Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

The Development of a Spelling Assessment Tool Informed by Triple Word Form Theory

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

The Development of a Spelling Assessment Tool Informed by Triple Word Form Theory

Article excerpt


Spelling is one of the essential mechanics of the written English language. It is the visible representation of 'word-level language using written symbols in conventional sequences (orthography) that represent speech sounds (phonology) and word parts that signal meaning and grammar (morphology)' (Garcia, Abbott & Berninger, 2010, p. 63). Much of the English spelling system is also etymologically complex as it derives from culturally and historically diverse linguistic origins (Invernizzi & Hayes, 2004; Venezky, 2004).

Scholarly research in spelling has not yet reached consensus regarding the trajectory of spelling knowledge in school-aged children. This ambiguity has perpetuated a need to develop assessment systems that reflect evolving perspectives of spelling development. Effective spelling assessment systems should provide informative, reliable and valid data and be culturally contextualised; however, spelling assessment tools currently used in many classrooms do not necessarily provide teachers with comprehensive, valid and reliable data. This article reports on a study that developed and tested an innovative, valid and reliable spelling assessment tool that could be used by middle and upper primary school teachers, as well as educational researchers. This tool, referred to as the Components of Spelling Test (CoST), was designed to address a gap in pedagogy and in educational research methodology. Of particular significance, the CoST is the first spelling assessment tool of its kind to be developed and tested within an Australian context.

A focus on spelling

It is well established that spelling is an important dimension of writing and a fundamental part of being literate (Berninger, Abbott, Nagy & Carlisle, 2010; Devonshire & Fluck, 2010). If students have inadequate spelling skills, they may need to devote conscious attention to the task of spelling rather than on other dimensions required for composing quality texts (Hutcheon, Campbell & Stewart, 2012; Puranik & Al Otaiba, 2012). Research also suggests that as primary school students progress through schooling, they may become less willing to take risks with vocabulary choice when writing, particularly if they are unsure of a word's spelling (Lowe & Bormann, 2012). In addition, proficiency in spelling is known to support metalinguistic skills, such as phonological awareness (Ehri, 1985) and morphological awareness (Nagy, Berninger & Abbott, 2006). These skills, in turn, positively influence writing competence (Martello, 2001), confidence and general enjoyment and fluency in reading (Perfetti, 1997; Treiman, 1998). Indeed, Templeton and Morris (1999, p. 103) describe spelling knowledge as the 'engine that drives efficient reading and writing'.

The twenty-first century is characterised by rapid developments in technology and an increasing reliance on the use of devices and software designed to facilitate communication (Zedda-Sampson, 2013). As writers navigate multi-modes of text in an age where instant communication intensifies, spelling competence becomes increasingly essential. Social networking and digital text messaging has generated an additional language known as 'texting' (Bushnell, Kemp & Martin, 2011; Zedda-Sampson, 2013), and this places demands on writers to consciously control and manipulate their spelling in order to communicate in a range of contexts. Applying and adapting spelling systems to different social and cultural contexts requires autonomous and critical spelling.

Learning to spell

Research has offered various perspectives on the nature of spelling development; however, evidence has not been substantive enough to provide consensus on whether spelling develops in progressive and distinct stages, or whether spelling develops in more complex ways. The analysis of spelling errors students make have enabled stage theorists (Bear & Templeton, 1998; Cataldo & Ellis, 1988; Ehri, 1985; Frith, 1980; Gentry, 2012; Read, 2009) to produce a linguistic index (a list of linguistic features, such as initial consonants and digraphs) that has subsequently led to the categorisation of spelling development into distinct and sequential stages. …

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