Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9: 451–481, 1997.
R. Treiman (ed.), Spelling, pp. [137–167]
1997 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Is children’s spelling naturally stage-like?
CONNIE K. VARNHAGEN, MICHELLE MCCALLUM &
Department of Psychology, University of Alberta, Canada
Abstract. Children’s spelling development is often described by researchers and educators as
proceeding through a series of stages. Two properties of stages were analyzed in this study.
If spelling development can be characterized by stages, then it should be possible to observe
qualitatively different spellings at different points in development. In addition, spellings within
a point of development must be consistent. Spelling samples were obtained from stories written
by children in ﬁrst through sixth grade. Stage classiﬁcations of spellings for (a) silent -e long
vowel words (e.g., bake), and (b) regularly afﬁxed past tense words phonologically represented
as /t/ (e.g., helped), /d/ (e.g., opened), and /
d/ (e.g., listed) were analyzed. Little evidence was
found for either predicted qualitative differences in stage classiﬁcation of errors or in stage
constancy across grades. Implications for theories of spelling development and instructional
practice are discussed.
Key words: Spelling, Spelling development, Spelling stages, Spelling strategies
Mastering the spelling system is an enormous developmental task. Not only
must children learn to map meaning-based sounds (phonemes) onto letters
(graphemes) but they must learn a large number of letter combination rules
(orthography) and at least as many exceptions due to afﬁxation, assimilation,
and the inﬂux of new words (morphology) to the English language. Most of
our understanding about spelling development is based on inferences made
from examinations of children’s spelling errors. These errors provide fasci-
nating insights into how children understand the sound and spelling system
of the English language (Stage & Wagner 1992).
Error analysis has been used to infer prior knowledge and cognitive strate-
gies children may have used in their spelling (extensive studies of children’s
spelling errors can be found in Read 1975; Treiman 1993). This approach has
provideda wealth of information about children’s phonological,orthographic,
and morphological knowledge and how children may use their knowledge in
translating oral language into a written form. Commonalities in errors made
by children at a particular age or level of spelling ability have also led some
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