Consonant Doubling in Elementary School Spellers

Consonant Doubling in Elementary School Spellers

First Author: Ruth Altmiller -- Washington University in St. Louis
Additional authors/chairs: 
Rebecca Treiman
Keywords: Spelling, Graphotactics, Letter doubling, Elementary, English
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose: When learning to spell in English, children must learn that two or more letters may represent a single speech sound. One example is consonant doubling (e.g. <ff> representing the single sound /f/ in <muffin), a challenging pattern for adults. Previous research indicates that adults tend to double consonants following short vowels. We examined how phonology (long versus short preceding vowel) and graphotactics (multi-letter versus single-letter vowel spelling) influenced children’s use of double consonants.

Method: Children in grades 2, 4, and 6 spelled 40 bisyllabic nonwords (20 with a long and 20 with a short vowel in the first syllable) and completed a standardized spelling test. University students were also tested for comparison.

Results: Children with low scores on the standardized spelling test rarely doubled either vowels or consonants. As spelling ability increased, the proportion of consonant doubling after short vowels increased from less than 10% for second graders to 48% for university students, while the proportion of consonant doubling following long vowels remained low. Even the least skilled spellers rarely doubled a consonant after spelling the preceding vowel with more than one letter.

Conclusions: Young children are conservative spellers – generally using one letter per speech sound. As age and spelling ability increase, consonant doubling is influenced by phonology to a greater degree, although sixth graders do not yet double as often as adults. Graphotactics also influence spellers’ use of single versus double consonants. Spelling rules taught in schools are typically phonological; however, children may benefit from additional graphotactic instruction.