Spelling Errors: What They Can Reveal About Language Processing

Learning to spell words is more difficult that learning to read them.


Spelling requires not just word recognition but application of a complex network of knowledge that includes the word’s meaning and meaning parts (bases, prefixes and suffixes), its speech sound structure and what letter(s) can represent both the speech sounds and the meaning parts in specific contexts. For example, consider the word <kissed>. It sounds like /kist/, but the speller must know that the base ends with <ss> and the suffix is spelled <ed> even though it sounds like /t/. Even more complex, in a word like <behavior> the speller must know that the <e> in the base (<behave>) is dropped and that this suffix is spelled <ior> (as opposed to <or>, <ir>, <er>, etc.).

This juggling act requires awareness of and sensitivity to words, as well as lots of exposure to them in both spoken and written forms. Spelling skills typically develop slowly over the years of formal schooling. However, some spellers continue to struggle, despite ample exposure, instruction and effort. For some people with language processing differences, spelling and writing form the tip of the iceberg: They are the only really obvious symptoms of a language processing disorder.  

Ongoing research is shedding light on how the brain's language centers, which developed first to process oral language, cross-map spoken and printed words. Research has provided evaluation tools for pin-pointing the perceptual and processing glitches that can derail upper-level literacy skills, as well as provided guidance for when there is enough concern to suggest an evaluation. For example, current consensus research suggests:

  • By 3rd grade a child should spell grammatical suffixes (e.g., past tense <kissed>, progressive <kissing> and plural <kisses>) correctly most of the time.
  • By 4th grade a child should accurately and consistently spell the vowels in most common words.


If spelling and writing problems like these persist the student may benefit from Lexercise Structured Literacy Intervention.



Bahr, R. H., Silliman, E. R., Berninger, V. W. & Dew, M. (2012). Linguistic Pattern Analysis of Misspellings of Typically Developing Writers in Grades 1-9.  Journal of Speech, Language Hearing Research, vol. 55, 1578-1599.

Moats, L.C. (2010). Speech to Print: Language essentials for teachers of reading and spellingBaltimore, MD: York Press. 


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