[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J20, 1996/1 pp14-18]
[Patrick Groff: see Journals, Newsletters, Bulletins and articles about Research.]

Recent Spelling Research, and Simplified Spelling.

Patrick Groff.

Patrick Groff is professor of education emeritus San Diego State University, USA.

Recent empirical research on traditional spelling has implications for the spelling reform movement. Most deals with how schoolchildren spell.

1. A Massive Study of Spelling Errors.

One of the most massive studies of spelling errors ever is by Cramer and Cipielewski (1995). They analyzed what they decided were 55 types of spelling errors in 18,599 unedited children's compositions written on topics of the children's choice. These children were enrolled in grades 1 thru 8, in 256 classrooms in all 50 states of the USA. A total of 1,584,758 written words were examined.

These investigators contend that "the English language is not the chaotic beast of mythology it is often made out to be. On the contrary, it is systematic and reasonably predictable" in the conventional way it is spelt (p15). However, in a doubtless unintended acknowledgement of the guiding principle of simplified spelling, the authors agree that conventional "spelling knowledge has been shown to be much more than the ability to match letter to sound".

The authors present four "features" in conventional English spelling that they feel make it "reasonably predictable" (p16). These are:

1. the predictable way affixes are spelt;

2. the fact that two words related in meaning may have similar spellings altho they are pronounced differently, eg, signal/sign;

3. regular consonant letter-sound matches;

4. spelling patterns within words.

While not so stated in their report, feature number 4 presumably refers to the fact that there also are some "regular" vowel letter-speech sound matches in English spelling.

The simplified spelling movement has made a strong case that too many spellings of words are not controlled by these four influences. Hence its insistence of the need for a highly systematic procedure for spelling all speech sounds.

2. Boosting Case for Simplified Spelling.

The Cramer and Cipielewski (C&C) study does reiterate key information on which spelling reform is based. Thus they found there were over three times as many categories of misspellings of vowel sounds as of consonant sounds. Misspellings of vowel sounds also constituted 38% of the total spelling errors in the study. For consonant sounds the figure was 17%. The 10.5% of spelling errors the study found appearing exclusively in affixes and inflections also involved vowel sounds. Therefore probably close to half the misspellings involved defective transcription of vowel sounds.

This finding supports the heavy concentration by advocates of simplified spelling on reformation of vowel spellings. With reform in this area of spelling, a large percent of present spelling errors would decline, consistent with C&C data. Similarly, Treiman (1993) found that 22% of first-grade children's misspellings of vowel sounds in words were "legal substitution errors". That is, these spelling mistakes were not correct for the particular word, but were possible conventional spellings of the vowel sound. There are 22 different possible spellings of the vowel /i/ (Groff & Seymour, 1987). Reducing the number of legal substitutions undoubtedly would facilitate children's learning to spell /i/ and other vowel sounds.

The C&C study calculated high coefficients of correlation (r's) between words children misspell from grade to grade. (An r of +1.00 indicates a perfect positive relationship between two variables.) For example, the r found between grades 3 and 5 was .85; between grades 4 and 7 was .83; between 6 and 8 was .91; and between 5 and 8 was .83. As the study correctly noted, "the words primary grade children misspell are, in many instances, the words intermediate and junior high school children continue to misspell" (p28). The investigators then inadvertently repeat the simplified spelling solution to this problem: "Clearly if one could reduce the errors children make on a relatively small subset of troublesome words, substantial progress in spelling proficiency would be made" (p28).

Simplified spelling is the most rational way to cope with this subset of "troublesome" words, its promoters maintain. Acceptance of this relatively small gain in the direction of simplified spelling also would indicate that advocates of spelling reform are willing to heed the advice that the future of reformed spelling depends on avoiding "the radical and wide-sweeping proposals that have doomed previous simplification movements" (Venezky, 1983, p26).

Taking this limited step toward simplification of the spelling of vowels therefore might do better to overcome the natural conservative attitude of the populace toward change in any forms of the language, including its spelling. The probability of popular acceptance of regularization of vowel spellings would likely increase if the proposed changes did not eliminate the morpheme identity of words, i.e. did not obscure their shared semantic bases (eg, the spellings signal/sign would be retained).

Other findings of the C&C study unintentionally buttress a main argument for spelling reform. For instance, I applied a simplified number of phonics rules (common generalizations that predict how words are spelt conventionally) to the 100 most frequently misspelled by children in each of the grades 1 thru 8 in the study. The percent of predictably spelt words that are misspelled decreased consistently from grades 1 thru 8. Thus, as children progress in their spelling ability, they tend to master the spelling of predictably spelt words. By grades 7-8 in the study, 85% of the words that were misspelled frequently by students were unpredictably spelt ones. If the simplified spelling solution - reduction of the conventional ways to spell vowel sounds (the present "legal substitutions") - was applied to the spelling of words, the 85% of frequently misspelled words by children in grades 7-8 theoretically could be reduced almost to zero.

3. The Study's Implications for Teachers.

Cramer and Cipielewski unfortunately offer some controversial opinions as to why children make spelling mistakes, and especially the same ones year after year. These researchers make the dubious assumption that one can look at a child's misspelling of a word and tell whether it was caused (a) "by misunderstanding how to spell words correctly", or (b) by "inattention" on the speller's part (p30). The fact that misspellings of certain homophones persist as the most common misspellings made by children, grades 1 thru 8, is presented as "proof" of this "inattention" to the spelling task.

The homophone too was found to be the most frequently misspelled word across eight grade levels. The fact that their was found to be the fifth most frequently misspelled word, there the sixth, and they're the 15th, are viewed as signs of "carelessness or indifference by children as they spell homophones." The omission of a letter in a word also is seen as a prime example of "inattention".

"Omitted letters proved to be the single greatest cause of spelling errors" across all grade levels, the study deduced (emphasis added) (p30). Children in the study misspelled the word because in 175 unique ways, most of which involved the omitting of a letter (Marine, 1995). Since such omitted letters "are due to inattention to the spelling task", the study rationalized, this psychological factor has overwhelming influence on the incidence of spelling errors.

However, the claim that inattention is a major cause of spelling errors is a hypothesis open to question. The authors of the study in effect admit so when they properly note that "most people value the ability to spell correctly very highly" (p36), and therefore do not take learning to spell lightly. A person's "educational qualifications and even intelligence" may be assumed from observations of his or her spelling performance, the study's investigators concede (p36). This judgment evidently acts as a stimulus for students to be attentive when spelling words. Thus only 1.5% (!) of the words handwritten by accomplished students (applicants to Cambridge University, the United Kingdom) were misspelled (Wing & Baddeley, 1980).

4. Is Inattention the Villain?

Children's thoughts are ahead of their hand and finger movements during handwritten spelling. Thus, spelling errors are produced that their writers later are able to correct, provided they were pointed out to them. However, there was no indication from the C&C study that the children were examined on their ability to subsequently correct the misspellings they made. Therefore citing children's purported apathy toward correct spelling as a principal cause of their misspellings appears much like blaming a victim for the offense committed against him or her.

This "offense", spelling reformers maintain, is the unpredictability of conventional spelling. This handicap to spelling utility cannot be remedied satisfactorily by trying to make conventional spelling tasks easier for children to master. Spelling reformers would consider, as largely a diversion from the essential issue, C&C's advice (p38) that words given to children to learn to spell be based on factors such as the frequency of their appearance in oral language and in school subjects, the frequency with which certain words are misspelled (the prime contribution of their study), the four "features" that govern conventional spelling (noted above), and information on "developmental spelling stages". Spelling reformers contend that if words were spelled predictably these considerations would become minor.

5. Developmental Spelling Stages.

The "developmental spelling stages" that children are said to pass thru are of much current interest to educators. These are supposedly important for teachers to consult when deciding what words children are given to learn to spell, and how instruction for them is to be provided. When a child is encouraged to "invent" the spellings of words (instead of writing them according to direct and systematic instruction), over time this pupil will spell a word differently, depending on the particular "natural" stage of spelling development in which he or she happens to be. That a peculiar form of invented spelling is used is held to be proof that a student is at a certain one of these various stages.

This information is considered useful to teachers who stress the use of invented spellings by their pupils. It "helps those teachers make sense of misspellings", Beers (1995, p54) contends. This teacher "is likely to feel less overwhelmed by the number of invented spellings if the misspellings can be systematically identified and organized for instruction" (p54). Treiman (1993), among others, agrees.

An immediate flaw in such advice (Groff, 1986) is that these teachers appear to be given an unmanageable task. They have the overwhelming job of (a) identifying accurately which of their students is at each of the various developmental stages, and then (b) devising uniquely different instruction for each developmental stage. The developmental spelling experts (e.g. Beers, 1995) so far have failed to provide a practical plan (the valid and reliable criteria to be fulfilled) for the successful completion of this first task.

To meet the second task, Beers (1995) simply advises dividing up the customary sequence of direct and systematic teaching of spelling skills into successive parts, and then implementing these separate parts at each of the developmental stages. As it turns out, there appears to be little essential change in content and sequence of instruction given in invented spelling/developmental spelling classrooms from that provided in classrooms that base spelling instruction purely on how predictably words are spelt.

6. The 'Whole Language' Connection.

Confusing this is Cramer's (1995) mistaken assumption that there are great similarities between the 'Whole Language' (WL) approach to spelling development (which promotes invented spelling), and direct and systematic teaching of a sequence of spelling skills, carefully arranged into the order that students previously have demonstrated difficulty in learning. Cramer correctly notes that "the principles of Whole Language ... point the way to an integrated reading-writing" approach to literacy development (p78). However, the WL recommendation that reading, writing and spelling instruction be integrated, ie, be taught so that learning one reinforces learning the other, was widely advanced long before the advent of WL. This tenet of WL therefore is not a unique, guiding principle of WL.

WL advocates argue that children best learn to spell in school in the same natural, individualized, informal way they learned to speak at home, as preschoolers. A leading supporter of WL (Gentry, 1987) explains the implications for teachers of this WL presumption. To be a bona fide WL teacher, he relates, one must inform students that "weakness in spelling is okay" (p8). Teachers thus should expect that "Not all children will learn to spell well" (p25). "Good spelling is merely a convenience", Gentry argues, not a necessity (p8). Therefore, the quality of spelling in a student's written composition very seldom should be considered when assigning a grade to it.

Including quality of spelling as a criteria of students' writing proficiency is unfair, Gentry (1987, p10) argues, since "expert spellers are born, and cannot be developed in school". Thus, he submits, there is no significant relationship between correct spelling and intelligence. That is, the "visual memory" necessary for proficient spelling is "not a skill one can consciously acquire". Neither is learning the rules for correct spelling effective as a way to become a good speller, he cautions teachers. Children learn more from "free writing", Gentry continues, than from engaging in spelling "exercises" or other formal instruction. Moreover, "doing well on spelling tests" does not mean "competency in spelling" is being developed.

The preponderance of relevant experimental evidence contradicts each of these admittedly novel WL notions (Groff, 1986, Petty, 1982). Spelling reformers unfamiliar with the current debate over spelling instruction need to understand furthermore that this controversy centers on which is more valid, anecdotal evidence about spelling development (which WL advocates readily supply), or on pertinent empirical data (which they summarily reject). The major question therefore becomes: which kind of evidence about spelling development should rule when the two types come into direct conflict?

Using anecdotal findings, Gentry (1987) contends that unless children "invent" the spellings of words they will not progress satisfactorily in learning to spell. He thus urges teachers to adopt this WL practice, and to defend it when talking to parents. Honig (1996, p91) adds that invented spelling is "a powerful tool in developing skills and knowledge about reading". Thus, neither spelling nor reading skills supposedly will develop as well as possible unless children are urged to invent spellings of words.

In contrast to the developmental stages of spelling theory, the experimental evidence indicates (Groff, 1986), skills for conventional spelling are best developed by direct and systematic instruction of words carefully arranged as to how predictably they are spelt. Gentry (1987) flatly rejects such evidence. He contends that the "best strategy for a formal spelling lesson" has not been discovered. "I don't think there is one!" he exclaims (p29).

He then assures teachers there is no danger in encouraging children to invent spellings for as long as they see fit. "There is no evidence that invented spellings become habitual." The act of inventing personalized spellings of words also is sufficient to cause a child to "refine those spellings and progress developmentally toward correctness", he argues. He allows only one reason for holding children accountable for correct spelling in their writing. This would be if their manuscripts are "being readied for publication", which would only happen rarely. Again, it must be emphasized that the claims that invented spelling develops more spelling ability than otherwise has not been verified empirically.

7. The Treiman Study.

From her study of the spellings of first-grade children, Treiman (1993, p291) also concludes that invented spelling by a child will help his or her teacher "make a good guess about why the child [mis]spelled the word in the way that he or she did". This guess purportedly will satisfactorily "determine what help the child needs in order to spell better". In fact, she continues, teachers who are not aware of "the logic behind children's [spelling] errors" instruct in ways that "may indeed be worse than no instruction at all" (pp 150-151).

One of the prime examples offered by Treiman of instruction based on interpretations of "the intricacies of children's spelling" (p277) is a first-grader's misspelling of her as hr. Because er represents the "syllabic /r/", the child has "used reasonable graphemes hr to represent" /hur/, Treiman notes (p292). How would a teacher's knowledge about this help a child spell /hur/ as her? Or, how would a teacher, ignorant of this information, proceed differently to help a child learn to spell her correctly, from a teacher having this information?

Treiman criticizes what she calls the "orthographic classification" of spelling errors (p277). Here, misspelling of her as hr is classified as the omission of the letter E. This classification supposedly is too simplistic because it does not "determine how children derive spellings from sounds" (p278). However, Treiman then recommends formal instruction that impresses upon children that they "must memorize the E of her" (p201). Children who reverse letters in words when spelling them "especially need drill on the correct order of the letters" (p258). Teachers' knowledge about the "syllabic R", and why children reverse or omit letters, thus appears to be relatively unused in deciding how to instruct children to spell words conventionally.

Therefore, Treiman's (1993, p94) insistence that it is necessary to "get a good idea of what instruction the students need" appears to be wishful thinking that her intricate research findings will have some practical usefulness. Her seemingly desperate search for utility for her findings is illustrated further by her assumption that it would "do little good" for the child who spells neck as nak to hear how neck sounds different from knack. Treiman violates here her recommendation to conduct formal instruction on children's phonological awareness. Her advice (p123), "rather the child [who misspelled neck] might be assured that /e/ does sound similar to /a/, but that /e/ is usually spelt with E" is far too abstruse instruction for first-grade children to understand. Obviously, not all that can be discovered from intricate linguistic studies is applicable when teaching children to spell.

8. Phonological Awareness and Spelling.

Another area of research on children's spelling of which orthographic reformers should be aware is the extent to which students' phonological awareness affects their acquisition of spelling skills. Unfortunately, "there has been little research on the relation between [children's] phonemic [phonological] awareness and spelling" (Treiman, 1993, p32). Much more study has been conducted on the effects of children's phonological awareness on their development of reading than of spelling proficiency.

Thus "it is now well-established that there is a strong connection between children's ability to detect and manipulate the sounds making up spoken words, and their reading development" (Goswami, 1994, p.32). Likewise, "phonological sensitivity, coupled with letter knowledge, is sufficient for comprehending the alphabetic principle" (i.e., understanding that written language is a graphic representation of its oral version) (Bowey, 1995, p67).

This sensitivity to speech sounds is critical for children's learning to decode words. Thus "phonological processing skills should be considered to be important human abilities in their own right, similar to the intellectual abilities assessed on measures of general intelligence" (Torgeson, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994, p282). It is predicted confidently that a "7-minute phonological awareness test will predict ease of initial reading acquisition [by children] better than a 2-hour intelligence test!" (Stanovich, 1994, p284). Thus phonological awareness appears to have a crucial influence on children's spelling development, more than for their reading acquisition, since to spell a word correctly the child must be more aware of its speech sounds than to read the word (Tangel & Blachman, 1955).

Phonological awareness by children refers to their ability to answer successfully questions such as these about spoken monosyllabic words:
(1) Do run and sun rhyme? Say a word that rhymes with cat.
(2) How many sounds are there in at? In cat?
(3) Do run and sun begin the same?
(4) Does run begin with an /f/?
(5) Does sun end with an N?
(6) What is the first sound in big? The last sound? The second sound?
(7) What word does /r/-/a/-/n/ say?
(8) Do sit and meat have the same middle sound?
(9) Say meat without the /m/ sound. Say meat without the /t/ sound.
(10) Say os with the first sound last. Say os with the last sound first.
(11) Change the middle sound of beat to /a/.

This sequence of phonological tests is said to represent the approximate order of difficulty of the items for young children. But there is only limited evidence as to the precise degree that improving students' phonological awareness affects their ability to spell conventionally. This data will likely be forthcoming, due to the current high interest among educators in the subject.

9. Summary.

This discussion indicates that recent research on children's spelling is conducted under the assumption that conventional spelling is 'maligned' by those who claim that it "is complex, illogical, and irregular" and therefore difficult for children to learn (Treiman, 1993, p21). Spelling reformers who promote these supposed harmful mistruths about conventional spelling (e.g. Rondthaler & Lias, 1986) are viewed as narrow minded and misinformed about how words should be spelt.

According to Treiman (1993, p21) spelling reformers are convinced that there is "one reason and one reason alone" (unpredictable spelling) why children have difficulty in learning to spell. The movement to simplify spelling thus is unaware of or rejects the influence of ineffective teaching, and of learning disabilities of students. The movement also "unreasonably" discredits the evidence that conventional spelling contains letter-speech sound correspondence rules that have only a few exceptions. These views of spelling reformers explain why they believe "children's only hope of success [in spelling] is to memorize the spelling of each word" while exercising "little intelligence or thought" (p21). Spelling reform movement members would rush to exclaim that these are inaccurate and misleading characterizations of the movement.

A major point that spelling reformers fortunately will concede, Treiman (1993) correctly goes on, is that young children may not share their contention that the appearance of t in tape, sty, and city, for example, represents regular or predictable spelling. First-grade children "may consider sty to contain /d/ rather than /t/" and accordingly spell it with d (p286). Thus "making the spelling system more regular for adults would not make it more regular for children" (p200).

Spelling reformers doubtless are bemused, however, at the serious suggestion that our system of spelling should be contingent on the uninstructed, transitory, and natural (if not instinctual) impressions that first-grade children have about the ways the phonemes should be spelt. This elevates the quality of child reasoning to an undeserved high. It illustrates the romantic child-centeredness, child empowerment fad that presently envelops public education. We do not establish systems of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, or aesthetics on the inexperienced and mentally immature perceptions of children. There is substantial empirical evidence that children's reasonings are remarkably inadequate in these fields. There is thus little basis to hope that young children's notions about spelling are any more reliable or valid.

Interpretations of recent research on children's spelling also would put heavy new burdens on teachers. These interpretations indicate that teachers not only should be expected to notice carefully whether children misspell words. Teachers must also master, and recall when needed, all of the intricate and expansive interpretations from research as to why young children misspell words as they do. Thus, no longer may a bona fide teacher simply instruct children to substitute, omit, add, or rearrange letters in words they misspell. Teachers now also must be prepared to reveal to individual young children the unconscious thoughts they exercised when they misspelled a word. It is highly doubtful, however, whether these all-encompassing new demands on already over-burdened teachers are either practical or expedient.

In sum, it will not be surprising to find that spelling reformers find most of the new evidence on children's spelling (excepting that on phonological awareness) to be frivolous, irrelevant, and/or useless. The reaction from the simplified spelling movement to this research may be much like that given by the inventors of incandescent lamps to investigators of the efficiency of candles.


Beers, J. (1995). Spelling development: stages and strategies. In: Scott Foresman Publisher (Ed.), Spelling research and information: An overview of research and practices (pp53-66). Glenview IL: Scott Foresman.

Bowey, J. A. (1995). On the contribution of phonological sensitivity to phonological recoding. Issues in Education, 1, 65-69.

Cramer, R. L. (1995). Making better spellers: Integrating spelling, reading, and writing. In: Scott Foresman Publisher, op. cit. (pp77-92).

Cramer, R. L. & Cipielewski, J. F. (1995). Research in action: A study of spelling errors in 18,599 written compositions of children in grades 1-8. In: Scott Foresman Publishers, op. cit. (pp11=40).

Gentry, J. R. (1987). Spel ... is a four-letter word. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.

Goswami, U. (1994). Phonological skills, analogies, and reading development. Reading, 28 (2), 32-37.

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

Groff, P. & Seymour, D. Z. (1987). Word recognition: The why and the how. Springfield IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Honig, B. (1996). Teaching our children to read. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Marine, K. (1995). Using the research: Developing a spelling curriculum. In: Scott Foresman, op. cit., pp41-52.

Petty, W. T. (1982). Handwriting and spelling: Their current status in the language arts curriculum. In: W. B. Barbe, A. S. Francis, and L. A. Braun (Eds.), Spelling: Basic skills for effective communication. (pp53-60). Columbus OH: Zaner-Bloser.

Rondthaler, E. & Lias, E. J. (1986). A dictionary of fonetic spelling. New York NY: American Literacy Council.

Stanovich, K. E. (1994). Romance and reality. Reading Teacher, 47, 280-291.

Tangel, D. M. & Blachman, B. A. (1995). Effect of phoneme awareness instruction on the invented spelling of first-grade children: A one-year follow up. Journal of Reading Behavior, 27, 153-185.

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Longitudinal studies of phonological processes and reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 276-286.

Treiman, R. (1993). Beginning to spell: A study of first-grade children. New York NY: Oxford University.

Venezky, R. (1980). From Webster to Rice to Roosevelt: The formative years for spelling instruction and spelling reform in the USA. In: U. Frith (Ed.), Cognitive processes in spelling (pp9-30). New York NY: Academic.

Wing, A. M. & Baddeley, A. D. (1980). Spelling errors and handwriting: A corpus and a distributional analysis. In: U. Frith (Ed.), Ibid, (pp251-285).

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