Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Acquiring reading and spelling skills – what’s the difference?

Being able to read and spell are two essential literacy skills which children acquire during their primary schooling.  Indeed, there is often a close correlation between children’s ability to read and spell (i.e., children who are good readers are typically good spellers and likewise poor readers are typically poor spellers).  Despite reading and spelling being similar skills (in that they are both literacy skills), they are different in several respects.  For example, of the two, spelling is typically harder; while reading requires the recognition of printed word(s), spelling requires the production of word(s).  In addition, in English, the writing system exhibits bidirectional asymmetry; that is, phoneme-to-grapheme mapping is more ambiguous than grapheme-to-phoneme mapping (Fletcher-Flinn, Shankweiler, & Frost, 2004).  In other words, there are more phonetically plausible ways to misspell words than there are to misread them.  Anyone who has seen children’s spelling errors, or carried out an analysis of children’s spelling errors will understand this.  For example, the word ‘circle’ can be spelt by children in a variety of interesting ways - serkul, sirkil, sircul, sercil, circel, cricel, cricle, and many more…..  Indeed, these different spelling errors provide us with good insight into the skills and strategies children are drawing upon as they attempt to spell (see McGeown et al., 2013).  In contrast however, the number of different ways in which the word ‘circle’ can be read (incorrectly) is fewer. As a result, higher quality lexical representations (i.e., a better ‘visual’ image of the word’s spelling pattern) are arguably more important for spelling than for reading. 

In a recent study, my collaborators and I distinguished between two different types of reading and spelling strategies (phonological and orthographic) using children’s reading and spelling errors and examined the relationship between children’s (n = 172, aged 6-8) use of these strategies and their performance on tests of word reading and spelling (words were chosen to be unfamiliar to children).

A phonological strategy reflected a greater dependence on using letter-sound rules (e.g., reading ‘pint’ to rhyme with ‘mint’ or spelling ‘tuna’ as ‘choona’), while an orthographic strategy reflected greater use of the visual/letter information in words (i.e., errors were orthographically (i.e., visually) similar to the target word, e.g., reading ‘wart’ as ‘want’ or spelling ‘knife’ as ‘knif’).  We assessed how use of these strategies correlated with irregular and standardised word reading and spelling performance. 

In reading, while a phonological reading strategy correlated strongly and positively with word reading skills, an orthographic reading strategy was inversely related with word reading skills.  Therefore, making use of letter-sound information seems to be a much more effective way to read unfamiliar (including irregular) words, than attempting to recognise the word as a visual whole.  On the other hand, for spelling, greater use of an orthographic strategy was positively correlated with spelling performance, while use of a phonological strategy was unrelated to spelling performance. 

So what are the educational implications of this research?  Firstly I would argue that children should be taught and supported to use a phonological strategy to read; that is, be given phonics instruction so that they can learn to effectively use letter-sound rules to read new and unfamiliar words.  This approach will be more effective than teaching children to recognise words as visual wholes and encouraging them to use a strategy based on this. However, the results for spelling were different; children need to have good ‘visual’ representation of the word to be able to spell it correctly.  How do they achieve this?  One way is through reading; once a child has read a word several times within text they will then have a better visual representation of that word and therefore be better placed to accurately spell it.  Therefore good reading skills can precede good spelling skills; ensuring children receive guidance in effective reading strategies is therefore crucial.

Correct spelling:  circle, tuna, knife
Examples of orthographic spelling error:  cricle, tunea, knif
Examples of phonological spelling error:  serkul, choona, niyf


Fletcher-Flinn, C. M., Shankweiler, D., & Frost, S. J. (2004). Coordination of reading and spelling in early literacy development: An examination of the discrepancy hypothesis.  Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 17, 617644.

McGeown, S. P., Medford, E., & Moxon, G.  (2013).  Individual differences in children’s reading and spelling strategies and the skills supporting strategy use.  Learning and Individual Differences, 28, 75-81.

See link for Teacher Summary Poster: “Children’s strategies for reading and spelling irregular words”


  1. Reading Makes Your Child Smarter

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    1. Vocabulary Development and Instruction: A Prerequisite for School Learning
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    Cunningham AE, Stanovich KE.

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    Donald J. Hernandez, Hunter College and the Graduate Center,