Sensitivity to silent letters in children with developmental language disorder

Sensitivity to silent letters in children with developmental language disorder

First Author: Marie-Pier Godin -- Universite de Montreal
Additional authors/chairs: 
Rachel Berthiaume; Daniel Daigle
Keywords: Spelling, Language impairment, Spelling errors, Orthographic Knowledge, Writing
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose: Children with developmental language disorder (DLD) are at risk of literacy impairment. However, few studies have examined their spelling processes, even less their sensitivity to orthographic regularities. In this study, we focused on the sensitivity to silent letters. In French, as in English, silent letters are a source of inconsistency. At least 28% of French words end with a silent letter (Gingras & Sénéchal, 2016), and spellers can rely on their knowledge of orthographic regularities to select plausible letters. To our knowledge, no studies have examined the sensitivity to silent letters in this population.
Method: We compared 30 children with DLD (M age = 9;11) to two control groups: one matched on chronological age (CA, n = 30), and one matched on language and spelling age (LA, n = 30; M age = 7;11). All children were tested on an experimental dictated spelling task, containing 22 words with derivational silent letters matched with 22 words with non-derivational silent letters.
Results: Inferential analyses show that the DLD group produces significantly more errors than the other two groups, and most of their spelling attempts are not phonologically plausible. When we examine only the silent letters, for all groups, derivational letters are more accurately spelled than non-derivational letters. In case of an error, LA and CA groups tend to substitute derivational silent letters by others, and to omit non-derivational ones. In contrast, the DLD group tends to omit silent letters regardless of the letter type.
Conclusion: These results highlight a possible deficit in spelling processes for children with DLD. They are not as sensitive to silent letters as their CA or LA peers. Children with DLD still focus on phoneme-grapheme conversion and are not relying on orthographic regularities to select plausible letters. Studies based on interventions where spelling strategies are explicitly taught and print exposure is enhanced could be a promising avenue.