From Our Print Archives

The Language of Spelling

Vol. 15 •Issue 10 • Page 14
The Language of Spelling

Analysis of spelling errors reveals underlying language deficits

In recent years, considerable empirical and theoretical advances in the understanding of spelling have occurred. The traditional view of spelling as a rote, visual-memory activity has been replaced with an understanding that spelling is one of the most complex forms of language production and an individual's spelling errors reveal specific underlying language deficits.1,2

Like reading, spelling draws upon an individual's linguistic knowledge: phonological awareness; knowledge of orthography, vocabulary, semantics and morphology; and learned mental images of words.3,4 An individual's spelling errors provide insight into specific language deficits that exist and can impair both reading and writing.2

The speech-language pathologist, now called upon to assume more responsibility for evaluating and treating people with written language disorders,5 can conduct an analysis of spelling errors to determine an individual's specific underlying language deficits. This type of analysis is similar to the phonological analysis of speech errors that clinicians use to code and categorize phonological deviations6,7 and to identify appropriate treatment goals for a client with an expressive phonological disorder.

Likewise, the results of a spelling error analysis will guide the clinician's selection of appropriate, targeted treatment goals for systematic remediation that will improve that individual's linguistic knowledge and written language skills.2,8

One type of linguistic knowledge used during spelling is phonological awareness. Individuals use phonological awareness skills when spelling, breaking down words into smaller units, such as syllables and phonemes, and then linking these smaller sound units, in sequential order, to their written forms. Individuals need to acquire the ability to perceive differences between speech sounds (e.g., between the short vowel "e" and "i" sounds) and to recognize that a difference in sound signals a difference in meaning.

In most cases, individuals with poor segmentation and sound sequencing skills will delete letters and syllables (e.g., "fat" for "fast," "relize" for "realize") or reverse the sequence of letters (e.g., "nets" for "nest") when spelling. Individuals with poor speech discrimination skills are likely to spell distinct vowel sounds with the same letter (e.g., "bat" and "bet" both spelled "bet").

Individuals also must acquire orthographic knowledge—that is, knowledge of specific letter-sound relationships, letter patterns and spelling rules—to convert spoken language to written form. Individuals with poor orthographic knowledge often spell words incorrectly because they fail to recognize accepted spelling conventions.

For example, a student may write "man" for "main" if he does not understand that a long vowel sound in a closed syllable is almost always spelled with two vowel letters, "tetch" for "teach" if he does not understand that the / / phoneme is never spelled with the letters "tch" after a long vowel sound, and "sdring" for "string" if he does not understand that the letter combination "sdr" never occurs in the English language.

Vocabulary knowledge is another type of language knowledge used for spelling. Individuals use vocabulary knowledge to accurately store and recall the correct spelling of words. The use of vocabulary knowledge is particularly important for the correct spelling of homophone words (e.g., "here" and "hear"). Individuals who have vocabulary deficits or trouble applying vocabulary knowledge are likely to confuse the spelling of homophone words (e.g., "There car should not be parked hear").

One very important type of language knowledge for spelling, particularly for the older student, is morphological knowledge. This includes knowledge of word parts (i.e., prefixes, suffixes, base words and word roots) and semantic relationships between words (e.g., heal-health; sign-signal). When an individual is required to spell an unfamiliar word (e.g., musician), knowledge of the base word (i.e., music) and certain word endings (e.g., -ian) can help the student to spell the unfamiliar word correctly.

The student also may need to draw upon knowledge of rules for modifying base words to correctly spell inflected and derived forms. For example, the English language has a morphological rule of dropping the "e" at the end of the base word "bake" before adding "-ing" to spell "baking."

In addition, students can draw upon knowledge of semantic relationships to correctly spell silent consonants and unstressed vowels. For example, the silent consonant in "autumn" is heard in the related word "autumnal," and the unstressed vowel in the second syllable of "poem" emerges as a short vowel "e" sound in the related word "poetic." Individuals with deficits in morphological knowledge may frequently misspell words with affixes and words containing silent consonants and unstressed vowels (e.g., "musishun" for "musician," "bakeing" for "baking," "sine" for "sign," and "poim" for "poem").

Finally, individuals need to develop clear and complete mental images of previously read words. These mental images of words are stored in an individual's long-term memory after repeated exposure to them in print. Inadequate mental images of words often are formed when individuals use inappropriate reading strategies such as partial cue analysis, a process in which the student guesses the identity of a word after decoding only the first letter(s) of the word.

Individuals with poorly developed mental images of words will misspell words when phonological awareness and knowledge of orthography, vocabulary and morphology are not sufficient to correctly spell a pattern within a word (e.g., "sope" for "soap," "baskit" for "basket," and "docter" for "doctor").

There are several reasons why a clinician conducts a spelling assessment, and the purpose of the assessment will dictate the appropriate method of assessment to be used.

To quantify spelling ability in order to qualify a student for services or to document a performance level with a standardized score, the clinician will select a standardized spelling test, such as The Test of Written Spelling-4.9 If the purpose of the spelling assessment is to simply describe what spelling patterns a student can and cannot spell, the clinician will use a stage analysis or spelling inventory approach10 to conduct a descriptive assessment.

A clinician who wants to identify specific language deficits that are impairing reading and writing performance and to develop appropriate treatment goals for effective remediation will want to conduct a prescriptive assessment.

The prescriptive assessment method presented here was first published by J.J. Masterson and K. Apel.2 The method was further developed with data collected from more than 100 individuals, age 7 through adult, and subsequently republished by Apel, Masterson and N.L. Niessen.4 This method of assessment is implemented in the SPELL (Spelling Performance Evaluation for Language and Literacy®) software assessment program, which saves time and simplifies the task of conducting the assessment.11

However, a software program is not required to conduct a prescriptive spelling assessment. The principles and methods of the prescriptive assessment described in the four steps below can be applied by hand to identify an individual's specific language deficits and to create an individualized treatment plan.

There are four basic procedural steps for completing the prescriptive assessment.

The first step is to collect an adequate sample of spelling for each spelling pattern (e.g., short vowel "a," s-clusters, silent consonants, unstressed vowels, inflected words) within the individual student's developmental spelling level.

The domain of spelling patterns in the English language is quite large, and several exemplars of each pattern must be collected to obtain a representative sample of a student's spelling ability. A minimum of three exemplars for each spelling pattern is recommended. Depending on the developmental spelling level of the student, this may require a spelling sample of 80 to 185 words.

The next step is to examine the student's spelling of each spelling pattern to identify which patterns are misspelled most frequently. These are the spelling patterns that will be targeted with explicit word level instruction to remediate specific language deficits.

Spelling patterns that are misspelled infrequently (greater than 60 percent accuracy) are more appropriately addressed by facilitating and reinforcing the student's consistent application of language knowledge when writing and by developing self-monitoring and proofing of the student's written work in authentic writing tasks.

For each spelling pattern identified and selected in the second step, carefully analyze the nature of the individual student's spelling errors. This third step provides a detailed error analysis to determine if the misspelling of a particular spelling pattern is caused by a deficit in phonological awareness; knowledge of orthography, vocabulary, semantics or morphology; or mental images of words (see box).

A step-by-step flowchart is available on the Internet to assist the clinician in conducting this detailed error analysis by hand.12

The fourth and final step is to write an instructional goal for each selected spelling pattern, indicating the most appropriate instructional method for the individual student for each pattern. For example, "Student will improve spelling of the short vowel 'a' sound by developing phonological awareness skills. Student will improve spelling of derived words by developing knowledge of word parts and related words and rules for modifying words when adding derivational suffixes."

This prescriptive assessment approach, coupled with research-based methods of spelling instruction, has been documented to produce significant gains in both spelling and decoding skills.13

The speech-language pathologist is now being called upon to assume more responsibility for evaluating and treating individuals with written language disorders. Armed with the understanding that spelling is one of the most complex forms of language production and an in-depth understanding of the different types of linguistic knowledge that underlie both spelling and reading, the clinician can conduct a prescriptive assessment of an individual student's spelling errors. This assessment will identify specific language deficits and guide the clinician in developing appropriate, targeted treatment goals for systematic and effective remediation of the student's written language skills.


1. Ehri, L.C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorders, 20 (3): 19-36.

2. Masterson, J.J., Apel, K. (2000). Spelling assessment: Charting a path to optimal intervention. Topics in Language Disorders, 20 (3): 50-65.

3. Masterson, J.J., Crede, L.A. (1999). Learning to spell: Implications for assessment and intervention. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 30: 243-54.

4. Apel, K., Masterson, J.J., Niessen, N.L. (2004). Spelling assessment frameworks. In A. Stone, E.R. Silliman, B. Ehren & K. Apel (eds.) Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders (pp. 644-660). New York: Guilford Press.

5. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2000). Roles and responsibilities of speech-language pathologists with respect to reading and writing in children and adolescents: Guidelines and technical report. Rockville, MD: ASHA.

6. Hodson, B. (1986). The Assessment of Phonological Processes, Revised. Danville, IL: Interstate Printers and Publishers.

7. Hodson, B. (2004). Hodson's Assessment of Phonological Patterns. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

8. Apel, K., Masterson, J.J. (2001). Theory-guided spelling assessment and intervention. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools, 32: 182-95.

9. Larsen, S.C., Hammill, D.D., Moats, L.C. (1999). Test of Written Spelling-4. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

10. Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., Johnston, F. (2000). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc.

11. Masterson, J.J., Apel, K., Wasowicz, J. (2002). SPELL: Spelling Performance Evaluation for Language and Literacy®. Evanston, IL: Learning By Design Inc.

12. Masterson, J.J., Apel, K., Wasowicz, J. (2003). SPELL model of assessment: Technical report, April. Algorithm flowchart. Evanston, IL: Learning By Design Inc.

13. Kelman, M., Apel, K. (2004). The effects of a multiple linguistic, prescriptive approach to spelling instruction: A case study. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 25 (2): 56-66.

Jan Wasowicz, PhD, is president of Learning By Design Inc. and has a private practice in Evanston, IL. She is a co-author of Spelling Performance Evaluation for Language & Literacy (SPELL).

What Spelling Error Patterns Reveal About Language Knowledge


Indicates a deficit in orthographic knowledge.


Indicates a deficit in mental images of words.


Indicates a deficit in phonological awareness.


Indicates a deficit in morphological knowledge.


Indicates a deficit in mental images of words.


Indicates a deficit in morphological knowledge.


Indicates a deficit in phonological awareness and orthographic knowledge.


Indicates a deficit in morphological knowledge and mental images of words.


Indicates a deficit in mental images of words.


Indicates a deficit in morphological knowledge.


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