Exposure to Misspellings Confuses Spelling Proficiency


Home / Exposure to Misspellings Confuses Spelling Proficiency

Spelling – neurological impressions – are they letter or sound based? Image by tonydolor

Teachers may assume that once their students have mastered the spelling of most of the common English words, they will refrain from making errors in the future. Studies say, possibly not – reading misspelled words can destabilize memories of correct word forms, creating confusion and regression in a student’s spelling ability.

 Spelling is Linguistically and Cognitively Challenging

Writing, a linguistically complex skill, draws heavily upon our cognitive abilities. Dr. Mel Levine confirms this in his book, A Mind at a Time, (2002), by stating that “Writing is one of the largest orchestras a kid’s mind has to conduct.”

Spelling, or orthography, is a neurologically demanding sub-skill of writing, involving a range of linguistic skills. Spelling proficiency requires the acquisition of phonological knowledge, morphological awareness, and orthographic rules.  So, in order to spell, we need to have control over the sounds and structure of a language and its spelling system.

The English Language is Linguistically and Cognitively Confusing

Strong letter-based impressions of word structures are formed by linking discrete language sounds (phonemes) with their corresponding letters (graphemes). This may sound straightforward, since the English alphabet has only 26 letters, however, more than 70 letter-combinations symbolize a hundred or more English language sounds. Widespread spelling errors occur across all ages as a consequence of irregularities between the many sounds and letters and letter combinations, as well as the fact that certain language sounds can be represented by a number of letters, or strings of letters. Take, for example, the sound /sh/. This sound can be created through a variety of letter-combinations, as evidenced by these words: fashion, inertia, fuschia, election, mission, and nauseous.

Spelling Proficiency: Two Popular Cognitive Routes

Research into spelling proficiency has resulted in the development of various popular spelling models that propose two cognitive routes or mental processes for accessing and retrieving words from memory.

  • The Lexical Route: The lexical route relies on retrieving the entire word in memory, and can account for the accurate spelling of all the words contained in one’s vocabulary. However, it does not provide an explanation of how we make reasonable attempts at spelling new words or pseudo-words.
  • The Sublexical Route: The second model is called the non-lexical or ‘sublexical’ route. It relies only on letter/sound rule associations to form ‘spelling memories.’ This phonologically-based process enables the speller to pull together unfamiliar letter strings using their sound-letter-grapheme knowledge, and relies on his memory of which letters represent specific language sounds.

Folk and colleagues propose that the lexical and sublexical information have a reciprocal relationship, meaning that an orthographic representation of a word, or in other words the format of a word, is not wholly reliant on us perceiving, coding, and storing visual information. Instead, to a certain extent, our understanding of a word is dependant on the relations between our knowledge f letter and language sounds.

Confusion with homographs and homophones can cause problems with spelling. Image by Will Heltsley

Spelling Knowledge can be Destabilized

Even though it is well-documented that a strong relationship between spelling development and phonological awareness exists, whole word representations are considered the primary informational source in spelling. For this reason, researchers assume that, once created and stored in memory, the word’s structure remains stable. However, several studies dating back as far as 1988 show that generating, or being exposed to, words that are incorrectly spelled interferes with spelling proficiency, and can be detrimental to subsequent spelling performance. In addition, simply being exposed to correctly formed words enhances spelling performance.

  • In a 2006 study of 112 Australian university students investigating the sources of and influences on variances in spelling, Jennifer Burt concluded that reading experiences and language sound knowledge and skills enhance the learning of individual word spellings and forms.
  • Jennifer  Burt  and J.  Long conducted  a more recent experiment in 2011, using pseudo-words presented in different written formats to 62 10-year-old children. From the findings, the researchers claim that exposure to misspellings, as opposed to the correct spelling  of a word, substantially increased the number of spelling errors of this age group.
  • Wood, Meachem, et al investigated text messaging and spelling ability in 2011. Results led them to surmise that evidence exists that textism usage affects spelling performance in children aged 8-12 years, but strong phonological skills may also contribute to spelling accuracy.

Spelling Knowledge is Complex and Individual

Overall, this survey of research, spanning over more than 20 years, suggests that spelling knowledge is influenced by repeated exposure to alternative incorrect word forms that destabilize and alter the a word’s previously acquired orthographic representation. To some extent though, in order for a correct mental representation to be formed, a reciprocal relationship exists between the phonological and orthographical elements of a word.

Beyond research results, educators have to take into consideration that individual differences, word frequency, word length, and word regularity play a part in the orthographic permanence of any word in our memory. Furthermore, as Kreiner (1992) suggests, the process of forming an orthographic representation is not completely based on perceiving, coding, and storing visual orthographic information alone but rather “the reader’s knowledge of the relations between orthography and phonology shapes the internal representation [of a word],” a statement supported by the latest research into text messaging.

Understanding Spelling and Misspelling

Scripps National Spelling Bee 2011: Image courtesy of Scripps

When considering these results, in order to assess whether students have mastered words for the next spelling bee, teachers should avoid using recognition exercises that include misspelled words. From the conclusions of the researchers, it seems preferable to expose students to correct information and not confuse them with erroneous testing exercises.


Brown, A. Encountering misspellings and spelling performance: Why wrong isn’t right. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80 (4), (1998): 488-495.

Burt, J. S. Spelling in Adults: The Combined Influences Of Language Skills And Reading Experience. Journal of Psycholinguist Research.  Sep;35 (5), (2006): 447-470.

Burt J.S. & Long J. Are word representations abstract or instance-based? Effects of spelling inconsistency in orthographic learning. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology. Sep;65(3) (2011): 214-428. Accessed November 27, 2011.

Dixon, M. & Kaminska, Z. Is it Misspelled or is it Misspelled? The Influence of Fresh Orthographic Information on Spelling. Reading and Writing. An Interdisciplinary Journal. 9 (1997): 483-498.

Ehri, L. Reading by Sight and by Analogy in Beginning Readers. In C. Hulme & R.M. Joshi (Eds.), Reading and Spelling: Developmental and Disorders  Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., (1998b):  87-112.

Ehri, L. Learning to Read and Learning to Spell: Two Sides of a Coin. Topics in Language Disorders, 20(3) (2000): 19-36.

Folk, J., Rapp, B., & Goldrick, M. The Interaction of Lexical and Sublexical Information in Spelling: What’s the Point? Cognitive Neuropsychology, 19 (7) (2002): 653-671. Accessed November 27, 2011.

Jacoby, L., & Hollingshead, A. Reading Student Essays may be Hazardous to your Spelling: Effects of Reading Incorrectly and Correctly Spelled words. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 44(3) (1990): 345-358.

Kreiner, D. S. Reaction Time Measures of Spelling: Testing a Two Strategy Model of Skilled Spelling. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 18 (4) (1992): 765-776.

Kreiner, D. S. & Gough, P. Two Ideas about Spelling. Journal of Memory and Language, 29: (1990): 103-118.

Levine, M. A Mind at a Time. New York: Simon and Shuster. (2002).

Moats, Louisa. What is the Role of the Speech Language Pathologist in Assessing and Facilitating Spelling Skills? Topics In Language Disorders. 20(3) (2000): 85-87.

Wood C, Meachem S, et al. A Longitudinal Study of Children’s Text Messaging and Literacy Development. British Journal of Psychology. (2011). Aug;102 (3):431-42. Accessed November 27, 2011.

Leave a Comment