chapter  5
The acquisition of spelling patterns: early, late or never?
Pages 16

In order to become fully literate, an individual must learn not only to read, but to write and spell: to represent spoken language as a series of printed symbols, in a conventional order. In English, this involves learning patterns that go beyond phonology. Computerised spell-checkers have made it easier to achieve many correct spellings, but can remain unhelpful for such distinctions as passed or past; you’re or your. The advent of text-messaging might lead to a generation of writers who find that such distinctions are often not even relevant: the whole you’re/your dilemma is precluded if one can simply write ur. The email above was written by an undergraduate who apparently had little concern as to the conventionality of her spelling, and to the impression that it might make. Nevertheless, many people would still agree that the ability to spell remains essential for making oneself understood, for appearing intelligent and literate (Gerber & Hall, 1987), and for keeping sufficient cognitive resources available to decide what to write next (Bereiter, 1980). This chapter briefly considers the nature of the English spelling system, and some of

the models that have described its typical course of acquisition. Many orthographic and morphological spelling conventions do seem to require several years of writing instruction to achieve, and are thus acquired relatively ‘late’. However, other evidence suggests that children may represent some simple conventions from when they first begin to write, and thus relatively ‘early’. This chapter discusses how the patterns studied, and the methodology chosen, can lead to rather different conclusions about the timing of the acquisition of many spelling patterns. Further, it presents evidence that some apparently simple English spelling conventions may take much longer to acquire than is commonly assumed, and in some cases, may be achieved not just ‘late’, but ‘never’.

The English spelling system is basically alphabetic: the letter, or grapheme b, for example, corresponds to the sound, or phoneme /b/. However, the spelling of many words cannot be predicted entirely on the basis of such grapheme-phoneme correspondences. Several plausible sound-based spellings may exist (e.g. sight, cite, site), or a letter sequence may not fully reflect a sound sequence (e.g. yacht, laugh). In these

cases, the correct spelling must simply be memorised. Some sound-based spellings are overridden by orthographic conventions, which can vary with word position. For example, the sound /ɔɪ/ is written oi in the middle of words (e.g. boil), but oy at the end (e.g. boy), and some letters may be doubled in the middle of words (e.g. mm) but not at the beginning or end. English orthography sometimes represents the morphological structure of words,

at the expense of reflecting their particular phonetic form. This structure determines the spelling of inflectional endings such as past-tense –ed and plural –s. For example, despite variations in pronunciation, the ending –ed is maintained across regular past verbs, as in walked, warned, waited. Similarly, because regular plurals end in –s, plurals with a final /ks/ sound require the spelling cks (e.g. tracks), whereas non-plurals with this final sound require x (e.g. tax). Words can also be derived from related words (e.g. darkness from dark; forgetful from forget), and another morphological influence on English spelling is that the spelling of many ‘base’ words is maintained in their inflected and derived forms, despite changes in pronunciation (e.g. deal/dealt, define/ definite). Writers must learn such conventions to be able to write the many words whose spelling cannot be achieved on the basis of sound alone.