A Multilingual Perspective on Spelling Development in Third and Fourth Grades

By Tompkins, Gail E.; Abramson, Shareen et al. | Multicultural Education, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

A Multilingual Perspective on Spelling Development in Third and Fourth Grades


Tompkins, Gail E., Abramson, Shareen, Pritchard, Robert H., Multicultural Education


The latest demographic data indicate that 36 percent or almost two million of California's K-12 enrollment is comprised of English language learners (ELLs). Of those ELLs, 1.3 million are classified as limited-English-proficient (LEP) (Data on Bilingual Education in California, 1997). Since that number is expected to continue to increase well into the next century, greater understanding of the language and literacy characteristics of these students is needed in order to plan for instruction.

One area of literacy development that has not received sufficient attention is ELLs' acquisition of spelling strategies. While research has explored how "invented" or approximate spelling figures in the spelling development of native speakers (Beers & Beers, 1981; Beers, Beers & Grant, 1977; Beers & Henderson, 1977; Bissex, 1980; Read, 1975; Templeton, 1979), little is known about the ways in which ELLs use approximate spellings. The way they create spellings for unfamiliar words should provide insight into their knowledge of English orthography and serve as a comparison to first language (Li) students' literacy development.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the spelling development of third and fourth grade students from a variety of linguistic backgrounds, and to compare the spelling development of students from five language groups: native English speakers and native speakers of Hmong, Khmer, Lao, and Spanish who are learning English as a second language. Our research questions were:

1. What differences, if any, exist in spelling development of ELLs who speak Spanish, Hmong, Lao, and Khmer as their native language?

2. What differences, if any, exist in spelling development of third and fourth grade LI students and ELLs?

3. What differences, if any, exist between the spelling development of two groups of L1 students related to the socioeconomic level of their schools?

Subjects

The subjects were 60 third and fourth graders enrolled in one of two K-6 elementary schools in Central California. School One is located in a low income, ethnically diverse neighborhood. Ninety-two percent of the students receive AFDC and 64 percent are designated LEP. School Two is located in an affluent, upper middle class neighborhood. Both schools are part of a county system that serves over 160,000 students from 100 different linguistic groups. Thirty-two percent of the county's students are designated LEP.

A literature-based approach to language arts instruction is used in these schools, and students write in journals on a daily basis. The teachers in these schools are experienced in using journal writing. They encourage students to invent spellings for unfamiliar words and respond to the content of students' entries. They do not correct spelling errors in the entries.

At School One, five third graders and five fourth graders were randomly selected from each language group: Spanish, Hmong, Lao, and Khmer. We chose to study these groups for two reasons. First, they are among the largest represented in the county system. Second, because we were interested in examining differences across language groups, we wanted to study children who spoke languages with different alphabetic systems and came from cultures with contrasting literacy histories.

All ELLs who participated in this study were designated LEP by school district personnel. Their levels of English language proficiency as measured by the Bilingual Syntax Measure (BSM) ranged from 3-5 on a scale from 1-5. These scores, together with teacher evaluation of student performance on informal language assessment tasks, indicated that the students had all reached the Speech Emergence stage of Terrell's Language Acquisition framework (Terrell, 1983). Thus, they could be expected to generate original oral responses in English and be creative in their use of vocabulary and sentence structure.

School district personnel had also compiled the results of a home language survey for each student assessing the student's native language proficiency. …

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