Variations among adults in their use of morphemic spelling rules and word-specific knowledge when spelling
Mitchell, P and Kemp, N and Bryant, P, Variations among adults in their use of morphemic spelling rules and word-specific knowledge when spelling, Reading Research Quarterly, 46, (2) pp. 119-133. ISSN 0034-0553 (2011) [Refereed Article]
The purpose of this research was to examine whether adults rely on morphemic spelling rules or word-specific knowledge when spelling simple words. We examined adults’ knowledge of two of the simplest and most reliable rules in English spelling concerning the morphological word ending –s. This spelling is required for regular plural nouns (e.g., bricks, bees) and third-person singular present tense verbs (e.g., kicks, sees), but not for similar sounding one-morpheme words (e.g., mix, breeze). In study 1, 205 young adults’ understanding of these rules was tested. These were adults who were recruited for training in skilled and semiskilled jobs. They were asked in four different choice tasks to choose the appropriate spelling of pseudowords whose endings were determined by their morphological sentence contexts (e.g., Jim wants only one grix). Only 7.4% of individual participants’ choices were significantly above chance in at least three of the four pseudoword categories tested. In study 2, 72 undergraduate students completed the same tasks, and 83% achieved above chance performance on at least three categories. Taken together, these results suggest that many adults depend on word-specific knowledge, rather than spelling rules, when spelling even very simple words. They also throw some doubt on the generality of conclusions about people’s use of morphology in literacy tasks that have been drawn from previous research, which has depended very heavily on testing samples consisting entirely of undergraduate participants.