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Beginning to SpellA Study of First-Grade Children$
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Rebecca Treiman

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780195062199

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195062199.001.0001

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4 (p.97) Vowels
Beginning to Spell

Rebecca Treiman

Oxford University Press

In this chapter, I focus on vowel phonemes. Because a study that is strictly based on a distinction between legal and illegal spellings has some serious problems, this chapter employs a more descriptive and qualitative approach. I discuss how the first graders in the study spelled each vowel phoneme of English. What do the children’s spellings reveal about their knowledge of the English writing system and about their knowledge of spoken English? The analyses reported in Chapter 3 uncovered some factors that affect how children spell phonemes. For the children in this study, the most important of these factors was exposure to phoneme-grapheme correspondences in printed words: Children used frequent correspondences more often than infrequent correspondences. Another factor was letter names: Children used correspondences in which the name of the grapheme contained the phoneme more often than correspondences in which the name of the grapheme did not contain the phoneme. A third factor was formal teaching: Children were more often correct on correspondences that were taught in the classroom than on correspondences that were not directly taught. In this chapter, I ask how these and other factors influenced the children’s spelling of specific vowel phonemes. Sometimes, the children’s choices of spellings for vowel phonemes mirrored the choices embodied in the English writing system. The children used the spellings that occur most frequently in English, whether or not these spellings were explicitly taught. In other cases, the children’s choices did not mirror the conventional ones. There are two different ways in which this occurred. First, the children sometimes used a spelling that is illegal in the conventional system; that is, a grapheme that never represents the phoneme. In these cases, something other than knowledge of conventional spelling must explain the “invented” spelling. I ask what the reasons are. In discussing these illegal substitutions, I have chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, a cut-off of 2.5%. Illegal substitutions that occurred at rates of 2.5% or more out of all spellings are singled out for discussion. A second way in which children’s choices sometimes failed to mirror those of conventional English was in overuse of particular spellings.

Keywords:   Back vowels, Composition, Dialects, Front vowels, Height of vowels, Lax vowels, Monophthongs, Offglide of diphthong, Phonics instruction, Rounded vowels

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