Why Is English Spelling Complex English Language Essay

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Spelling appears to be one topic that linguists as well as psychologists seem to pay close attention to. This may not be far from the fact that spelling is a mental process and is very necessary in writing which is in turn necessary for education and literacy. Literatures on topics relating to spelling errors were therefore not so difficult to locate.

Most textbooks on English grammar have a section on spelling. Most often however, such textbooks treat issues on spelling which offered very little or no help at all to this present research. This may have to do with the fact that most English language take a prescriptive approach to spelling and are often more interested in how students can become better spellers especially as regards difficult to spell words. Relevant literature that form the background for this research and which were used for this chapter are constituted by journal articles of researches in portable document format (henceforth pdf) files on the internet. The internet therefore served as the primary source of literature for this research.

The literature review deals with different aspects of spelling; the nature of spelling, how spelling is learnt, what spelling errors and what spelling errors represent.


From the 1400's to the 1700's educators believed that spelling was an important part of education and that spelling is needed for reading and writing according to Henderson (qtd. in Scott, 1). According to moats, divergent views against the importance of spelling arose in the 1900's (qtd. in Scott, 1). Rote memorization thought to be the only way that spelling English words can be learned was deemed difficult and some people even encouraged children to develop and use inventive spelling. The result of these divergent views is that a lot of literate people are very poor spellers notwithstanding the fact that the importance of spelling still remains (moats,1; Berninger and Fayol,3).

English spelling is a very complex activity that involves more than the ability of a person to convert the English sounds or phonemes into letters (phonological skill) but also the use of other different underlying linguistic deposit (Wasowicz,1). Traditionally, spelling is taught and learned by rote memorization but contemporary views however assert that spelling relies on some underlying knowledge because the English spelling system is not entirely based on phoneme-grapheme correspondence (La mare, 1; Harley, 260) unlike other languages that use Roman alphabet.

Unlike other systems of spelling, English spelling of words does not depend on how well an individual's knows which sound should be represented by which letter or group of letters or on memorizing words even though some people believe that that is the only way English words can be spelt. The fact that English language has no sound-letter correspondence has led to an almost general conclusion that the English spelling is difficult. English spelling may be agreed to be complex since only about 50 percent of words in English can be spelled by converting phonemes to letters and some of the words which cannot be spelt this way involves words that are used in everyday communication. This however, does not mean the spelling system is illogical.

Templeton (1) opines that the English spelling is learnable and that it makes sense. This view straddles the fact that English spelling may be more complex but since the English spelling contains other information aside phonological information, sometimes the meaning of words and sometimes the history of the word(Moats, 3; Anderson, 2).

The view that the English spelling is not logical is mostly held because writing is expected to be a record of spoken language but as is a fact now, writing as a means of communication has taken on a life of its own and has grown independent of spoken language.

Bearing on the history of the English language that has shaped English vocabulary as it is known today, English spelling differs from other spellings in that one phoneme may be represented by different letters in different words e.g. the /I:/ phoneme may be represented by the letters; 'ee' as in the word see, 'ey' as in the word key, 'uay' as in the word quay, 'ea' as in the word leave, etcetera. In other instances, different letters may have the same sound e.g. the letter 'a' may is used to represent different phonemes in; father, village and fate. Sometimes some letters are silent e.g. 'p' in the word psychology, 'k' in knight and 'g' in gnat.

This makes an attempt to spell words in English the way they are pronounced result in misspelling and it also implies that to spell words in English, a person needs more than the knowledge of phoneme-letters ( Wasowicz, 2-4; Moats, 2).

Spelling involves the use of different kinds of linguistic knowledge and their application helps correct spelling. Phonological, orthographical, morphological and semantic relation and orthographic image knowledge are all required and used in English spelling as mentioned earlier. This view is asserted by Bourassa and Treiman,1-5; Moats,1-6.

Phonological knowledge is regarded as the most fundamental and primary knowledge needed in spelling and it is especially relied upon by young spellers (Carlisle, 2003; snow et.al., 1998; Ehri, 1998; quoted in Scott, 15-17).

Ehri (1998, quoted in Scott, 15) asserts that children develop graphemic representations of words by establishing strong connections between phonemes and graphemes in words.

Both the knowledge of the relationship between orthography and phonology shape the internal representation of words.

The above views support the stage theory of spelling in on the view that children depend on phonology for spelling and this may be the reason why children's most frequent errors are phonetic errors (La mare, 3)

Bourassa and Treiman however are of a different view. As opposed to the stage theory that children use strictly phonology in spelling, the duo believe that children's spelling may greatly rely on phonology but that phonology is not the only spelling skill children employ when spelling. According to them spelling may rely on the use of a predominant skill or knowledge but not with a complete isolation of other spelling skills even in young spellers (Treiman and Bourassa, 4).

As a linguistic skill required in spelling, phonological knowledge enables a speller to segment, discriminate, and identify phonemes when spelling (Wasowicz, 1). It allows individuals to manipulate the sounds of language at the level of the word, syllable, and especially the phoneme. Phonological skill is the sole linguistic that is needed in spelling in some languages such as Spanish but cannot be solely used in spelling English words.

In addition to phonological skill, orthographic skill is also needed in spelling English words. Orthographic skill refers to the knowledge that individuals have of the letter patterns of English and the generalization of how English words are represented in print. Orthographic skill is also very important in spelling as it is orthography that distinguish the spelling of one language and another (Wasowicz, 1; Arndt and Foorman, 7; Moats, 1). This skill is at work when an individual attempting to spell an unfamiliar word arranges the letters in a specific order and would not no matter how unsure he/she is, arrange them otherwise. For example speakers and users of English know that the letter 'l' can never be followed by an 'm' in an English word. Children have appeared to be unskilled in this area because when they spell phonetically, they tend to violate the orthographic rule of English. For example a child may spell the word 'elephant' as 'Lfunt', 'animal' may be spelt as 'anmal' (La mare, 5).

Morphological knowledge is another linguistic skill used in spelling. As a spelling skill, it is a skill mostly developed in adult spellers because words that are spelt using this knowledge are words which can take different forms when modified to reflect a change in meaning. Even some adult spellers encounter difficulties when spelling words whose spelling rely heavily on morphological knowledge (Bourassa and Treiman, 7-8). This spelling skill according to the stage theory is completely inaccessible to children but Bourassa and Treiman refute this view. According to them, Bourassa and Treiman (7), this view is only not fully developed in children but it is present and accessible. Morphological skill is intricately linked with most of the complexities of English spelling. Modifying words to achieve change in meaning and the ability to break down words into several smaller meaningful units are all enabled by this linguistic skill (Moats, 5). When an individual hears a new complex word, the next step after discriminating phonemes is to break the word into different parts.

Also important to spelling English words is the orthographic image linguistic skill. Spellings of words known by an individual are stored into the mental store and are retrieved through the memory when the need arises for the spelling of words. Words are stored are in the lexical memory with contact to written language. This skill aids spelling of words whose letter sequences are difficult to duplicate using phonological, orthographical or morphological skills.

Holmes and Carruthers (5), with repeated exposure to written language, spellers develop mental graphemic representations words, morphemes, and syllables in memory.

Bradley (1983, quoted in Holmes and Carruthers, 6), visual memory plays a very important role especially in leaning irregular sequences and this may be a factor underlying poor spelling.

Mental orthographic image skill of spelling aids when confusion arises as to which letter comes before which especially in spelling of sounds which have several spellings. For example, the spelling of 'receive' may be confused with that of 'believe' but orthographic image skill may assist in getting the right spelling. Sometimes when in doubt, individuals write out words several times to see which one looks right. Orthographic image skill is used to retain the way look in print and is unlike rote memorization developed unconsciously.

According to Moats (4), knowledge of the history of English language and of the languages from which English language borrowed words from also plays an important role in spelling English words. For example knowing that the English language had had contact with French would enable an individual understand why the't' at the end of words such as ballet' is silent since English language retains an almost original spelling and pronunciation of borrowed words.


Every important topic of discourse has theories that are developed in order to understand the topic better, involving ideas often explaining why or how something happen and can also be regarded as hypothesis. As regards spelling, the most widely known theory is the stage theory of spelling propounded by Charles Read in 1968(Scott, 36). A more contemporary theory of spelling is the repertoire theory of spelling. According to the stage theory of spelling, individuals pass through different stages as they progress towards proficiency by using the different linguistic skills accessible to them at the stage they are. In other words, the stage theory claims that an individual can spell as best as the stage he/she is allows.

The stage theory suggests that an individual moves from one level of complexity to another and has been criticized for making spelling seem like a simple process when in actuality it is a really complex process.

The repertoire theory does not completely reject the stage theory but takes exceptions to some of its claims. According to this theory, spellers can access the different linguistic skills at all stages of language development because these skills are present at every point of an individual's life but only at varying degrees. The only difference between spellers at different stages according to this theory is that spellers at a particular stage may use a particular spelling skill predominantly without totally excluding other skills (Bourassa and Treiman, 4).

According to Treiman and Bourassa (4), the stage theory albeit important for providing a systematic view to spelling oversimplifies the complex process of spelling because the spelling process is not linear (Treiman, 5). Spelling is a complex activity and thus can hardly be codified using the stage theory.

Other adherents of the repertoire theory of spelling are as quoted in scott () Deavers and brown (1997), Varnhagen (1995), Hughes and Searle (1997), Scott (2005), Apel and Masterson (2000).


In comparison to other systems of spelling of other languages using the same alphabetical system like English language such as Finnish and Spanish, English spelling may be considered complex. Unlike these other languages where a single phone is represented by a single letter, English language for example has 28 letters to cater for over 40 sounds.

The fact that in English a single phoneme may be represented by different graphemes is one of the major factors contributing to the complexity of the English spelling. For example, the /k/ phoneme can be represented by; 'k, lk, ck, cc, or c'. That a single grapheme can represent several phonemes is also a source of complexity. For example the letter 'a' may represent the phonemes; '/ei/, /i/ and /a:/ in the words 'dame, village, and father respectively(alhassan,4-6).

The issue of silent letters in many English words as a result of retaining an almost original spelling of borrowed words by English language is also a major source of complexity in English spelling. Not knowing that a word has silent letter(s) automatically leads to misspelling. Some of the silent letters in words are important in forming new words but most of them are unnecessary. For example while the 'k' and 'g' in 'know' and 'sign' are important to form the words 'acknowledge' and 'signature' ,the 'k' in 'knight or knife' is not. The silent letters ain both 'sign' and 'know' are needed for forming the modified version of such and thus need retention (Holmes and carruthers, 3).

Despite the facts presented above, English spelling is not as notoriously complex as it is made out to be. Cramer and Cipielewski (1995) conducted a study which is considered the most massive study on spelling using 18,599 unedited compositions of grade school children examining a total of 1,584,758 words. The investigators after their research assert that the English spelling is not 'the chaotic beast of mythology it is often made out to be, it is systematic and reasonably predictable in the way it is spelt' and that spelling knowledge has been shown to be more than the ability to match letters to sound (quoted in groff,14).

Moats (3), is also of the view that English spelling is more regular and predictable than most people think laying her claim on Hanna et al. (1966) whose research shows that fifty percent of English words can be spelt using the phoneme -grapheme conversion.

Also sharing this view is Templeton (1). According to him, English spelling may be occasionally frustrating but it is logical, learnable, and critical to reading as well as writing and most importantly it makes sense.

The position of English language as a global language may be threatened because of its complex spelling system which makes it difficult for second learners to learn asserts Yule (29). According to her, this is the reason why Papua guinea discontinued using English as a lingua franca but developed 'Tok Pisin' and the reason why Hindi became the prime Indian language after indepence. In this vain, Yule feels a reform is necessary for the English language to retain its position.

Yule and many reform seekers like herself share the desire to make English spelling more phonetic as a way to reduce illiteracy which according to them is rifer in English speaking countries because of the difficulty in the system.

That English spelling is complex is a fact and that some aspects may need reform is also not arguable but that the English language can be displaced as a result of a difficult system is not reason enough to start a reform. The complexity of the English spelling has often proven the source of many spelling errors and this research draws on that fact.


Errors are an important aspect of any learning process and are often studied to know how much a learner knows about that particular area of learning.

Errors in spelling are instructive of a pupil's character than are correctly spelt words and a careful examination of these errors would disclose that certain classes of errors are reoccurring due to deeply ingrained habits (tune, 2)

According to Wasowicz (1), a deficit in any area of language learning would be manifested as a specific pattern of spelling errors.

Spelling errors arise for psychological reasons- carelessness, fatigue, inattention according to Cramer and Cipielewski (Groff, 15).

La mare (2), incorrect spellings vary and may illuminate how a pupil's spelling is developing and what areas he/she is having difficulties with.

Spelling errors is such a big issue in today's literate world and the way person spell may inform the way others view him. Spelling errors were usually considered problems of children and no wonder most research on spelling uses children as subjects (Groff, 14). The trend has however shifted and today even literate adult are not left out of making spelling errors of even commonly miss-spelt words. Although people in other parts of the world where computers are accessible to every may to an extent get away with poor spelling ability, people in yet to be developed places like Nigeria who still rely heavily on ink pen may not.

Different researchers and scholars have given different classification of spelling errors.


Competence errors are an indication that the spelling of a word is not known or is wrongly known. For example spelling the word blood' as pebd' is a competence error.

Performance errors on the other hand are an indication that the spelling of a word is known but for some reason may be written out wrongly. For example spelling the word 'blood' as blod' may be an indication of performance error.


These errors are considered based on evidence that there is familiarity with the actual spelling of words for example the word said' spelt as siad'(la mare, 3)

These errors may also refer to instances when the misspelled word is not the real spelling of the word according to convention but may an alternative spelling of that word (Wasowicz, 5).for example when the word said is spelt as 'sed', it may be regarded as an orthographical error.


When one or more phonemes in a word are not written it may result in phonological errors; an example is when the word brick' is spelt as 'bick' (Arndt and Foorman, 22).


Errors committed predominantly based on motor in coordination (qtd. in tune, 3) may include;

Errors of omission e.g spelling 'phonology' as 'phonlogy'

Errors of addition example spelling the word 'wolf' as 'wolfe'

Change error example; spelling crack' as 'crach'. The cause may be that a letter had been badly or incorrectly written.

Errors as a result of confusing 'm' and n'. for example is spelling swim' as 'swin'

Transposition errors, when the position or sequences of letters in a word are interchanged. For example is spelling the word 'animal as 'aminal'

Attraction-sensori errors for example when rope' is spelt as roap' when it follows soap.

Attraction-ideo-motor errors for example spelling 'group' as 'groop' when comes before troop'

Doubling of wrong letter example beff' spelt for beef.


Errors committed because of a defect in the sensory process (quoted in tune, 6). Literal association has idea not been properly formed or forgotten;

-phonetic errors are errors which represent an attempt to spell words by relying on phonology to convert phoneme to grapheme. Can be sub-divided into;

Standard phonetic errors for example spelling 'Wednesday' as wensday'; local errors based on faulty or localized pronunciations of words for ' dest'

Confusing errors of words that are usually confused with other words similar in spelling and meaning for example 'ei' used as 'ie'

The above represent classification of errors by different researchers. Most errors as previously sated based on this review are made due to deficits in any of the linguistic skills needed for spelling or due to psychological factors. From this review we can see that studying spelling errors is an important aspect of studying other aspects of language learning. Chapter four would present the finding of this present research based on the background laid by this literature review.