but their ability to spell irregular words did not differ much from that of the control group. Thus, phonologically disordered children appear to rely on orthographic representation of words, and have difficulty generating phoneme-grapheme correspondences. The effects of their phonological disorder are not limited to speech, but also underlie a difficulty in learning to spell.

Table 2. Examples of Phonologically Disordered Children's Spelling Errors.

= thunder
= yellow
= family
= hedgehog
= thought
= zebra
= room
= tortise
= shepard
= castle


[Spelling Reform Anthology §17.6 p236]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1982, pp20,18]
[Harvie Barnard: see Journal, Anthology, Bulletins.]
[For Timmie's first letter see Spring 1981, For his second letter see Fall 1983.]

Dear Timmie: Grandpa's reply to Timmie A. Dropout by Harvie Barnard.

Thanks for writing to tell me about your school experiences. I think it's wonderful that you've made such good progress with your reading in spite of all that spelling bee nonsense. How do you like the Treasure Island story? Its one of the best!

But I'm disappointed to hear that you're thinking of quitting school. What does mother and dad think about that? Of course I can understand why you don't enjoy or care for the Dick and Jane running and jumping stuff. Apparently they're still teaching the same kind of "kid stuff" that we were bored with when I was your age.

Still, I wouldn't agree that you should quit school just because of that "dum bunny" spelling bee business. You'll just have to lern that lots of words are spelt in strange ways, and that kids have had to lern what they call "sight words" where the spelling has no connection with the sound of the word or the sound of the letters.

It's surely a shame that you lost your Dr. Rider who was teaching you to use fonetic spelling. Maybe if he goes back to college to study education he'll be able to teach those college people some things they ought to know about teaching kids.

If your father decides to send you to a private school perhaps he'd better check to see what kind of a program they have before he sends you there. If they have spelling bees perhaps you'd be just as happy to stay in public school where you are. It might be a good idea for you to talk things over with Jorje's dad to see what can be done to arrange a reading program which would be fun insted of nonsense.

I certainly agree with your mother that you should have a good dictionary for your birthday. A dictionary doesn't teach you to think, but it does help in lots of ways. I remember a good teacher I had who used to say, "A dictionary is a wonderful thing - if you will lern to use it." I use one for nearly every letter I write. I went to grade school 70 years ago, and there are still lots of words I'm not sure about, so I hav to use my dictionary, not only to check up on my spelling but to find fonetic spellings which tell me how words should be pronounced. Besides that, I very often hav to find the best word to use to explain what I am trying to say. And there's another interesting thing about using a dictionary - each time I use one I discover some other words that I've often wondered about, but never used because I wasn't sure how the words were spelt, or what they ment, and you could sometimes find words which were much better than the ones you were planning to use. Yes, Tim, I'm sure you ought to hav a dictionary and I'm going to see to it that you get a really good one, and not a paperback either, but one which will get you thru grade school and help start you off right in high school.

But don't quit yet! You might get lucky and get a better teacher next term! And I think I'll talk with your dad about private school. If you're reading Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson I should think you're reddy for 4th grade, and maybe more. So let's quit talking about quitting school. Besides, I'm sending you some new books that should be a lot more interesting than Dick and Jane. And please write agen soon. I want to hear more about how you do in school.

With love, Gramps.

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