Variation and repetition in the spelling of young children

Variation and repetition in the spelling of young children

First Author: Rebecca Treiman -- Washington University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Kristina Decker; Brett Kessler; Tatiana Pollo
Keywords: Emergent literacy, Spelling, Writing
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose: Ferreiro and Teberosky (1982) suggested that young children, even those who do not yet use in their invented spellings letters that represent the sounds of words, tend to create different spellings for different words. This variation hypothesis has been widely accepted, but experimental support has been sparse. Indeed, Pollo, Kessler, and Treiman (2009) showed that prephonological spellers tend to repeat spellings they have used recently, which suggests that these children do not possess a concept of between-word variation. The present study sought to provide empirical evidence.

Method: We tested 58 children (mean age 4.7 years), 26 of whom were identified as prephonological spellers. All were asked to write to dictation 6 pairs of words in each of 2 sessions. In half of the trials, children wrote 2 different words. In the other half, children wrote the same word twice in succession. No words were repeated across trials.

Results: Between trials, children tended to repeat spellings and parts of spellings that they used on previous trials. Within a trial, even prephonological spellers used less repetition when writing two different words than when writing the same word twice.

Conclusions: The results indicate that between-word variation is present in early spelling. As in other domains, children tend to repeat recent behaviors. But the tendency to reuse spellings is significantly attenuated when the spellings are for different words. Even children whose spellings do not reflect pronunciation show an understanding that writing represents words and therefore should vary to show contrast between them.