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Issue Editor Foreword: Spelling Across Language Systems and Languages

Section Editor(s): Desoete, Annemie PhD; Issue Editor; Van Vreckem, Christel Issue Editor

doi: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000169
Issue Editor Foreword

Ghent University and Artevelde University College, Belgium

Artevelde University College, Belgium

The authors have indicated that they have no financial and no nonfinancial relationships to disclose.

Writing is more important than ever in the 21st century. As children progress through school, the expectation for the length and quality of their writing increases (Nelson, 2010). Spelling is a key skill for proficient writing, and permits one to communicate effectively and be more convincing with regard to subject matter expertise (Harris, Graham, Brindle, & Sandmel, 2009 ; Vanderswalmen, Vrijders, & Desoete, 2010). Moreover, spelling is needed for full participation in literate societies and all the mechanisms employed to transmit language (Daffern & Mackenzie, 2018).

Writing systems differ in many ways (Daniels & Share, 2018 ; Tong, McBride-Chang, Shu, & Wong, 2009). When children learn to spell, they learn that spoken words consist of sounds that can be represented by letters (in alphabetic languages such as Dutch, English, German, and Italian) or morphemes that can be represented by logographic characters (in Chinese, for instance). Alphabetic languages differ in the degree of transparency and regularity of the mappings between the phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters).

Transparent languages and orthographic systems are characterized by a high degree of consistency in the translation of phonemes into graphemes. These languages are mainly governed by phoneme–grapheme correspondence rules (Defior, Jimenez-Fernandez, & Serrano, 2009), with mainly clear grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences for spelling purposes. In contrast, opaque or deep orthographic systems, such as English, consist of graphemes that correspond with various phonemes and vice versa (Vanderswalmen et al., 2010 ; Verhoeven, Schreuder, & Baayen, 2006).

Although spelling problems are common in alphabetic and nonalphabetic languages as well as in languages with regular and irregular orthographies (Angelelli, Notarnicola, Judica, Zoccolotti, & Luzzatti, 2010), there is less research on spelling development and difficulties than on reading (Buttner & Hasselhorn, 2011 ; Tops, Callens, Bijn, & Brysbaert, 2014). This thematic issue assembles studies that address the topic of languages and language systems that appear to impact students' learning of spelling.

This topical issue invited the contributing authors to examine, explore, illustrate, and critically discuss the available research evidence on alphabetic transparent (e.g., Italian), semitransparent (e.g., German and Dutch), and more opaque (e.g., English) languages. The authors were charged to consolidate a description of their target language and orthography within a study and to relay their clinical experience and scholarship in this area to spur conversation about spelling and individual differences.

Studies all over the world have shown that spelling problems are a common characteristic of dyslexia (Angelelli et al., 2010 ; Duranovic, 2017 ; Tops et al., 2014). If spelling poses ongoing challenges, children may develop a negative mind-set about themselves as a speller and avoid writing, leading to arrested spelling development (Daffern & Mackenzie, 2018 ; Graham & Santangelo, 2014). In addition, some children with dyscalculia (but without dyslexia) encounter more problems with spelling compared with peers without learning disabilities (Pieters, Roeyers, Rosseel, Van Waelvelde, & Desoete, 2015). However, the underlying nature of spelling difficulties across populations seems not always to be consistent. One way to disentangle the question of what components are involved in spelling is to compare errors and subskills across orthographic systems. Such an analysis among languages might be useful for diagnosticians and educators to obtain critical information not typically reflected in standardized assessments of spelling (Duranovic, 2017). Therefore, the articles in this issue intentionally compare spelling (sub)skills and knowledge in typical and atypical developing school-age children who use different alphabetic languages.

First, Kargl and Landerl (2018) describe the German language. They provide insightful information about highly consistent grapheme–phoneme correspondences (for reading) in German, less consistent phoneme–grapheme correspondences (for spelling), and the very high morphological consistency of the German language and orthography. They illustrate how even poor spellers are well able to produce phonologically adequate spellings early on, but how the acquisition of morphologically based orthographic markers is a long-term enterprise. They tackle in a descriptive study with a large sample the issue of spelling skills in children aged between 9 and 13 years, attending Grades 4 to 7 in Austria and Germany, and expand on evidence for the importance of morphological awareness in spelling among children in these grades. Kargl and Landerl discuss promising evidence for a morphologically structured intervention that is efficient and effective for improving spelling beyond phonology-based instruction that focuses on simple phoneme–grapheme translation.

Next, Van Vreckem and Desoete (2018) present information about Dutch, a moderately transparent orthography. They illustrate how children with and without dyslexia from Grades 2 to 6 differ on phonological, orthographic, and morphological spelling skills. Further, they add to the landscape of spelling subskills word etymology, given that some words (e.g., loan words) must be memorized because phonological, morphological, and rule-based skills alone are not helpful for reconstructing an accurate spelling. Etymology thus helps explain why some Dutch words remain difficult to spell (Tops et al., 2014 ; Van Vreckem, 2018). They provide insightful information on how Dutch-speaking children with dyslexia continue to have problems with phonological skills and pseudoword spelling even in Grade 6. They suggest the use of pseudowords for assessing spelling in older children with dyslexia to obtain a more valid portrayal of their spelling problems.

Finally, Arfé et al. (2018) present Italian, a transparent language. They note the learning problems experienced by children with dyslexia, specifically with mapping the correspondences between sounds and letters underlying spelling. They describe the outcomes of an investigation using implicit instruction to support such mappings in 7- to 11-year-olds with dyslexia who speak and write Italian. Arfé and colleagues remind readers that implicit learning of statistical regularities is likely easier in shallow orthographies, such as Italian, where the phoneme–grapheme correspondences are based on a limited set of associations than in other orthographies that are less transparent, like English. However, the success of this intervention in Italy suggests that we should not forget the impact of learning processes supported by modeling the implicit integration of auditory–phonological and visual–orthographic word encoding.

The implications of these studies for future research on assessment and intervention are interesting. Instructional priorities should take into account a student's strengths and needs as displayed by their application of the components of spelling (Daffern, 2017). It is our hope that the readers of this issue will become better acquainted with the specific challenges with spelling in children with dyslexia and other language learning problems and some of the guiding principles for interventions and evidence-based assessment techniques. Although there continues to be a need for further research to inform work on behalf of children with spelling and language learning disorders, it remains critical that all professionals work collaboratively with each other across different countries to address the varied needs of these students' in different language systems and orthographies.

—Annemie Desoete, PhD

Issue Editor

Ghent University and Artevelde

University College, Belgium

Christel Van Vreckem

Issue Editor

Artevelde University College,


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Angelelli P., Notarnicola A., Judica A., Zoccolottib P. L., Luzzatti C. (2010). Spelling impairments in Italian dyslexic children: Phenomenological changes in primary school. Cortex, 46(10), 1299–1311.
Arfé B., Cona E., Merella A. (2018). Training implicit learning of spelling in italian children with developmental dyslexia. Topics in Language Disorders, 38(4), 299–315.
Buttner G., Hasselhorn M. (2011). Learning disabilities: Debates on definitions, causes, subtypes, and responses. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 58, 75–87.
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Daffern T., Mackenzie N. (2018, July). Perils of learning to spell in English. Insights from eight Australian children and their teachers. Paper for the symposium “Spelling in different languages: Do we speak and write the same language?” presented at the 42nd annual International Association of Research of Learning Disabilities (IARLD) conference, Ghent, Belgium.
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Pieters S., Roeyers H., Rosseel Y., Van Waelvelde H., Desoete A. (2015). Identifying subtypes among children with developmental coordination disorder and mathematical learning disabilities using model-based clustering. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48(1), 83–95.
Tong X., McBride-Chang C., Shu H., Wong A. M. Y. (2009). Morphological awareness, orthographic knowledge, and spelling errors: Keys to understanding early Chinese literacy acquisition. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(5), 426–452.
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Van Vreckem C. (2018, July). Spelling skills in pseudowords and existing words in Dutch speaking children with and without dyslexia. Paper for the symposium “Spelling in different languages: Do we speak and write the same language?” presented at the 42nd Annual International Association of Research of Learning Disabilities (IARLD) conference, Ghent, Belgium.
Van Vreckem C., Desoete A. (2018). Spelling of pseudowords and real words in Dutch-speaking children with and without dyslexia. Topics in Language Disorders, 38(4), 286–298.
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