[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1982 pp9-12]

SSS Conference 3: Teaching and Learning Spelling.

"Spelling errors made by 8-11 year old pupils."

Miss Barbara Smith.*

*former lecturer, Dundee College of Educa. Scotland.


Survey of spelling errors:
1. Categories of error, using Peter's Manual, and arranging the results in grids.
2. Range and distribution of the number of errors.
3. Individual and class preponderance of error.
4. Further diagnosis from an `Informal Writing Inventory.
5. Sample remediation, indicating changes in spelling behaviour.


Spelling behaviour. Spelling is a 'tool' subject in the context of communication skills. The complexity of the continuous writing process has been considered in the Informal Writing Inventory.

Factors to be considered in learning spelling:
(a) Motivation,
(b) What is learning?
(c) Short term or long term memory?
(d) Transfer to writing vocabulary, how?

Establishing a method of self instruction.
Teaching spelling after diagnosis.
What to do in case of faulty perception.
School studies: Six are described, with handouts of scripts.

Spelling behaviour can be altered by systematic remedial teaching, but there is the danger of remaining at permanent instructional level.

Factors needing exploration are:
(a) What constitutes learning to spell a word? Short term memory or long term, and how long term?
(b) How to transfer words learned in isolation to spontaneous use as part of the writing vocabulary?
(c) Remediation for faulty auditory perception.


The points of view of multitudes of children who have to learn English spelling, of thousands of teachers who try to teach children how to learn spelling, and of lecturers who hold inservice courses for teachers on the teaching of spelling, form the background to the following thinking,
Spelling - a Communication Skill

The complexity of the continuous writing process has been considered in "I enjoy writing. . . it teaches me," an article in Teaching English, Spring '79, vol. 12, No. 2, pages 38-43, in which I stated:

"Informal Reading Inventories are teacher-structured reading situations. The teacher finds passages related to the pupil's interest or to the current class theme, selects the components for diagnosis according to her awareness of the pupil's needs, and uses the results in planning her reading programme."

Informal Reading Inventories differ from standardised tests which have the same prescribed passages for all, standard procedures and statistically competent norms. In The Reading Curriculum (O.U. 1973), the Betts levels of attainment in IRI are given (1) independent, (2) instructional, (3) frustration. The IRI uses the concept of readability in its wide sense, matching books to readers.

In view of a changing climate of opinion about excellence and failure in children's writing and the lack of standardised tests, I had to devise structured writing situations to give some degree of uniformity of procedure. I taught the P4, P5, P6 classes in the preliminary build-up and timed the writing to last twenty minutes. At the end of the experimentation, I had four pieces of writing from each child, written at six-monthly intervals. The preliminary teaching involved my reading aloud literary extracts on a theme and talking over possibilities with the children. For the children the learning situation was a listening one, with the opportunity to ask and answer questions.

On several occasions, to create atmosphere, I read the classes an introductory "horse" poem, "The Runaway," by Robert Frost. Excerpts about horses from a tape on "Dreams" prepared by a P7 Class were played. I read parts of "The Night of the Wild Horses" by G. Harrison (OUP), a long narrative fantasy poem. The fantasy element is in the notion of fairground horses coming alive and transporting their child riders into the past. There was some classroom interaction in discussion which ranged from cavalry charges in historic battles to the contemporary Grand National. The children were then invited to write their own dream ride for twenty minutes.

By dint of repetition, the teaching situations became almost standard procedures. With the current interest in Informal Reading Inventories, it might be not unfair to coin a parallel phrase and to call the procedures Informal Writing Inventories. The levels of attainment in the Informal Writing Inventories were tentatively named (1) independent, (2) instructional, and (3) fumbling, to match the Informal Reading Inventory with its independent instructional and frustration reading levels. An attempt was then made to isolate the skills involved in written communication and a paragraph devoted to "Handwriting and Spelling" suggested that action be deferred in these fields. The establishment of other categories in a detailed assessment instrument was further described in the article and the way was cleared for consideration of spelling as a "tool" subject in the context of communication skills.

Spelling-Learning Problems.
Before experimentation began, thinking and discussion suggested the following problem factors: (a) motivation to learn spelling? (b) What constitutes learning? When is a word correctly spelled? Short term memory or long term memory? How long is long term memory? (c) How transfer to writing vocabulary by spontaneous use in the continuous writing context of words learned in lists, in dictated passages, or inserted in contrived but meaningless sentences?

Spelling - Diagnosis using Peters' Manual.
Six schools were selected as available for diagnostic investigation, providing a wide range of ability in varying socio-economic environments. Schools A and C were city schools, schools B and D burgh schools, and schools E and F rural schools. 8, 9, 10 year olds in P4, 5 and 6 of these schools formed a total of 500 children. Peters' diagnostic dictations were given to class groups and the results were tabulated in grids which could be read horizontally for individual diagnosis and vertically for class diagnosis.

Table 1. Fragment of a Grid.


(b) Phonic
to spelling
Pupil Y satisfactshon
Pupil Zhere
 InsertionsTranspositionsDoubling V. UnclassifiableTotals
Pupil Ytiyed niosey  8
Pupil Znoisey    8
 21- 16

Table from Interim Report.

My comments in the Interim Report were "Pupil Y's lack is in auditory perception as seen in "dog" for "dodged" and "dangeris" for "dangerous"; and "were" for "where" could possibly be entered here too. The pupil makes some use of phonics, e.g. satisfactshon and "sertinly" but the errors under "Analysis of Structure, e.g. Insertions "tiyed" and Transposition "niosey", suggest faulty visual perception. Pupil 2 uses phonic knowledge in 5 out of 8 errors satisfactorily but has not established word patterns to fit into the phonic knowledge. The same applies to "niosey", with its insertion of "e". In both cases, the omissions of single letters may well be single-occasion, usually called "careless" errors, but it could be argued that such errors are also symptomatic of the problems of imprecise visual perception of words.

What is noteworthy in diagnosis is that the two pupils should not be regarded as identical problems though they have the same number of errors. The preponderance of error may well be different and requites different remediation.

The detailed grid information was duplicated, distributed to and discussed with head teachers and class teachers so that the diagnosis should influence their teaching procedures. Later the same classes were given an Informal Writing Inventory, after which the spelling of the scripts was subjected to the Peters' diagnostic categories and the results, tabulated in grids, were compared with the results of the Peters' dictations. The number of errors and the patterns of error were compared. In the Interim Report, I commented on dual category errors and multiple errors:

"When considering the categorisation of errors, there is need to call on knowledge of local accents and dialect usages to decide on categories. Ideally, the best judge of category is the child's teacher.

Examples taken from P4, School A are
(1) were (=where), (2) certainlay (=certainly), (3) hores (=horse).

(1) might be either "Faulty Auditory Perception" or "Omissions ',
(2) might be either "Faulty Auditory Perception" or "Transposition."

Some words also have multiple errors within them, e.g.
(1) remode (= removed), (2) shage (= shaggy).

(1) might be either "Faulty Auditory Perception", or "Insertion" or "Omission", or "Transposition",
(2) might be either "Phonic Alternative not conforming to Spelling Precedent", or "Omission", or "Insertion", or "Doubling". Subjective judgement is exercised in categorising these errors."

Finally, the diagnostic dictation was administered again, and, at each step in the experimentation, copies of the detailed results were discussed with Head Teachers and Classroom Teachers.

Topics which took prominence in discussion were
(a) the writing vocabulary overlapping but not identical with, the speaking, listening, and reading vocabularies of the children,
(b) use of the dictionary,
(c) subvocalization in recalling the spelling of a word,
(d) spelling, though a single skill at the independent level, remains a complex skill at the fumbling level.

School Studies.
Teacher enthusiasm and effort did accomplish spelling development.

School C (City).
Blackwell's Spelling Laboratory was a systematic school compensatory programme. There were no "at risk" spellers (a phrase coined from the Tizard Report's kindly-phrased reference to children "at risk" in reading).

The preponderance of error was in the faulty auditory perception category for the diagnostic dictation tests. The Informal Writing Inventory gave a different distribution with equalised categories.

School D (Burgh).
Again, the preponderance of error was in the faulty auditory perception category, though School D is socio-economically different from School C. In the P5-6 classes, the omissions category catches up on faulty auditory perception.

School B (Burgh).
In P4, the faulty auditory perception category, though still the largest, was relatively much smaller than for schools C and D. In P5 and 6, omissions was the largest category. A socio-economic difference was also evident in spoken language, especially in articulation.

School A (City).
Again, the preponderance of error was in the faulty auditory perception category. The teaching was above average and as devised by individual teachers. The results were poorer than for School C with its systematic school compensatory programme.

Faulty Auditory Perception.
Discussion of early results with teachers on inservice courses showed that most passed off the problem of faulty auditory perception, and therefore faulty sub-vocalization, on recall, as "lack of phonic knowledge" and failed to appreciate that a major linguistic problem had been isolated.

Remedial Teaching School E (Rural).
In addition to the testing as for Schools, A, B, C, and D, Arvidson's method for self learning was taught. Short term and long term memory results were tested and there was incidental learning of dictation within a thematic situation. Two P4 pupils "at risk" were given individual tuition. The results, show improvement in long term memory for two boys who had been in danger of opting out of written communication.

School F (Rural).
As for School E, the method for self-learning was taught and short term and Iona term memory testing was given.

The results for pupil 626, show development of:
1. The ability to use the self-learning method.
2. The ability to write words learned-progress from 1/5 to 2/5 to 5/10 words correct.
3. The attempt at Peter's diagnostic dictation improved from four words correct, 96 wrong, to 29 words correct, 71 wrong. Systematic remedial teaching can alter spelling behaviour but there is the danger of remaining at permanent instructional level.

General Conclusions.

Two problems need further exploration:

(a) What constitutes learning to spell a word?
Short term memory or long term memory and how long term?

(b) How can teaching transfer words to spontaneous use as part of the writing vocabulary?
The motivation-to-learn problem was to a certain extent solved but another problem is now revealed in:

(c) What is the remediation for faulty auditory perception?


1. Learning to Spell, Arvidson (Wheaton, 1965)

2. Checklists, J. Dean (Evans, 1974)

3. Success in Spelling, M. Peters, (Camb. Inst. 1970)

4. Diagnostic and Remedial Spelling Manual, M. Peters, (Macmillan, 1973)

5. "Appraisal of Current Spelling Materials. A Consumer's Guide." M. Peters and Gripps. (Reading, CTR, 1980)

6. "I enjoy writing. . .it teaches me." Article in Teaching English, Spring, '79, vol. 12, no. 2, pp38-43, B. E. Smith (C.I.T.E., Moray House College, Edinburgh.)

7. 78/6 Survey of Spelling Errors in Tayside Schools, B. E. Smith (Dundee College of Education Research Committee, Dundee.)

handwritten errors.

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