[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1994/1 pp3-7, later designated J16]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Patrick Groff.]

Recent Spelling for Research: Some Implications for Spelling Reform.

Patrick Groff.

Patrick Groff is Professor of Education Emeritus at San Diego (California, USA) State University.

Reports of the findings of experimental research, and the commentary relative to these empirical investigations, made over the past five years, suggest that there are some special considerations that advocates of spelling reform should make as they deliberate about further orthographic revision and improvement.

Is spelling reform needed?

In response to this question Krashen (1993) reviewed the studies made over the years of the number of spelling errors found in students' essays, from the elementary grades thru to the university level. It is his judgment that these data indicate that "people spell quite well" (p. 9). The typical university freshman essay has less than 2 percent spelling errors. Essays by students in the intermediate elementary grades are found to contain on the average only 6 percent. Clarke (1988) discovered that even first-graders have this supposedly high level of competence in spelling.

Before jumping to the conclusion that everyone today spells so accurately that efforts at spelling reform have become superfluous, we need to contrast the number of spelling errors students make with words they choose to spell (Krashen, 1993) with test results of their abilities to spell a set of the most frequently used words. To this effect, I calculated from the data presented in the New Iowa Spelling Scale (Greene, 1954) that only 34 percent of fourth graders on the average could spell correctly the 5507 most common words. This figure improves to 62 percent for sixth-grade children.

The differences between the findings of the studies Krashen (1993) surveyed, and those of the NISS, likely lie in the probability that writers may avoid trying to write words they cannot spell, especially in experimental test situations, such as those reported on by Krashen. Thus, basing conclusions about people's spelling abilities on the errors found in their essays may skew badly the facts in this regard. Kelly (1992, p. 638) guesses "that at least 15% to 20% of our population can't spell." His speculation in this regard therefore actually may be more realistic than the experimental studies Krashen (1993) cites, for the above reason. A further handicap to using students' essays to divine how well they can spell are the spelling check devices built into modern word processors that correct the spelling mistakes made by writers. Little wonder, then that the spelling in essays written by university students is almost error-free (Krashen, 1993).

The Invented Spelling Factor.

The question as to what happens when young children attempt to "invent" the spellings of words, being left to their own devices to do so, that is, when not being given any formal instruction, continues to interest researchers. It is found repeatedly of late that beginning spellers encouraged simply to invent spellings, rather than respond to instruction given them, go thru distinct stages of spelling "development."

First, these children represent spoken words with seemingly random strings of letters. A single letter often will be used to spell a word. Invented spellers will substitute sounds in words as they attempt to spell them, ones that are similar in phonemic features, altho the resultant spelling bears no resemblance to conventional spelling. In this regard, users of invented spelling rely heavily upon matching sounds with the names of letters, i.e., on sounds that "say their own names." Hence, day is spelled da, and buy is transcribed as bi. Since "short" vowels are more difficult for invented spellers to write, they often will choose a letter whose name is closed to the sound of the vowel in the word they wish to spell. A typical result here is bet spelled as bat. Letter names thus can replace speech sounds. The sizes of multisyllable words will be reduced by deletions of phonologically weak syllables (Hoffman & Norris, 1989). Young spellers also demonstrate more errors in spelling unstressed syllables than in stressed ones (Treiman, Berch & Weatherson, 1993).

Over time, invented spellers will correctly represent in their writings the predictable spellings of the beginning, endings, and middle phonemes of words - in that order (Schafer, 1988). These latter spellings in many respects are similar to the reformed orthography designed by linguistic scholars. Thus, much of invented spelling is observed to be "phonologically recognizable" (Goswami, 1992, p. 968).

It is held, further, that thru their invented spellings young children demonstrate some perception and representation of extra sounds in words, ones that adults do not hear. These beginning spellers apparently perceive different sounds in words from those heard by adults (Goswami, 1992).

The general conclusion drawn from research on invented spelling is that spelling for beginning writers is much more a phonological than a visual process. The fact that they make many more errors with relatively unpredictable spelled words, than with highly predictable ones, helps confirm this conclusion. The remarkable finding that some 6-7- year-olds actually can correctly spell some words that they could not previously read (Goswami, 1992) reinforces the judgment that untutored beginning spellers depend more on phonological than visual cues to write words.

It is noticeable, however, that invented spellers move, over time, from a predominant dependence upon the phonology of words to their visual aspects, such as familiar spelling patterns, morphological units, and inflected forms, once they have attained some reading skill (Bailet, 1992). Such activities as sorting written words to find similar visual features then is used to develop children's spelling (Bloodworth, 1991). Reading words makes its influence on spelling. By grade five exposure to correctly spelled words positively affects students' spelling accuracy. Exposure to misspelled ones now does not (Bradley & King, 1992).

Implications for Instruction.

From the above findings about invented spelling a giant leap in judgment often is made by those who comment on this phenomenon. These writers on invented spelling jump to the conclusion that since school beginners can "invent" the spellings of words, they therefore require little if any formal instruction to progress satisfactorily to the mastery of conventional spelling. To this point, Wilde (1990, p. 282) contends that learning to spell should "be as natural, unconscious, effortless, and pleasant as learning to speak." Thus, it is said, "immersing children in words" is sufficient spelling instruction "for many students" (Templeton, 1992, p. 459). Norris (1989, p. 98) agrees that the acquisition of spelling should be "a natural language process." Spelling skill, according to these thoughts on it, emerges creatively as children experiment with invented spelling. Bean and Bouffler (1988) join in maintaining that children best learn to spell merely by writing often. Teachers are warned that direct and systematic spelling instruction actually will inhibit the development of this skill (Hoffman, 1990).

What the Empirical Evidence Says.

Curious as to the bases for such opinions about the instruction of spelling, I reviewed the literature about invented spelling up to 1986 (Groff, 1986) to determine if there was experimental evidence as to whether or not students who invented spelling without any formal instruction later were found to be more accurate conventional spellers than were students who had received direct, systematic, and intensive instruction in spelling. I could find no experimental evidence that invented spelling had this effect. The relevant empirical evidence actually was to the contrary. That is, direct and systematic spelling programs always were found to be more productive of conventional spelling ability than otherwise is possible.

In my survey for the present discussion I did find one study of late that gives the appearance, at least, of casting some doubt on my 1986 findings. Clarke (1988) found that first-graders who were encouraged to invent spellings scored significantly higher on a standardized spelling test than did children given "traditional spelling instruction." Unfortunately, the faulty design of this study precludes its use as a precise evaluation of the relative effect of untutored children's invented spellings on their development of conventional spelling. Both the experimental (invented spelling) and control groups in Clarke's study received direct and systematic instruction in phonics information, i.e., were given traditional spelling instruction. As noted, however, the sine qua non of authentic invented spelling programs is the abandonment of such phonics instruction.

Those who believe that invented spelling by itself is sufficient for developing conventional spelling skills also are contradicted by the mounting sum of experimental evidence that indicates direct, systematic, and intensive development of beginning spellers' conscious awareness of phonemes in spoken words and other phonics information significantly improves their acquisition of conventional spelling (see, for example, Ball & Blachman, 1991; Ehri, 1989; Goswami, 1992; Griffith, 1991; Foorman, Francis, Novy & Liberman, 1991; Recht, Caldwell & Newby, 1990; Schlagal, 1992; Tangel & Blachman, 1992; Worthy & Invernizi, 1990). Burns and Richgels (1989) found in fact that even 4-year-old children who could invent spellings of words were superior at the segmentation of the phonemes of spoken words to children this age who could not invent spellings. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude, as does Ehri (1989, p. 364), that "inadequate instruction is the real culprit" in spelling disability, and not that poor spellers had not been allowed to progress thru the stages of "developmental", spelling where no formal instruction is given.

An Ally for Spelling Reform?

Invented spelling, as described above, has been taken as one of its main practices by the so-called "Whole Language" (WL) approach to literacy development that now is widely adopted by government schools in all the English-speaking nations. The leaders of the WL movement insist that becoming literate is the same process as learning to speak. The rightly note that learning to talk requires no formal instruction. From this, they therefore conclude that little if any such teaching is needed to develop spelling skills (Templeton, 1992). As has been demonstrated above, however, this WL assumption finds no convincing support in the experimental research on spelling.

Advocates of spelling reform traditionally have favored the direct and systematic teaching of their simplified alphabets, and the relationships of phonemes to these letters. They thus have reflected what the empirical evidence indicates is true about this matter.

This positive attitude toward formal teaching of spelling appears to be a stumbling block toward an affiliation of spelling reform with WL, however. It would advance the pace of simplified spelling immensely, of course, in the short term at least, if the highly popular WL movement were to endorse and promote simplified orthography. AU that is necessary at this point, it appears, is to convince the leaders of WL and other WL advocates about the rationale of simplified spelling.

A major question on this issue, over the longer term, will remain whether WL will be able to maintain its opposition to the formal teaching of spelling in the face of an ever-increasing flow of experimental data that indicate direct and systematic teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics information, and aspects of written word structure is the superior route to successful conventional spelling. The up-to-date literature on spelling offers no help with the resolution of this conundrum.

In this regard, Rastall (1993, p. 35) assumes that "whole language principles therefore seem to imply that a phonetic spelling scheme [linked to a reformed alphabet] should be introduced in the initial stages of learning, "wherein teachers direct children to learn "a preferred spelling for each sound." As noted, th leaders of WL deplore such a presumption.

The rejection by WL of Rastall Beardsley's assumption of the easy coupling of WL with spelling reform is expressed by one of the leaders of the invented spelling cum WL movement. In his objection to reformed spelling, Templeton (1992, p.458) asks, "How can a [spelling] system that attempts to represent sound and meaning accommodate both without confusing the learner?" Reformed spelling cannot, he contends. While Templeton concedes that advocates of spelling reform are "unselfishly motivated by a desire to make the [spelling] system easier to learn," they are wrong to assume that direct and systematic teaching is the best way to accomplish this purpose (p. 458). Only unassisted invented spelling can develop students' knowledge about both phonetic and semantic aspects of spelling "without undue confusion between the two levels," he insists (p. 458). Most advocates of simplified spelling doubtless would protest, however, that orthographic reform does not inevitably lead to rejection of the semantic aspects of spelling. Templeton also seems to forget that invented spelling is based fundamentally on phonological aspects of spelling, not its semantic elements. Only as students approach the conventional spelling level of their spelling development does the latter exert its influence (Schlagal, 1992).

While Templeton (1992) complains that spelling reform puts too much emphasis on the phonetic aspect of spelling, Goswami (1992, p. 967) negatively criticizes it for supposedly promoting the idea that students "need to memorize the letters in each word in order to spell accurately." In Goswami's view, advocates of simplified spelling unduly emphasize "visual memorization" at the expense of phonological cues to spelling. We obviously cannot be guilty of both charges, spelling reformers likely would respond. As a matter of fact, they are guilty, of neither one, at least only rarely.


One major implication of recent research on spelling and its related commentary is that spelling reformers should make efforts to learn more about, and to take into regard in their deliberations, the findings about "invented spelling." If for no other reason than that present-day educators are so enamored with this process, spelling reformers should display whenever possible their enlightened, up-to- date awareness of this phenomenon. Moreover, there appears to a potential if not natural alliance between simplified and invented spelling that could be exploited for the furtherance of the former under the proper circumstances. In any event, spelling reformers can no longer avoid participating in the "great debate" about formal versus incidental teaching of spelling that has grown up around invented spelling.

Beyond these matters, experimental evidence on spelling of late suggests that the advocates of spelling reform expand their ruminations about the optimum orthography to include the evidence that certain phonemes and phoneme clusters are more difficult to spell than are others (Worthy & Invernizi, 1990). Suggested changes in the traditional alphabet thus might consider evidence of the relative difficulty beginning spellers experience in spelling various phonemes. The problem of gender equality in spelling also might be so addressed. It still is found that girl students in elementary schools spell significantly better than do boys, at all grade levels (Allred, 1990). How can spelling reform accommodate the relatively greater problems boys have in learning to spell?

Finally, it is not surprising to currently find that unfair or unreasonable negative criticisms from educators continue to be made about spelling reform. It is important, therefore, that on all available occasions proponents of spelling reform engage in dialog with teachers and school officials about simplified spelling in educational journals, meetings, and conventions. It seems particularly urgent that the air be cleared about spelling reform's stand on the semantic correlates of spelling performance.


Allred, R. A. (1990). Gender differences in spelling achievement in grades 1 through 6. Journal of Educational Research, 83, 187-193.

Bailet, L. L. (1990). Spelling rule usage among students with learning disabilities and normally achieving students. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 121-128.

Ball, E. W. & Blachman, B. A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 49-66.

Bloodworth, J. W. (1991). A new approach to spelling instruction in language arts programs. Elementary School Journal, 92, 203-211.

Bradley, J. M. & King, P. V. (1992). Effects of proofreading on spelling: How reading misspelled and correctly spelled words affects spelling accuracy. Journal of Reading Behavior, 24, 413-432.

Burns, J. M. & Richgels, D. J. (1989). An investigation of task requirements associated with the invented spellings of 4-year-olds with above average intelligence. Journal of reading Behavior, 21, 1-14.

Clarke, L. A. (1988). Invented versus traditional spelling in first-graders' writings: Effects on learning to spell and read. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 281-309.

Ehri, L. C. (1989). The development of spelling knowledge and its role in reading acquisition and reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 222, 356-365.

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Novy, D. M., & Liberman, D. (1991). How letter-sound instruction mediates progress in first-grade reading and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 456-469.

Goswami, U. (1992). Annotation: Phonological factors in spelling development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 967-975.

Greene, H. A. (1954). 7he New Iowa Spelling Scale. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa.

Griffith, P. L. (1991). Phonemic awareness helps first-graders invent spellings and third-graders remember correct spellings. Journal of Reading Behavior, 23, 215-233.

Groff, P. (1986). The implications of developmental spelling research: A dissenting view. Elementary School Journal, 86, 317-323.

Hoffman, P. R. (1990). Spelling, phonology, and the speech-language pathologist: A whole language perspective. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 21, 238-243.

Hoffman, P. R. & Norris, J. A. (1989). On the nature of phonological development: Evidence from normal children's spelling errors. Journal of speech and Hearing Research, 32, 787-794.

Kelly, T. F. (1992). Spelling: Tyranny of the irrelevant. Phi Delta Kappan, 73, 638-640.

Krashen, S. (1993). How well do people spell? Reading Improvement, 30 (1), 9-20.

Norris, J. A. (1989). Facilitating developmental changes in spelling, Academic Therapy, 25 (1), 97-108.

Rastall, P. (1993). Whole language and phonetic spelling. Reading Improvement, 30 (1), 9-20.

Recht, D. R., Caldwell, J. A., & Newby, R. F. (1990). Alternative instructional strategies for dysphonic spellers. Reading Improvement, 27 (1), 26-30

Schafer, J. C. (1988). Invented spelling and teacher preparation. English Education, 20 (2), 97-108.

Schlagal, R. C. (1992). Patterns of orthographic development into the intermediate grades. In S. Templeton & D. R. Bear (Eds.), Development of orthographic knowledge and the foundations of literacy. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tangel, D. M. & Blachman, B. A. (1992). Effect of phoneme awareness instruction on kindergarten children's invented spelling. Journal of Reading Behavior, 24, 233,261.

Templeton, S. (1992). New trends in an historical perspective: Old story, new resolution - sound and meaning in spelling. Language Arts, 69, 454- 463.

Treiman, R., Berch, D., & Weatherson, S. (1993). Children's use of phonemegrapheme correspondences in spelling: Roles of position and stress. Journal of Educational Psyehology, 85, 466-477.

Wilde, S. (1990). A proposal for a new spelling curriculum. Elementary School Journal, 90, 275-289. (Also see: Wilde, S. (1992). You kan red this! Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.-)

Worthy, M. J. & Invernizi, M. (1990). Spelling errors of normal and disabled students on achievement levels one through four: Instructional implications. Annals of Dyslexia, 40, 138-15 1.

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