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Speech-Sound Disorders

Vol. 18 •Issue 32 • Page 6
Speech-Sound Disorders

And Spelling Ability

In schools across the nation, teachers have to make hundreds of decisions every day. But when faced with the question of how much time they should devote to teaching certain literacy skills, they have an important choice to make. Do they spend their time helping students develop strong reading skills, since reading is a national priority and is monitored by the district, parents and government? Or do they dedicate time to spelling instruction, which is not considered a national priority?

The choice is obvious. But don't blame the teachers.

"Teachers' responsibilities are defined by government, state and district guidelines; and spelling is not listed as a primary responsibility," said Megan Overby, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. "They have to make a decision whether or nor they're going to spend time in reading, which is being monitored, or in spelling, which is not monitored very closely. One might suspect they aren't devoting as much time to spelling as they might if it were a national priority."

reading, which is being monitored, or in spelling, which is not monitored very closely. One might suspect they aren't devoting as much time to spelling as they might if it were a national priority."

To further complicate matters, a 2000 report from the National Reading Panel failed to include spelling as an instructional component of reading, thus striking direct spelling instruction from teachers' long to-do lists.1And because states and local districts don't do a lot of testing for spelling, it's unlikely that they'll put resources into that area.

Unfortunately, little data exist on the significance of spelling problems in the nation's schools, and educators-including speech-language pathologists-don't have a good sense of what the big picture looks like.

"Large-scale longitudinal assessments of children's performance in spelling are sorely needed, especially for children and adolescents with communication disorders," Dr. Overby told ADVANCE.

In 2006 more than a hundred schools participated in a study that examined variables in teacher effectiveness and the skills important in facilitating literacy. Researchers used four reading programs to look at how children performed in literacy skills relative to certain teacher qualities. They found that effective teachers tended to have students who scored higher in reading than teachers who were not effective.

"The study reported that students of effective teachers improved their spelling over the course of four years, but student achievement still only reached the 30th percentile nationally, which is not very high. Teachers who were not very effective actually had students who performed worse in spelling over the course of four years," Dr. Overby reported. "It's hard to draw a national trend from that, but studies like that suggest we need to rethink the role of spelling in treating literacy problems in children."

Many researchers feel that spelling ability is reciprocal-spelling informs students in reading and writing, and reading and writing inform students in spelling. "If a student has poor spelling, it's possible the student will also have some level of difficulty in reading and writing," she said. This raises the question as to why school district administrators and the government don't consider spelling a critical focus area.

There are a host of potential risk factors for poor spelling ability in children with communication problems. They include poor or underdeveloped phonological awareness skills, poor or underdeveloped morphological awareness skills, non-developmental speech sound errors, and the pervasiveness of the speech or language disorder and its severity. While poor speech-sound perception may be associated with poor literacy skills in children, this area still needs more research.

Speech-sound disorders can affect the decoding system because they make it difficult for children to match the correct phonological representation with the right letters. According to some researchers, this means the phonological representation of phonemes is fuzzy.

"When phonological representations are fuzzy, it's hard to work with them accurately and quickly when trying to decode words," Dr. Overby said. "We really don't understand exactly what's happening, but we do find this connection."

The best way to explain how these risk factors can affect spelling ability in this population may be to examine instructional models.

Theorists have developed two models to describe how children learn to spell: stage models and phase, or strategy, models. One of the latter is the dual-route model, in which children spell either visually or phonologically.

The dual-route model suggests that students draw from a multitude of sources-including visual memory, semantics, and phonological, orthographical and morphological knowledge-and use those skills to spell. Depending on their age and what they've been taught, children will draw from some of these resources more than others.

"If children spell visually, those are the words that they have in their visual memory," explained Dr. Overby. "You don't have to decode how to spell 'cat'-you automatically know."

However, unfamiliar words are spelled by decoding or sounding them out. This process depends on the individual's phonological awareness skills-the ability to sequence phonemes, hold the phonemes in memory, and then put them back together again.

"When children who have difficulty with phonological awareness are trying to decode, it becomes very clear that they're tapping into the part of their spelling system that's very weak," she said. "The reason speech-sound perception seems to be implicated is that some students are not going to have accurate phonological representation of a phoneme if they have difficulty identifying or discriminating the phoneme. Poor speech-sound perception may well set the stage for difficulty with sequencing, segmentation and assembly."

According to the stage model theory, children move in qualitatively different stages throughout their development. Clinicians can identify which stage the child is in by looking at spelling behaviors.

Intervention for phonological awareness problems should begin early. Research by Suze Leit2For example, non-developmental errors such as glottal stop substitutions or sound preferences need to be remediated early because of the apparent connections to later spelling.

Some researchers have found no difference in spelling skills later in life between students with speech-sound disorders and those without, but evidence suggests otherwise.

"Some individuals with speech-sound disorders may end up with residual effects and some may not. We just don't know which ones are going to have the problems," Dr. Overby said. If a speech-sound disorder resolves early, it's probably worthwhile to monitor the student and make sure subtle spelling deficits don't emerge in the future.

Recently, she and her colleagues completed a study on how the severity of speech-sound disorders may affect literacy skills. She noted that "while you're trying to measure the effect of a disorder on literacy, you're remediating the disorder." As a result, "the results are sometimes not quite as clear as we'd like."

The researchers accessed the Templin Archive, which is comprised of data collected between 1960 and 1972 by Mildred Templin, PhD. Different groups of children punctuated the data pool, including some with speech-sound disorders and some without. Those with disorders did not receive any significant remediation until at least after second grade. "The data aren't confounded by the presentation and implementation of speech therapy," said Dr. Overby.

The researchers found that kindergarteners who were in the seventh percentile on speech-sound imitation tests were roughly a half standard deviation below the mean in first- and second-grade reading and in third-grade spelling compared to those who performed at the 50th percentile. "This lends support to previous researchers who found that the more severe the speech-sound disorder, the more likely it is that the individual is going to have literacy difficulties," she said.

But is there a relationship between specific phoneme errors and phonological spelling? Clinicians don't have a very good grasp on this concept, she said. "A number of studies show that there isn't a direct relationship between phonological spelling and speech-sound disorders. When you look at a child's spelling and their speech-sound disorder, many times it doesn't appear that there's a strong connection."

When Dr. Overby worked in the schools, students occasionally would be referred by teachers for writing the same way they spoke. This made her think about how teachers perceive the relationship between spelling and speech-sound disorders. She has since conducted very preliminary studies on the subject and found a relationship, specifically for /l/, /r/ and /?/ (theta).

"Speech-sound errors on these phonemes appeared to be most at risk for affecting spelling," she said. "That makes sense anecdotally. We know that young children are very consistent in early development substituting /w/ for /l/ and /r/ and /f/ for /?/."

Researchers are trying to pin down whether speech-sound perception has a stronger relationship to spelling than speech-sound production. Studies by Susan Rvachew, PhD, S-LP(C), of McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, appear to point to speech-sound perception as being associated more with literacy,3but "we can't go as far as spelling," said Dr. Overby.

"The question comes down to this: certain kinds of speech-sound perception errors may appear to have a relationship to spelling skills, but not everyone is in agreement with that," she said. "Recent research points to speech-sound perception as being a possible predictor of literacy skills, but we're not sure whether it mediates for speech-sound production or what the relationship is."


1. National Research Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read. (NIH PUB. No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

2. LeitAustralian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 17: 63-75.

3. Rvachew, S., Grawburg, M. (2006). Correlates of phonological awareness in preschoolers with speech sound disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49: 74-87.


1. Lewis, B., Freebairn, L. (1992). Residual effects of preschool phonology disorders in grade school, adolescence, and adulthood. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 35: 819-31.

2. Rvachew, S. (2006). Longitudinal predictors of implicit phonological awareness skills. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 15: 165-76.

3. Rvachew, S. (2007). Phonological processing and reading in children with speech sound disorders. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology: 16: 260-70.

For More Information

Jason Mosheim is Associate Editor of ADVANCE. He can be contacted at


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