Hayes, H., Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2005, June). Children use vowels to help them spell consonants. Poster to be presented at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, Toronto, Canada.

Abstract

In this study, we investigated children’s use of vowel context to help them spell consonants. We examined children’s understanding that some consonants are doubled depending on the preceding vowel, and that the spellings of some initial consonants depend on the following vowel. Children as young as second grade showed a sensitivity to vowel context in spelling final consonants, and this sensitivity increased with age. Second graders also used vowels to help them spell initial consonants. Surprisingly, this effect was as strong for second graders as for adults. Results suggest that even novice spellers take advantage of contextual clues in spelling.

Summary

In order to successfully spell a word, children must recognize that the word is made up of sounds and that sounds are represented by letters. However, phonological knowledge alone does not suffice for spelling. Sound-to-spelling correspondences in English become more regular when other parts of the word are considered (Kessler & Treiman, 2001). These contextual clues may help spellers make sense out of a seemingly chaotic written language. Previous results suggest that adults and children use consonantal context to help them spell vowels (Treiman, Kessler, & Bick, 2002; Varnhagen, Boechler, & Steffler, 1999). This study aims to understand whether children use vowel context to help them spell consonants.

Beginning readers demonstrate some awareness of graphotactic patterns, such as which letters are allowed to double and where. For example, even kindergartners have some knowledge that consonants such as l may be doubled, but not at the beginnings of words (Cassar & Treiman, 1997). A more complex doubling rule, such as knowing when certain consonants may double at ends of words, is a good case for determining if children use vowel context to spell consonants. We examined whether children understand that certain consonants double following traditionally so-called short vowels (e.g., puff) but not following long vowels (e.g., poof). Participants included children in second, third, and fifth grades, as well as adults. When presented with pairs of nonwords such as soof/sooff and asked which looked more like a real word, even second graders preferred the spelling with singleton consonants when the stimulus pair had long vowels (66% of trials) and doubled consonants when the stimuli had short vowels (68%); all differences here reported were significant at p < .001. When nonwords were presented orally for dictation, second graders produced significantly more double consonants when the stimuli had short vowels (41%) than when they had long vowels (27%). This ability to use vowel context increased significantly across age groups in both tasks.

We also investigated children’s abilities to use vowels to help them spell initial consonants. In words beginning with /k/, the initial consonant may be spelled with either k or c, but must be spelled with k preceding certain vowels (e.g., /ɛ/ as in kept and /ɪ/ as in kit). When presented with nonwords in a dictation task, second graders were significantly more likely to use k spellings when the vowel was /ɛ/ or /ɪ/ (70%) than in stimuli that had some other vowel but were otherwise identical (22%). The effect of vowel context was as strong in second graders as in adults, a surprising result given the view that patterns that cross the onset–rime boundary may be difficult to learn (Goswami, 1986).

Our results show that, by second grade, children do not rely solely on context-free links from phonemes to graphemes when spelling. They can use a phoneme’s context to help narrow down the number of potential spellings. This provides them a way to cope with the complexity of the system.

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