The links between grammar and spelling: A cognitive hurdle
in deep orthographies?
HOLGER JUUL and CARSTEN ELBRO
University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Abstract. A cross-sectional study tested Danish students’ mastery of links between
grammar and spelling (cf. the English link between past tense verbs and the -ed spell-
ing for a word ﬁnal /t/, e.g., missed vs. mist). One hundred and forty-two students
aged 10–17 spelled pseudo-word items with ambiguous phonemes, where the choice
between a ’conditional’ spelling (cf. English ed for /t/) and a simple spelling (cf. t for
/t/) was predictable from the grammatical context but not from the sound. Overgen-
eralisations (conditional spellings used where simple spellings were appropriate) were
controlled to obtain pure measures of grammatical spelling competence. The oldest
group of participants performed near ceiling on four of ﬁve spelling problems studied
while three younger groups in the experiment never did. The nature of the apparent
grammatical hurdle in Danish spelling acquisition is discussed.
Key words: Danish, Grammatical awareness, Morphology, Spelling development
Inconsistent relations between phonemes and graphemes are a key char-
acteristic of deep orthographies. The concept of orthographic depth is
most commonly associated with feedforward inconsistency (graphemes
with ambiguous pronunciations), but the consequences of feedback
inconsistency (phonemes with ambiguous spellings) are also an impor-
tant object of study (Ziegler, Jacobs & Stone, 1996, 1997). English
orthography is notorious for its feedback inconsistencies. To give a sim-
ple example, the phoneme /s/ can be represented by several diﬀerent
graphemes including s, c, ps, sc, and ce (Carney, 1994). Similar exam-
ples can be supplied by many other orthographies, including the
French, the Portuguese, the Greek, and the Danish.
Feedback inconsistencies are clearly a challenge to the speller. When
simple spellings, such as s to represent /s/, do not apply, spellers will
often need to make links between spellings and speciﬁc words as well as
between spellings and phonemes: /s/ is spelled c in cigar, ps in psychol-
ogy and so on. The need for a word-based (lexical) spelling strategy as
well as a phoneme-based strategy obviously makes spelling acquisition
Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 17: 915–942, 2004.
Ó 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.