The impact of invented spelling programmes with pre-school-age children on early reading acquisition- PTDC/PSI-EDD/110262/2009 (2011-2014)

Reaserch Team:

Margarida Alves Martins (Project Leader)
Ana Cristina Silva
Ana Albuquerque (BI)
Liliana Salvador (BI)


Project's Summary:

Pre-school-age children often make attempts at writing (invented spelling) in accordance with the way they conceptualise the written code. The study of the characteristics of early spelling in different languages has shown that children’s hypotheses about the way in which the written code functions evolves from an initial level where spelling is not yet determined by linguistic criteria to alphabetic spelling. At a first level, when they spell, children make no attempt to match the oral to the written language; they use strings of random letters to spell different words; they also seek to respond to factors such as the need for a minimum number of letters for each word and a different combination of letters to distinguish between different words. Later on, children begin to analyse the oral and look for the letters that best represent the sounds they have identified. Children very often start by representing some of the sounds in the words before finally representing all the sounds in the words (alphabetic spelling).The scientific interest on invented spelling increased since the children’s early spelling can be seen as a window of their concepts and skills about literacy and about the written code. Pre-school children’s spelling activities act as a factor in children understands of the alphabetic principle inasmuch as they induce metalinguistic thinking practices. These practices have consequences on the ability to analyse the oral segments of words and to discover the relations between those segments and the corresponding letters - children use the repertoire of letter’s names and sounds they have acquired very often in informal contexts of learning. In this sense children seem to find it easier to develop alphabetic analytical procedures in writing activities rather than in reading ones. In this line of research, several invented spelling programmes with pre-school-age children were developed by different researchers to make children’s invented spellings evolve. Some of these programmes proved their efficacy not only in terms of the way in which children become able to use some conventional letters in their invented spelling, but also in terms of their phonological awareness. If these programmes haved proved their efficacy on the evolution of the quality of preschool children’s invented spellings, more research is needed to understand the role that these programmes may have on early reading acquisition. If there is some evidence concerning the existence of positive correlations between invented spelling and early reading, strong experimental evidence is still lacking. So, the aim of this project is to develop two experimental studies to assess the impact of an invented spelling programme with pre-school age children on their early reading acquisition. In the first study the programme will be developed individually and in the second in small groups. These studies will provide indications that will be of use in designing programmes for preventing learning difficulties in relation to written language.

Chomsky (1970) and Read (1971) were the first authors to use the concept of invented spelling while observing young children attempts to write down words. They were also the first to notice that there is some logic in children’s early spelling and that such logic changed over time according to children’s literacy experiences. Also Ferreiro and Teberosky (1979) and Ferreiro (1988), from a constructivist point of view, analysed the nature of the spelling of children who had not yet received any formal teaching in reading and writing. The results of their research led to the conclusion that children’s knowledge about written language evolves from an initial level where spelling is not yet determined by linguistic criteria (pre-syllabic spelling) to alphabetic spelling. The evolution to alphabetic spelling is mediated by the knowledge that children informally acquire about letter names, which helps them to detect the latter in the pronunciation of certain words (Treiman, 2004). This process is thought to favour an understanding of the alphabetic logic, inasmuch as the letters themselves serve as supports for a more systematic analysis of the sequence of the sounds in words (Olson, 1996; Ouellete & Sénéchal, 2008). Various authors (Adams, 1998; Bowman & Treiman, 2002; Byrne, 1998; Treiman, 1998) have begun to attach value to these early spellings. They argue that invented spelling activities with pre-school-age children help to develop phonemic awareness and to grasp the alphabetic principle as they involve a metalinguistic thinking about speech. In this line of research Alves Martins and Silva (2006a, b) and Silva and Alves Martins (2002, 2003) conducted various intervention programmes designed to make the quality of pre-school children’s invented spellings evolve. The intervention programmes were organised around situations that led the child to think about the rules of spelling from two points of view: his/hers, and that of a hypothetical boy/girl from another school, whose spellings were more advanced. This procedure led to a clear evolution in the quality of the children’s invented spellings. In these first studies the method that was used consisted of confronting children’s spellings with spellings that were more evolved, but on a level close to their own (eg. pre-syllabic spellings/ syllabic spellings) In more recent studies (Alves Martins, Silva & Lourenço, 2009) the efficacy of programmes in which pre-syllabic children were confronted with alphabetic spellings – in other words, spellings that are clearly more evolved than their own – was evaluated. The results have shown that the programmes that used alphabetic spellings were more efficient than those that used syllabic spellings. Several investigations showed that the evolution towards phonetised spelling in pre-school children can be influenced by various types of linguistic factors. The articulatory properties of the initial phonemes can influence the quality of invented spelling since children become aware of vowels more easily than of consonants and it is easier to identify fricative consonants than occlusive ones on the flow of speech (Liberman et al., 1974) which might have consequences on the mobilisation of the correspondent letter. For the Portuguese language, Alves Martins, Silva and Mata Pereira (2006) have also shown that vowels are more easily represented than consonants, and Alves Martins, Silva and Mata Pereira (in press) that fricative phonemes are easier than occlusive ones. Various other factors, such as the phonological characteristics of the syllables to be written, may mediate the way in which pre-school children learn the relationships between speech and print. Mann (1993), Treiman (1994), Treiman and Cassar (1997) showed that the probability of pre-school children correctly mobilise the first consonant when they write is greater in words whose initial syllable coincides with the name of a letter with which the child is familiar than in situations where the initial phonetic sequences does not match the name of the letter. The facilitating effect that letter names possess is generally assumed to be the starting point for the evolution towards grasping the sound of the letters. Besides these studies in English, the facilitating effect of letter names has also been found in studies conducted in other languages, such as Spanish (Quintero, 1994), Hebrew (Levin, et al, 2002), and Portuguese (Alves Martins & Silva, 2001, Cardoso-Martins & Batista, 2005). In the case of Portuguese the effect is more accentuated for vowels than for consonants – the opposite to the case in English (Pollo, Kessler, & Treiman, 2005). If there is strong empirical evidence that invented spelling activities and in particularly invented spelling programmes generally developed at an individual level have a positive impact on the evolution of children’s knowledge concerning the written language and on the discovery of the alphabetic principle, there are very few studies that look at the impact that invented spelling may have on early reading acquisition. There are some correlational studies showing that there are strong links between invented spelling and early reading (Mann, 1993; McBride-Chang, 1998; Shatil, Share & Levin, 2000; Levin, Shatil-Carmon & Asif-Rave, 2006), but few experimental studies. A naturalistic study by Clarke (1988) compared two grade-1 classroom programs, one including invented spelling and the other conventional spelling instruction. The classrooms in which invented spelling was encouraged showed the greatest improvements in both decoding and irregular word recognition. Another study by Rieben, Ntamakiliro, Gonthier and Fayol (2005), contrasted the effects of training invented spelling, invented spelling with corrective feedback and copied spelling on reading. The results showed that 5-year old French-speaking children who participated in the invented-spelling group with feed-back scored significantly higher than the other groups for reading practiced words. However no between-group differences appeared for reading words not used in the training programme. Recent study by Ouelette and Sénéchal (2009) has shown that invented spelling plays a causal role in learning to read. Children who underwent an invented spelling intervention programme developed in small groups, learned to read more words in a learn-to-read task than children from two control groups, one trained in phonological awareness and the other in drawing. Nevertheless experimental evidence is still lacking.


Project’s aims:

Our aim is to assess the impact of an invented spelling programme on pre-school age children’s early reading acquisition. We will develop two intervention studies with pre-school-age children. In study 1 the intervention programme will be run individually and in study 2 in small groups. Study 1 permits a better control over extraneous variables and enables us to make an in-depth observation over the cognitive processes that occur during the intervention programme. Study 2 enables us to access the efficacy of the intervention programme in more natural situations.

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