Mastering spelling does not always come easy for children. One reason for this is that English orthography is far from straightforward. Success at spelling demands that a great deal of complex information be processed and integrated. Descriptive accounts of spelling development elucidate the skills and knowledge underlying this success (e.g. Ehri, 1998, 1999, 2002; Frith, 1985). These models, together with longitudinal studies of spelling performance, also provide insight into the approximate order in which these skills are acquired (e.g. Caravolas et al., 2001; Nunes et al., 1997). However, far less is known about the cognitive processes underlying spelling development, or the nature of children’s spelling representations. General cognitive models such as the Representational-Redescription (RR) model
(Karmiloff-Smith, 1992) and the Overlapping Waves model (Siegler, 1996) have been used to explain cognitive processes of development in other domains. For example, language, notation, and physics (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992), understanding of balance (Pine & Messer, 1998, 1999, 2003), and understanding of basic numerical principles (Chetland & Fluck, 2007) have all been described in relation to the RR model, while processes underlying arithmetic (Cooney et al., 1988; Siegler, 1987, 1988) clock reading (Siegler & McGilly, 1989), and physics (Maloney & Siegler, 1993) have been set in the context of the Overlapping Waves model. Both models have the potential to deﬁne spelling within a cognitive context.
The RR model in particular draws on cognitive processes such as implicit and explicit knowledge, and by framing spelling development within this model we can account for what children’s verbal explanations reveal about their spelling understanding, going beyond traditional measures of accuracy and errors. We aim to show how, by adopting this approach, greater insight is gained into the explicitness of children’s spelling representations. It reveals the extent to which a child’s developing knowledge of spelling becomes consciously accessible as well as the strategies children use as they spell. Children’s verbal explanations provide an empirical method for testing what children are thinking as they spell, the explicitness of the knowledge they draw upon, why certain errors are made and how representations can be conceptualised.