According to Spencer all factors were significant in Years 2 to 6, apart from word frequency in Year 4 and phonemic length in Year 6. The 4 factors accounted for 40% to 60% of spelling variability. When data was combined and re-analysed, the factors accounted for 63% of the variability of spelling the150 words by all children. However, there is no evidence to support this, raising doubt about reliability. Mean spelling scores for all Years are given (Table 2, p. 20), but there is no indication of each Year Group’s spelling performance for the three lists. Thus there is no reliable evidence that: ‘… after two years of extra schooling, the least able 9-year olds have only reached the same level of proficiency on the moderate words than the 7-year olds had attained on the easy words.’
Instead, Spencer analysed individual words to determine the percentage spelled correctly and expressed the results as ranges. This fails to give a representative picture and is inconclusive, particularly as the range for ‘difficult’ words is wide, from 33.8% (‘course’) to 80.1% (‘by’). An overall score for each type of list would have been more informative. The influence of the factors is presented in terms of mean values.
Children experienced increasing difficulty with uncommon words, but ‘tricky’ phonemes and phonetic difference were the two most significant factors. Words with obscure phonemic representations were more difficult to spell, with 55% in the ‘easy’ category spelled correctly but only 12% in the ‘difficult’, (Figure 1a, p. 21). As the number of letters per phoneme increased spelling performance deteriorated, (Figure 1b, p. 21). The impact of obscure phonemic forms was particularly noticeable with less able children, only 65% of whom in each year group were able to spell ‘easy’ words and 10% could spell ‘difficult’ words (p. 22). In this instance results for the least able pupils in each Year Group are presented as a table (Figure 2, p. 22), clearly showing how performance fell as words became more difficult.
In a second experiment reading data from a class of 28, Year 2 children in a similar Hull school was analysed for the same factors. The results indicated that all are significant, but explain less of the variability in reading difficulty: ‘reading 42% spelling 62%’ (p.23). Low phoneticity assisted performance, but again ‘tricky’ phonemes and phonetic difference had the strongest negative effect. Spencer highlighted the difficulties in acquiring common words that constitute 50% of texts.
He suggested that the irregularity of English affects the acquisition of decoding skills, speed and accuracy, as well as lexical recall. Without rules to aid assimilation or facilitate word building unfamiliar words must be deciphered. This affects processing, hinders progress and affects less able children who cannot self-teach. Spencer thus asserts that without external support: ‘many children will be prevented from making progress.’ (P. 24)
Spencer studied words from The British American English Corpus, (Hofland and Johannson, 1982) commonly used in linguistic studies (Sampson, 1997; Sanhofer, Smith and Luo, 2000), which thus appears to be a sound basis and his findings are plausible. However, there are doubts about the reliability of the results and a possible weakness in the design, which Spencer acknowledged: ‘This is not a longitudinal study.’ (op cit, p. 22). Year 2 pupils’ ability to spell is compared with the performance of Year 6 children and the conclusion reached is that: ‘After 3 extra years, the least able 10-year olds are still having problems with the difficult words and (have) … not reached the same level of proficiency that the 7-year olds reached for the easy words.’