School-Age Spectral Spelling Development

A Summary of Spelling Research


This tutorial summarizes a monograph that compares the varied portrayals of school-age spelling development as consisting of sequential or simultaneous stages, phases, or waves, including the arguments addressing the homogeneity of any given stage, the strength of its boundaries, and finally the speed and direction of a typical child’s navigation through that terrain on their way to becoming an accomplished speller. The spectrum metaphor is promoted to harmonize these perspectives.


Spelling fascinates me. While I’m a good speller (albeit not of “bee” quality), I’m not immune to conventional typos or personal nemeses (such as “inadvertantly” and “accidently”). I’m rulebound (and evidently elitist) enough to twitch when I see things like: a) ’s used for plurals (e.g., “Orange’s $1” or “during the 1980’s”); b) “would of” for “would have"; and c) all sorts of homophonous carelessness like to/too/two, their/there/they’re, and so on.

Then there’s this...

In my first year of high school, when my class took a state spelling assessment, I purely could not remember how to spell “of.” For some reason, my brain insisted on trying to analyze “of” (“uhhh… v”) rather than just retrieve the memorized, automatic spelling. I ended up having to settle for “uv.” As it was only the second item on the test (after “a”), I assumed that I was royally (or at the very least least nobly) screw-ew-ewed. But, heart pounding, I got everything else on the standardized test correct, including the likes of “bureaucracy” and “sovereign.”

So, what the hell happened? What caused the vapor lock? Stress of some sort was no doubt involved, but what was the underlying mechanism that flushed my retrieval system? I just don’t know. But I’ve never forgotten what that felt like, to be absolutely stumped by a task that I knew should have been utterly simple. I think that sometimes my future self goes back and sticks his fingers in my brain just to alter the course of his timeline... which is okay, since I figure that the only way that I got my dissertation written was by his dictating it back to me.

In any case, I remained a good speller until I started teaching undergraduate writing, at which point prolonged exposure to student work skew-ew-ewed my models to the point where I could no longer confidently tell what was misspelled.

Then, almost ten years ago, this interest prompted me to dig deeply into developmental spelling research.

Since then, my family has grown to include people who are challenged by a spelling disorder that is specific enough not to affect their reading or compositional skills. As I got to know them better, and their cognition, I came to understand that this specific spelling disorder is a thing, and not just part of a more general language or literacy issue tied in with education, memory, sensory processing, attention, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and the like; however, I think that the jury’s still out about an association with numeracy.

As I was learning more about this challenge, I found out that spelling is no longer taught at some of the schools in the Eugene area (and seemingly elsewhere) because it is held to interfere with the free flow of creativity during writing. While that is true in some sense (and spelling oversight might usefully be set aside during brainstorming exercises and so on), an inattention to spelling runs a risk of some students getting all the way into high school without being identified with this specific disability, particularly if their academics appear to be otherwise satisfactory.

I say all of this by way of warning, namely: I originally included this material in my book only because (a) there are members of my family for whom spelling is a big deal, and (b) I’m a spelling maven. I am converting it into a tutorial now because spelling-related quackery has been infiltrating my work environment.

So, if you aren’t as into spelling as I am (for similar or other reasons), or do not have to confront the snake oil, then I would seriously suggest that you skip the following material entirely, because there really would be no virtue in forcing yourself to slog through it.


At base, there are some things that I’d like you to know about the development of spelling without having to read my monograph, which is full of far more detail than you’ll need (and was written 20 years ago), so what follows is just derived from the summary of that article. I’ll use the following terms:

 • stage theorists: those researchers who proposed that spelling develops in stages

• letter-name spelling: a strategy for spelling according to the names of letters rather than their sounds, like using the letter ‘a’ to represent ‘ay’ as in ‘hay’ (as opposed to just the ‘a’ sound in ‘hat’).

• morphological processes: changes made to a word’s shape just above the sound level, such as creating a plural form like ‘children’ from ‘child’.

I’ve also included lists at the end of this summary to collect the terms that various researchers have used to label developmental levels and spelling strategies.

In short, when the early spelling development researchers chose words like “stage” and “wave” to describe their theories, it had a limiting effect on the way that further research developed. Back in 2020, I suggested a switch to “spectrum” to free that up.

In long…

The stage theorists all came to agree that letter-name spelling starts to give way to the explicit use of vowels when school-age children start to sound out syllables (although this might be swapping the cart and the horse), which then allowed for the child to develop an understanding of morphological processes. More sophisticated strategies were said to follow in sequence. All of these stages were paralleled by an increasing reliance on a growing number of spelled forms recalled from memory. In each case, the theorists drew upon the “stage” metaphor to convey the notion of a temporal sequence of behavioral cores, meaning that the child was still seen as moving from one type of strategy to the next. The reliance of that stage metaphor upon strict ordering and boundaries was softened respectively by recognition of a sequence overlap and the blurring of edges, but the invariantly forward progress of development was never seriously questioned. This monotonicity, then, was the only component of the stage metaphor which remained strictly defined.

This definitional tolerance weakened all of the subsequent attacks on strict stage ordering and boundaries, rendering the conclusions of such studies rather anticlimactic, and dampening what was otherwise valuable, illuminating research. When the most vulnerable part of the stage theory, namely monotonicity, was questioned, that’s all that really happened: it was merely questioned, but not actually challenged by the results of any analytic research. All in all, it is unfortunate that the common, stepwise connotation of the word “stage” should catalyze with the stage theorists’ overly enthusiastic cries of “onward and upward” to miscast their intent as the banging together of yet another Piagetian dependency staircase.

The eventual appeal to additional metaphors, however, most notably the overlapping “waves” theory, helped to provide a fresh perspective on the characterization of the development of spelling in school-age children. The positive change wrought by this introduction encouraged me to delve into further discussion about yet another metaphor that had yet to be used in this domain, namely the “spectrum,” which appeared to capture the developmental spelling process even more felicitously (i.e., “better” in regular people talk), which I hoped would drive research which would answer the questions that remain outstanding in the field.


 Metaphors to Think By

The stage theory has one great underlying advantage: spelling development is associated with increasingly higher ordering. Children first spell individual sounds, and then overlap that with syllables, and then strings of syllables, and along the way they extract nearest matched patterns for form-meaning links (i.e., “symbols,” as discussed elsewhere) that they can rely on when spelling words with which they are less familiar. The division of stages into “phases” turned out to be of trivial consequence. And while the waves metaphor is clearer in as much as its nodes are explicitly said to be overlapping, in fact significantly so, it actually goes too far in the other direction in that it has no internal portrayal of ordering, and no sense of interference between waves, either constructive or destructive.

A spectrum, in contrast, is an array ordered in accord with the magnitude of a common property, and in fact there is no necessary reason that it could not be a multidimensional array based on multiple such properties. Imagine the letter-name band as red, the within-word band as yellow, and the morphemic band as blue, in which case every individual (child or adult) would have their own developmental gradient as defined by the pattern of their spelling samples on that spectrum. (Your spelling strategy might be some sort of purple with a brown fuzzy band shading to yellow.) Now throw luminance (i.e., light and dark) on top of this chrominance, and you can account for variance according to word familiarity (e.g., dark purple). Or think in terms of a sound spectrograph, with the formants changing over time. The property does not matter as much as the degrees of freedom of movement within what remains an ordered dimensional space.

The point, of course, is that metaphors can be captivating, and that is not always a good thing for the captive. Metaphors must be chosen carefully so that researchers will be prompted to think in the most illuminating ways about the nature of spelling when charting the course of their future research. A researcher grounded in stages might never examine the possibility of “illusory recovery” (Scarborough and Dobrich, 1990). One who is transfixed by the overlapping waves metaphor will not investigate the liminal areas between bands, where spelling behavior is likely to be the most interesting, neither will they focus much attention on new strategies. When viewed as a spectrum, however, the possibilities are open ended…

Future Research (for Someone Else)

In fact, no serious attention has been paid to the issue of the spelling development vector (at least, not last time I checked). Is it always forward? Do impetuous children have greater forward velocity than breadth across strategies? Will a good speller revert when they are immersed in examples of poor spelling (like I seemed to do after having taught writing for a while)? And what happens to spelling at the other end of the age continuum? These sorts of questions beg to foster stress tests. The categorization of errors made by champion spelling bee participants might be particularly interesting in this regard.

And then there is the issue of the degree of overlap between spectral bands, which Treiman and Cassar (1996) addressed in part, albeit with an unfortunately flawed experiment. Most of the existing studies examine invented spelling, and not conventionally correct forms (which can make up a significant portion of the words spelled even early on), so correct spelling constitutes a band that gets ignored. Are early-correct words likely to be simple, or familiar, or both? Do they display morphophonemic or orthographic (as opposed to simple orthotactic) regularity? Is the switch as binary as Ehri (1986) suggests, or are there words that are almost retrieved? Are there words that will bring an adult speller to their spelling bee’s knees, causing them to resort to a strategy as “primitive” as sounding-out? And if an adult does sound out a word slowly, will their long vowels also be spelled as diphthongs? An analysis of the characteristics common to words that are easily spelled would start to sort out some of these issues.

Finally the boundaries between bands need to be examined for fuzziness and interference. Which strategies can exist in parallel, much less in harmony? Are there hybrid strategies, and if so, are they vigorous? In other words, what do you get when you cross a letter-name strategy with a morphemic one? And what words give “correct” spellers the greatest grief? Although Rittle-Johnson and Siegler (1999) instituted some important methodological changes, much of the categorization work to date was still highly subjective in nature, with researchers trying to make educated guesses about the intent of the speller. An objective method of spelling sample classification is the bare minimum progress required before future research can proceed with confidence.

Was that sort of thing ever pursued? I don’t know. Not when I went looking for it. And then I’ve been kind of busy the last… decade.

And that’s all you really need to know for gisting.

References and Other Readings about Spelling

Apel, K. (2003). April 4, 2003 SLP Chat with Ken Apel. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from http://slpchatarchives.homestead.com/April142003.html

Bear, D. R., and Templeton, S. (1998). Explorations in Developmental Spelling: Foundations for Learning and Teaching Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary. The Reading Teacher, 52, 222-242.

Beers, J. W. (1974). First and Second Grade Children’s Developing Concepts of Tense and Lax Vowels. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Virginia.

Beers, J. W., Beers, C. S., and Grant, K. (1977). The Logic behind Children’s Spelling. Elementary School Journal, 3, 238-242.

Beers, J. W., and Henderson, E. H. (1977). A Study of Developing Orthographic Concepts among first grade children. Research in the Teaching of English, 11, 133-148.

Bissex, G. L. (1980). GNYS AT WRK: A Child Learns to Write and Read. Harvard University Press.

Cassar, M. T., and Treiman, R. (1997). The Beginnings of Orthographic Knowledge: Children’s Knowledge of Double Letters in Words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 631-644.

Chomsky, N., and Halle, M. (1968). The Sound Pattern of English. Harper & Row.

Ehri, L. C. (1986). Sources of Difficulty in Learning to Spell and Read. In M. L. Wolraich and D. Routh (Eds.). Advances in developmental and behavioral pediatrics, 7, pp. 121-195, JAI Press.

Gentry, J. R. (1977). A Study of the Orthographic Strategies of Beginning Readers. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Virginia.

Gentry, J. R. (1978). Early Spelling Strategies. The Elementary School Journal, 79, 88-92.

Gentry, J. R. (1982). An Analysis of Developmental Spelling in GNYS AT WRK. Reading Teacher, 36, 192-200.

Gentry, J. R., and Henderson, E. H. (1978). Three Steps to Teaching Beginning Readers to Spell. The Reading Teacher, 31, 632-637.

Henderson, E. H. (in press c. 1981). Forward to Basics in Reading Instruction. Northern Illinois University Press.

Henderson, E. H. (1981). Learning to Read and Spell: The Child’s Knowledge of Words. Northern Illinois University Press.

Henderson, E. H. (1985). Teaching Spelling. Houghton Mifflin.

Henderson, E. H. (1992). The Interface of Lexical Competence and Knowledge of Written Words. In S. Templeton, and D. R. Bear (Eds.). Development of Orthographic Knowledge and the Foundations of Literacy: A Memorial Festschrift for Edmund H. Henderson. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Henderson, E. H., and Beers, J. W. (1980). Developmental and Cognitive Aspects of Learning to Spell. International Reading Association.

Henderson, E. H., and Templeton, S. (1986). A Developmental Perspective of Formal Spelling Instruction through Alphabet, Pattern and Meaning. The Elementary School Journal, 86, 304-316.

Jastak, J. F., Bijou, S. W., and Jastak, S. (1978). The Wide Range Achievement Test. Jastak Associates.

Masterson, J., and Apel, K. (2000). Spelling Assessment: Charting a Path to Optimal Intervention. Topics in Language Disorders, 20, 50-65.

Morris, D. (1981). A Developmental Phenomenon in the Beginning Reading and Writing Process. Language Arts, 58, 659-668.

Read, C. (1970). Children’s Perceptions of the Sounds of English: Phonology from Three to Six. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Harvard University.

Read, C. (1971). Preschool Children’s Knowledge of English Phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 41, 1-34.

Read, C. (1973). Children’s Judgment of Phonetic Similarities in Relation to English Spelling. Language Learning, 23, 17-38.

Read, C. (1975). Children’s Categorizations of Speech Sounds in English. NCTE Research Reports, 17, National Council of Teachers of English.

Read, C. (1986). Children’s Creative Spelling. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rittle-Johnson, B., and Siegler, R. S. (1999). Learning to Spell: Variability, Choice, and Change in Children’s Strategy Use. Child Development, 70, 332-348.

Scarborough, H. S., and Dobrich, W. (1990). Development of Children with Early Language Delay. Journal of Hearing and Speech Research, 33, 70-83.

Siegler, R. S. (1996). Emerging Minds: the Process of Change in Children’s Thinking. Oxford University Press.

Templeton, S. (1983). Using the Spelling/Meaning Connection to Develop Word Knowledge in Older Students. Journal of Reading, 27, 8-14.

Templeton, S. (1992). New Trends in an Historical Perspective: Old Story, New Resolution – Sound and Meaning in Spelling. Language Arts, 69, 454-461.

Templeton, S. (2002a). Effective Spelling Instruction in the Middle Grades: It’s a Lot More than Memorization. Voices from the Middle, 9 (3), 8-14.

Templeton, S. (2002b). Getting Ready for Systematic and Sustained Spelling Instruction. Voices from the Middle, 10 (1), 58-59.

Templeton, S. (2002c). Supporting Students Who Are Struggling with Spelling. Voices from the Middle, 10 (2), 54-55.

Templeton, S. (2003a). The Spelling/Meaning Connection. Voices from the Middle, 10 (3), 56-57.

Templeton, S. (2003b). Spelling: Best Ideas = Best Practices. Voices from the Middle, 10 (4), 48-49.

Templeton, S. (2003c). Comprehending Homophones, Homographs, and Homonyms. Voices from the Middle, 11 (1), 62-63.

Treiman, R. (1985). Phonemic Awareness and Spelling: Children’s Judgments Do Not Always Agree with Adults’. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 39, 182-201.

Treiman, R., Berch, D., Tincoff, R., and Weatherston, S. (1993). Phonology and Spelling: the Case of Syllabic Consonants. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 56, 267-290.

Treiman, R., and Bourassa, D. C. (2000). The Development of Spelling Skill. Topics in Language Disorders, 20, 1-18.

Treiman, R. and Cassar, M. (1996). Effects of Morphology on Children’s Spelling of Final Consonant Clusters. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 63, 141-170.

Synonyms for Names of Specific Bands in the Spelling Development Spectrum

Band 1

• Deviant: Gentry (1977, 1978); Gentry and Henderson (1978); Morris (1981)

• Precommunicative: Gentry (1982)

• Preliterate: Henderson (1985); Henderson and Templeton (1986)

Band 2

• First level: Beers and Henderson (1977)

• Preliterate, prephonetic: Henderson (1981)

• Prephonetic: Gentry (1977, 1978); Morris (1981)

• Semiphonetic: Gentry (1982)

• Letter Name: Henderson (1985); Henderson and Templeton (1986)

Band 3

• Second level: Beers and Henderson (1977)

• Phonetic: Gentry (1977, 1978, 1982); Gentry and Henderson (1978); Morris (1981)

• Within Word Pattern: Henderson (1985); Henderson and Templeton (1986)

Band 4

• Third level: Beers and Henderson (1977)

• Transitional: Gentry (1977, 1978, 1982); Gentry and Henderson (1978)

• Vowel Transitional: Morris (1981)

• Syllable Junction: Henderson (1985); Henderson and Templeton (1986)

• Morphemic: Ehri (1986) [and on into Band 5]

Band 5

• Correct: Gentry (1977, 1978, 1982); Gentry and Henderson (1978); Morris (1981)

• Derivational Constancy: Henderson (1985); Henderson and Templeton (1986)

Terms Analogous to “Band”

• Pattern level, level of spelling: Beers and Henderson, 1977

• Strategy, stage: Gentry, 1977, 1978; Gentry andHenderson, 1978

• Strategy, spelling, stage, step: Henderson and Beers, 1980

• Strategy/spelling (informally); stage: Morris, 1981

• Stage: Gentry, 1982

• Period (briefly), stage: Henderson, 1985

• Overlapping waves: Siegler, 1996; Rittle-Johnson and Siegler, 1999

• Phases within stage (and redefine “stage”): Treiman and Bourassa, 2000

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