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Assessing Patterns of Spelling Errors

Kenn Apel, Ph.D,CCC-SLP

May 1, 2006



A child in my learning centre displays the following spelling errors:

fisie for flies; kool for look; maens for more; sacll for sore; scome for silly; meles for middle; comeas for kitten; bentes for believe; sunes for sunny; gllses for small pinti


This is a tricky question for several reasons. First, without knowing the age of the student, it is difficult to know the developmental expectations. Second, to complete an adequate analysis of spelling errors, more examples would be needed. I also would want to know whether these types of errors occur frequently and the percentage of correct to incorrect spelling. Third, it would be important to know whether these words were collected during a spelling-to-dictation activity or from a connected writing (I'm thinking they were the latter, as they don't seem to be "typical" words from a spelling list). Finally, without knowing his attention or focus during the collection of these words, it is difficult to know whether he was actually attempting the words or was writing without much thought. With those caveats, I'd like to make a few comments on his spellings and your questions, and then provide a suggestion for further study of his spelling abilities.

Typically, when I assess a student's spelling errors, I am looking for patterns of errors which provide clues regarding which linguistic skills are not being used during spelling. These linguistic skills are:

  1. Phonological Awareness
    Ability to segment, sequence, identify, discriminate phonemes

  2. Orthographic Knowledge
    Knowledge of alphabetic principle and sound-letter relationships; "phonics"
    Knowledge of letter patterns and conventional spelling rules

  3. Vocabulary Knowledge
    Knowledge of word meaning (meaning affects spelling and vice versa)

  4. Morphological Knowledge
    Knowledge of letter-meaning relationships of "word parts": suffixes, prefixes, base words, word roots
    Understanding of semantic relationships between base word and related words
    Knowledge of modification rules when adding prefixes and suffixes

  5. Mental Orthographic Images of Words
    Clear and complete mental representations of words or word parts
Looking at the 14 words you provided, it seems on most attempts he spells the first sound of the word correctly. A couple of the words suggest he is either overusing or has poor mental orthographic images (fisie for flies; kool for look). In other words, he may know that flies has f, i, e, s consonants in it (or that look has l, o, o, and k consonants in it), but has a faulty or fuzzy image of how they are represented in these words. With these two words, and many of the others, he does not appear to be using his phonemic awareness knowledge because the printed words suggest more phonemes than are present in the word. His spellings also suggest poor orthographic knowledge because, mostly, the letter consonants he has chosen can never be used to represent the sounds they should be representing. But, the bottom line, given these 14 words, it seems as if he was just writing the initial sound down and then completing the words with somewhat random strings of letters (thus the need to know how "on task" he was). It may be that these words were too difficult for him, and so he simply wrote the first sound and then the string of letters. I wondered what he would do with vocabulary words that were simpler (consonant-vowel-consonant) or possibly better known to him.

You mentioned that this boy had received special attention, including individual tutoring in phonemic awareness. I'm wondering what the professionals thought about the outcome of that tutoring. It seems he is not applying any knowledge gained with these words. Given the report about emotional concerns, I would double my efforts to determine the amount of focus or attention given when these words were written. Finally, because you did not mention any speech difficulties, I wonder about the possibility of verbal dyspraxia or, what I would call, a speech sound disorder. If no errors are present in his speech, then either term does not appear to cover what you want. It is possible that he draws out words as he tries to spell, over-articulating and distorting them. This could be observed. However, some errors seem to be distorted above and beyond what is typically attributed to over-articulation.

My colleague Julie Masterson and I have published articles and chapters that go into greater detail about spelling assessment (and intervention). Two references are:

Apel, K., Masterson, J. J., & Niessen, N.L. (2004). Spelling assessment frameworks. In A. Stone, E.R. Silliman, B. Ehren, & K. Apel, (Eds.), Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders. (pp. 644-660). New York: Guilford Press.

Apel, K., Masterson, J.J., & Hart, P. (2004). Integration of language components in spelling: Instruction that maximizes students' learning. In Silliman, E.R. & Wilkinson, L.C. (Eds.), Language and Literacy Learning in Schools. (pp. 292-315). New York: Guilford Press.

We also publish a software assessment program and instructional curriculum. Information on that is available at www.learningbydesign.com

Spelling is a complex linguistic skill, and so to provide any hard and fast response to your query is difficult. I wish you well, and encourage you to consider his spelling as a language ability, determine which one or more underlying linguistic skills is deficient, and then plan treatment, if needed, to address those skills.

Kenn Apel, PhD, CCC-SLP is professor of Communication Disorders at The Florida State University and a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. His research and teaching interests deal with typical and non-typical language/literacy development, with a specific focus on reading and spelling. He is a former Associate Editor for Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools (LSHSS) and has served as a guest editor for LSHSS and Topics in Language Disorders. He was the co-chair of the 2004 ASHA Convention in Philadelphia. Dr. Apel has authored or co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles, books, book chapters, software programs, and a spelling instructional curriculum.

Kenn Apel, Ph.D,CCC-SLP

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