Effect on spelling ability of exposure to the printed word, The

effect on spelling ability of exposure to the printed word, The

Dougherty, Sharon


Individual differences in spelling ability attest to the fact that spelling is extraordinarily complex and windows a multitude of influences that shape spelling behaviours. The growth of word-specific information has been logically linked with the consequences of having an alphabetic script. The basis of this relationship, that is, matching orthographic patterns to sounds, originates from an understanding of phonemic awareness. However, phonological ability alone may not be a sufficient predictor of spelling ability. Print exposure has been suggested as playing an important role in the development of orthographic representations, as the speller is able to use reading experiences to check and confirm specific word information.

The premise of phonological information being the basis of word knowledge is extremely well supported (Adams, 1990; Liberman and Liberman, 1990; Perfetti and Bell, 1991; Rayner and Pollatsek, 1989; Stanovich, 1986, 1988, 1994) as reflecting reading and spelling development (Gill, 1992; Schlagal and Schlagal, 1992; Templeton, 1991, 1992) and spelling errors reveal a child’s understanding of existing phonology and orthography (Frith, 1980; Stage and Wagner, 1992). Emerging empirical evidence on how an individual uses phonological information and orthographic form can currently be found in studies across ages (e.g. Bruck, 1993; Conners and Lunsford, 1992; Invernizzi and Worthy, 1989; Stage and Wagner, 1992), learner characteristics (Cornwall, 1992; Moats, 1993; Snowling et al., 1992; Swanson and Ramalgia, 1992), genetic influence (Defries et al., 1991; Seymour and Evans, 1988), cultures (e.g. Cuetos, 1993; Kihl, 1993), and written responses to various phonological stimuli (Davis et al., 1992; Stage and Wagner, 1992; Treiman, 1991; Treiman and Zukowski, 1990; Treiman et al., 1993).

Analysis of error characteristics and linguistic interpretation has offered qualitative information regarding what information children, adolescents and adults use when spelling. Studies of word identification in dyslexic children have shed light on the developmental course of phonological and orthographic skills. Research has established that dyslexic children and adults with childhood diagnoses of dyslexia exhibit deficits in phonological processing (Bruck,1990,1992, 1993; Manis et al., 1993; Stanovich,1988; Wagner and Torgesen,1987), and within the dyslexic population print exposure accounts for variances in spelling ability (Manis et al., 1993). Studies support the current view (Stanovich, 1988) that dyslexics lack a phonological frame to organise orthographic information and consequently exercise lexical processing, morphological information and visual features to great advantage (Bruck, 1993; Snowling et al., 1992).

Empirically supported strategies used by dyslexic children and adults to bypass phonological processes for word recognition appear not to be specific to that cohort. Young children’s spelling errors have been found to be common and systematic, reflecting current word-decoding skills and working memory (Read, 1971). It has also been found (Stage and Wagner, 1992; Swanson and Ramalgia, 1992) that there are individual differences between both these factors for older children and adults (Kreiner and Gough, 1990). Variances in individual development among older children have been attributed to print exposure (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1991). In addition, older children with reading disabilities use compensatory skills and are less reliant on phonological information (Cornwall, 1992). Adult spellers exercise lexical processing (memory store of word forms) for familiar words and as a result there is a tendency to activate an orthographic route rather than phonological information (Cuetos, 1993; Ellis, 1982).

Phonological awareness investigations have produced empirical evidence to confirm causal links with reading acquisition and spelling ability (Ball and Blachman, 1991; Bradley and Bryant, 1983; Catts, 1993; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1990; Davidson and Jenkins, 1994; Griffith, 1991; Swank, 1994; Wagner and Torgeson, 1987). Children may begin to read and spell using simple sound-to-letter correspondences but, as spelling patterns and word recognition become more complex, interaction with print acts as a correcting mechanism for the orthographic representation (Ellis, 1994; Stuart and Masterson, 1992). Failure to acquire any of the related sub-skills may occur at any time during reading and spelling development, which affects sub-lexical word knowledge, implicating the use of compensatory strategies as coping mechanisms in word identification. However, children having efficient phonological abilities attain a greater percentage of correct representations.

Gough et al. (1992) propose that some children may have sufficient phonological sensitivity but still lag behind in word recognition. On the other hand, some children may compensate for the underdevelopment of this strategy and develop reading skills without word identification skills (Cornwall, 1992). Recent research has identified print exposure as an important factor in both reading and spelling (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1990, 1991; Stanovich and Cunningham, 1992; Stanovich and West, 1989) and shown that phonological and orthographical knowledge have a reciprocal causal relationship (Stanovich, 1986; Ehri, 1987). Although interaction with print develops as a consequence of developed reading ability based on efficient phonological processes (Stanovich, 1986) it is suggested that children with `limited reading skills build vocabulary and knowledge structures through reading’ (p. 271).

Further studies affirm the role of print exposure as partly responsible for the development of orthographic skills (Bruck, 1993; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1990, 1991; Ehri, 1987; Levinthal and Hornung, 1992; Stanovich, 1986; Stanovich and Cunningham, 1992; Stanovich and West, 1989), regardless of cognitive development or reading level, and propose that readers of all ages and abilities interact with print and through print exposure are able to build spelling ability, vocabulary and general knowledge.

The evidence suggests that all children build a spelling lexicon based on interaction with print and that individual differences in the ability to form, store and access orthographic representations may be responsible for spelling variances independent of phonological ability. Mindful of these findings, it can be argued that older children exhibit individual variances in spelling ability due to differences in print exposure independent of phonological ability. This study will investigate the relationship between the independent variable (print exposure) and the dependent variable (spelling achievement). In an attempt to gain statistical understanding of the effects of the predictor variables on the dependent variable a multiple regression analysis was chosen to test the relative effects and influence of general ability, phonological awareness and reading ability on spelling achievement. The results should account for orthographic processes that cannot be explained by differences in phonological ability alone. As print exposure is also seen to be linked with word recognition and comprehension, the relationship between comprehension achievement, spelling ability and print exposure will be examined. Method Subjects

The subjects selected for the study consisted of the total enrolment of 129 Year 7 girls from a secondary girls’ school situated in an inner western suburb of Sydney. Enrolment details identified the sample as representative of thirty-five primary schools (80 per cent government and 20 per cent non-government) within a 6 km radius of the school. The girls’ ethnicity was quite diverse: twenty-three countries of birth (40 per cent English as first language, and 60 per cent non-English-speaking background), 80 per cent spoke two or more languages at home, 15 per cent spoke English only, and 5 per cent could not or chose not to speak English at all. Fifty-seven per cent identified English as the preferred language spoken at home. The subjects ranged in age from 11 years 7 months to 13 years 3 months (mean = 122 years, s.d. = 46 months). Measures

Measuring reading activity in children presents difficulties. Some studies have attempted to measure individual differences in print exposure as well as time spent on literacy experiences outside school using a diary method and a variety of questionnaires (Anderson et al., 1988; Greaney, 1980; Greaney and Hegarty, 1987; Stanovich and West, 1989). However, Stanovich and West (1989) developed a simple and reliable measure that would be relatively free of social bias: the Title Recognition Test (TRT). The TRT was found to be free of subjective judgements and high cognitive behaviours, and able to demand an objective assessment (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1990).

The Title Recognition Test was developed by Cunningham and Stanovich (1990) as a quick measure to assess the reading activity of children (print exposure). The TRT consists of thirty-nine book titles: twenty-five genuine titles and fourteen foil book titles. The twenty-five genuine titles were chosen to explore out-of-school reading rather than school-directed experiences. Variations in the construction of the TRT have been suggested (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1991) to accommodate reading ecologies found in other classrooms and cultures. The version used in this study was developed to reflect better the reading ecology of the targeted secondary girls’ school.

A collection of genuine titles was compiled from a survey of sixty book titles and authors completed by librarians and Year 6 teachers from the major feeder primary schools. The survey included an interest and age-related list of popular authors and titles, Book of the Year Award titles, popular Ashton Scholastic titles, and the opportunity to make additional suggestions. The survey sample was confirmed by the secondary school librarian, a bookshop specialising in children’s literature, and anecdotal information from the 1995 Year 7 student population. The twenty-five titles were chosen from high-frequency nominations. Where an author was identified as extremely popular, selection was directed by age and interest level. The fourteen foil titles were generated from Cunningham and Stanovich (1990), with some variation of book names, as the list of foils was initially screened using an Australian publishing data bank and found to contain some actual titles. The foils were randomly dispersed among the genuine titles in the TRT.

The TRT was group-administered during a library session by the school librarian. Students were told that they were to complete the survey to assist the librarian in choosing popular authors and titles for the school library. The instructions were read to the students as follows: `This is a survey to find out the type of fiction books you have read. Below you will see the titles of many books. Look carefully at each title and if you have read the book place a tick in the box found alongside the title.’ Student queries were addressed before completion. The TRT took ten minutes to administer. Genuine titles identified (mean = 416) and foils checked (mean = 0317) were recorded.

The phonological processing task was a modification of the pseudo-word phonological decision task and stimuli used by Olsen et al. (1985). A list of sixty pronounceable letter strings or pseudo-words were presented and the students were directed to identify pseudo-homophone targets for real words (e.g. caik for cake). The list comprised thirty correct targets dispersed among 30 foils and the phonological task required generation of the sound code, then matching the sound code of the pseudo-word to a real word. Instructions were read to the students as follows: `Set out below are words that are not spelled correctly. However, some words, when sounded out, sound like a real word. Look at the example. B-a-i-k when sounded out sounds like the real word “bake”. More examples were given if required. The processing task took five minutes to administer. Correct targets for real words (mean = 2217) and foils marked (mean = 646) were recorded.

Students also completed the Raven Standard Progressive Matrices (Lewis, 1989) which are designed to measure non-verbal reasoning ability (i.e. the ability to elicit relationships and correlations and the recall of acquired information) independent of educational or cultural context where reading or linguistic deficiencies exist. The test consists of five sets, each containing twelve items, in which the student is required to complete patterns in abstract designs, given a number of options. Each student was issued with a booklet, read the standard test directions, and completed the test as a class group. A twenty minute time span was allocated to complete the test.

The spelling sub-test of the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT 3) (Wilkinson, 1993) was also completed by the subjects. There were fifty-five items on the tests: fifteen items of letter writing and forty items of word spelling. Word spellings demanded phonological knowledge but, as words increased in difficulty, stored orthographic representations and word segment knowledge (e.g. affixes) accounted for spelling variances. Each word was pronounced once, read in a sentence context, then pronounced again. The maximum score for the spelling sub-test was 55. Correct letters and words were recorded (mean = 333).

The Progressive Achievement Test in Reading: Comprehension (Australian Council of Educational Research, 1986) was administered to students to measure skill in factual and inferential comprehension and interpretation of prose material. Students completed Part 6, containing forty-seven multiple-choice test items to be completed in forty minutes, and only correct answers were recorded (mean = 145). Directions for administration followed the teacher’s handbook.

Scoring, analysis and procedure

Raw scores for correct items were collected from Raven, WRAT 3 and reading comprehension, and used in the analysis. Tasks that involved foils (i.e. TRT and phonological task) involved deriving a performance measure by subtracting correct targets checked minus foils marked (Snodgrass and Corwin, 1988).

A multiple regression (Borg and Gall, 1989) was used to examine the relationship between spelling and print awareness (TRT, PAT Raw, phonological ability). After taking into account intelligence (non-verbal), spelling scores were regressed on Raven Matrices (non-verbal intelligence), TRT (Title Recognition Test), phonological ability and PAT Reading Comprehension (reading and language ability). The Raven Matrices score was fitted first, to eliminate the effect of intelligence on spelling.

Each Year 7 class was assessed or supervised separately by the experimenter across three sessions in the following order: Raven, reading comprehension, spelling, phonological task, TRT. The TRT was presented by the school librarian as part of the introductory sessions on the library. Results

In an attempt to ascertain the relational impact of print exposure on spelling performance, phonological knowledge and reading comprehension, scores were grouped according to High TRT and Low TRT, based on the median TRT score. Comparison of the means of the two groups is presented in Table

1. The results indicate that levels of print exposure (p

A multiple regression analysis was employed to examine the strength of association and prediction between spelling achievement, as measured by the WRAT 3, and the independent variables, i.e. phonological ability, print exposure (TRT), reading and language development (PAT), and intellectual ability (Raven). Performance on the Raven (non-verbal intellectual ability) was entered first to eliminate the effects of intellectual ability, followed by TRT, phonological, and reading comprehension performance. The result of the analysis is presented in Table 2. The regression failed to show any relationship or strong explanation (RI = 316 per cent) that the variability in spelling ability could be explained by the independent variables except for a highly significant correlation between spelling and reading comprehension performance. The analysis, however, did not implicate the important role of phonology and print exposure in spelling performance supported in previous studies (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1990, 1991; Griffith, 1991; Stage and Wagner, 1992). The absence of a significant correlation with one or both of these predictor variables directed the study towards an analysis of withinclass characteristics which would allow a closer examination of individual performance, as the total sample characteristics could not statistically validate individual differences (Goldstein, 1995, p. 2).

Individual class performance levels based on descriptive statistics (i.e. means, standard deviations, and minimum and maximum values information) are displayed in Table 3. Comparing individual class means with total means for each measure indicated that unique performance and interaction associations existed that were not observable in the total sample analysis.

Year 7.3 attained a substantially higher achievement level across measures, compared with other classes, while Year 7.5 and Year 7.6 performed poorly in comparison with Year 7 average performance associations. A significant trend of high performance levels was obtained for classes containing average to above-average students (i.e. Year 7.1, Year 7.2 and Year 7.3). The analysis confirmed that determining correlations among the measures would be more reliable at the class level. A series of multiple regression analyses were subsequently carried out and the results are displayed in Table 4.

Intelligence (Raven; non-verbal) was fitted first, to eliminate the effects of intelligence on spelling, followed by TRT, then phonological condition, with PAT fitted last. The regression equation shows a significant relationship between phonological performance and spelling achievement for five out of the six classes. Year 7.2 and Year 7.3 displayed a significant relationship between spelling performance and phonological ability (p

The remaining classes, except for Year 7.5 (phono p > 0.05), showed a strong relationship between phonological ability and spelling achievement (Year 7.6 p

Examination of the sub-groups in the Year 7 student population exposed Year 7.3 as superior in all measures despite comparative print scores (i.e. TRT). The student sample exhibited a highly significant correlation between spelling performance and print-related variables (TRT, phono and PAT) with phonological ability being the strongest predictor (p

The relationship between spelling performance and reading comprehension (PAT), found to be quite significant for Year 7 (p


The study attempted to address the role of print exposure in developing individual spelling ability. The evidence presented here suggests that phonological ability is a potent indicator of individual variances in spelling ability. However, two aspects of the result are significant in the interpretation. Firstly, the percentage of variance in spelling performance that could be explained by the independent variables varied significantly across classes (Table 4, Rz value). The amount of influence correlated with achievement levels, indicating that the lower the performance standard the more difficult it was to ascertain how much influence the independent variables may have had on spelling ability for this student population.

Secondly, the Year 7 TRT performance score (mean 0147; s.d. 0113) recorded a normal distribution but was reflective of an extremely low exposure experience (range -0125 to 0640; total, 1000). As the study depended on the measure to assess reading volume, it would not be unusual to conclude that the measure’s ability to statistically influence or reliably denote relationships was not undeserving of criticism. However, despite the limitations individual print exposure relationships were observed, particularly in the correlation of high and low print exposure groups (Table 1). The TRT results demonstrated that print exposure was a unique predictor of spelling performance and reading comprehension, and was significantly associated with reasoning ability. The TRT exposed fundamental performance differences that have been associated with the efficacy of word processing ability (Stanovich and West, 1989).

The analyses strongly indicated that other factors outside the predictor variables assigned for the study are implicated. However, it cannot be overlooked that the sample used in the study may reflect characteristics representative of stages in spelling development (Frith, 1980; Stage and Wagner, 1992). Several explanations for this view follow.

The reliance on phonological information for spelling has been acknowledged as a feature of early spelling development (Griffith, 1991; Stuart and Masterson, 1992; Swanson and Ramalgia, 1992). Four of the six classes (i.e. Year 7.1, Year 7.2, Year 7.4 and Year 7.6) exhibited significant reliance on phonological information for spelling achievement and predominantly performed below, and in a few instances similar to, the Year 7 level on all measures. Evidence to support the use of compensatory strategies is inconclusive and print exposure scores (TRT) reflect limited interaction with print to allow the development of orthographic information. This is an interesting paradox, as poor spellers (and readers) usually rely on orthographic coding – information that is related to print exposure.

A relationship between print experience and spelling is clearly observable in the significant correlations achieved by Year 7.3. The results support and

confirm previous research findings that a reciprocal relationship occurs in the development of reading, spelling and comprehension, and that orthographic processes are indirectly dependent on phonological ability (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1991; Stanovich, 1986; Stanovich and Cunningham, 1992).

However, phonological knowledge still remained a stringent predictor of spelling ability. It has been acknowledged that children who have strong phonemic ability are better word analysts and have the capacity to store word-specific information more efficiently (Griffith, 1991). Interaction with print increases and confirms existing orthographic information, and such interaction can be observed in the results of this class. Error analysis would have provided evidence to confirm this theory (Treiman et al., 1993).

Several limitations of the study require mention. The regression analyses (Table 4) for the Year 7 classes accounted for 48 per cent to 91 per cent of the variance in spelling explained by the independent measures. Possible sources of unexplained variance include a non-English-speaking background (60 per cent), bilingualism (80 per cent), school effectiveness (thirty-five feeder primary schools), and socio-economic factors. The study did not address causal relations between spelling and memory (Cornwall,1992; Swanson and Ramalgia,1992), spelling and reading accuracy (Stanovich,1986). It would be beneficial to determine the importance of each of these factors and their relative influence on spelling, as, clearly, drawing conclusions based on this sample is problematic, although Year 7.3 appear to have less contamination by these factors.

Mindful of the ability of the TRT to be a reliable measure of print exposure it could be argued that the titles selected for the TRT were not representative of the students reading background or experiences. It could be speculated that depressed scores may have invalidated the reliability of the measure except for Year 7.3, who demonstrated through their responses that their reading experience included a higher proportion of quality titles (i.e. Book of the Year award). However, anecdotal information gathered by the librarian suggested that the majority of students rarely read or tended to read series or titles well below their reading capabilities.

In conclusion, the present study has identified phonological ability as a significant predictor of spelling ability regardless of general ability. Nevertheless, it is likely that the sample reflects a stage of spelling development which was not investigated here. One class in the sample provided evidence to support previous findings on the role of print exposure in spelling development. Future investigations need to address the impact of student background and characteristics on print exposure correlations. The predictive relationship between spelling and print exposure may only be relevant for specific student populations and not as highly predictive for students coming from a non-English-speaking background.


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Sharon Dougherty NSW Department of School Education Mark Clayton Macquarie University

Address for correspondence

Dr Mark Clayton, Special Education Centre, Macquarie University, Sydney, N.S.W. 2109, Australia. E-mail mark.clayton@speced.sed.mq.edu.au

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