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Review of  How Children Learn to Write Words

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: How Children Learn to Write Words
Book Author: Rebecca Treiman Brett Kessler
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Writing Systems
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 26.1067

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Studies of the process of becoming literate often focus mainly on learning to read. The excellent survey volume by Rayner et al. (2012), for instance (as its title indicates) is exclusively about that aspect of literacy. And of course, for any child, reading comes before writing. Nevertheless, to qualify as literate a person must be able to write as well as read his language. The book under review aims to draw together all aspects of what modern research can tell us about the process of learning to write, in English or in other languages, whether they use an alphabet or some other type of script.

In the English-speaking world, learning to write words is commonly identified with learning to spell. But Treiman and Kessler only begin to address the latter topic on p. 216 (in a book of 318 pages, excluding end-matter). They acknowledge (p. 21) that this ''may strike readers as quite late'', but they point out that children ''have to learn such things as how writing differs from drawing and that it stands for language'' -- a great deal of learning has to happen before getting spellings right can become an issue.

After an introductory chapter, Treiman and Kessler's Chapter 2 surveys the different kinds of script used for various languages, including phonographic scripts like our own and logographic scripts such as that of Chinese. Chapter 3 covers various considerations relating to the general concepts of learning and of teaching, and Chapter 4 expounds rival theories about the learning process. For instance, ''constructivism'', based on the ideas of Jean Piaget, envisages children as passing through a fixed sequence of stages, at each of which they hold a distinctive concept of how writing works. ''Connectionism'' holds that the literacy-acquisition process can be modelled by neural-network computer software. Various other theoretical approaches have been advocated in the literature; already in Chapter 1 Treiman and Kessler drew attention to a movement which has been influential among the school teaching profession called ''whole language'', associated with Kenneth Goodman and Stephen Krashen, according to which explicit teaching of any general principles or rules about orthography is unnecessary, perhaps even harmful, because children will automatically acquire the ability to write correctly through mere exposure to real-life written material. Treiman and Kessler oppose the whole-language movement, holding that literacy acquisition depends on abstracting patterning of many different kinds, absolute and statistical, from the written form of one's mother tongue, and that formal teaching plays an important positive role in helping children to absorb those patterns. They themselves advocate what they call an Integration of Multiple Patterns (IMP) theory, according to which learning to write correctly depends not on one well-defined type of linguistic knowledge but on the ability to deploy many kinds simultaneously.

Chapters 5 to 9 cover the learning of issues such as the surface properties of writing, e.g. its one-dimensional linearity, the concept of symbolization, and the fact that letters of the alphabet have names and a fixed order. Then Chapters 10 and 11 move on to the learning of spelling -- which, as the introduction points out, is a harder task than learning to read even with a regularly-spelled language such as Italian, because it is not self-correcting. If a child's attempt to translate a letter-sequence into a spoken form yields the wrong phoneme string, the child will probably know that that phoneme sequence is not a familiar word of his language, but going in the other direction the child has no way of knowing whether an attempt to spell a word familiar in speech is right or wrong, unless a teacher gives feedback.

A particularly interesting conclusion is that individuals do not reach a ''steady state'' of spelling knowledge, akin to the steady state of linguistic competence which generative linguists believe speakers attain by puberty. We never stop learning about spelling (p. 277).

Chapter 12 discusses acquisition of the skills of punctuation and capitalization. And finally Chapter 13 draws together some of the general conclusions which emerge from the research surveyed, with particular attention to implications for desirable teaching styles. (The authors aim throughout the book to avoid technical linguistic terminology where possible, or at least to explain it clearly where it is unavoidable, so as to make the book accessible to a wide readership, including primary school teachers, rather than exclusively to academics.)

The authors themselves have done considerable original research on the topics covered, but in this book they set out to survey the state of research as a whole rather than to focus on the particular issues they happen to have investigated personally. They quote work relating to literacy acquisition in many languages; if the coverage of English is fuller than for other languages, that is merely because, as they rightly say, more research internationally has been done on English than on literacy in any other language. Their list of references comprises some 700 publications, many quite recent.


To my knowledge no book similar to this has appeared before, so it fills an important gap in the market. And in my judgement it does a very good job. It is surely destined to become the obvious first place to look for specific information on many of the topics it covers. Some might feel that a disproportionate amount of space is devoted to areas which Treiman and Kessler regard as preconditions for learning to spell, such as the contrast between drawing and writing, or the idea that letters come in a fixed alphabetical order. But, for laymen, it is too easy to suppose that these things are ''obvious'' and that the only real issue is learning to spell; it is perhaps healthy to be exposed to careful analysis of things which seem obvious to adults but which have to be learned from scratch by children.

A particular strength of the book is that it draws on classroom experience, not just on academic literature and experiments in psychology labs. For instance, one aspect of the book which interested me as an Englishman was discussion of the results of contrasting approaches to literacy-teaching in Britain and the USA. One difference relates to letter-names. When I learned to read and write in the late 1940s, teachers taught us to name the letters as adults name them, ''ay, bee, see,'' etc. Apparently this is still usual in the USA; but in Britain, at least since my children were in primary school in the early 1980s, pupils have initially been taught to name letters by the sounds they commonly make, e.g. /æ/, /b/, /k/ (with the stops followed by a minimal shwa to make them pronounceable). The adult names are introduced only much later. This change was made in the belief that it would help children understand how to use letters. Treiman and Kessler cite detailed data from classrooms in the two countries which go to show how far and in what respects that belief is true.

Linguists will value findings about literacy acquisition that bear on theoretical controversies in our discipline. For instance, generative phonologists since Chomsky and Halle's _The Sound Pattern of English_ (1968) have held that where a language contains regular morphophonemic alternations, speakers store words mentally in an underlying form, and apply phonological rules to generate surface forms as these are needed in speaking. One implication is that English spelling is much more regular than it appears. Many linguists have found this theory implausible. But Treiman and Kessler, while they would not claim to give us reason to believe in the entire complex edifice of _Sound Pattern of English_ phonology, do cite more than one kind of evidence that ''even young children appear to ... consider morphology when deciding on spellings'' (p. 266).

There are weak points in the book. While Treiman and Kessler's attempt to give due consideration to scripts different from ours is laudable, they make mistakes about languages which, probably, they have not themselves studied. They say (p. 54) that the Hebrew form for ''the'' is written as a prefix to the following word because of a graphotactic rule that no word may consist of just one letter; but it is clear from the phonology of Biblical Hebrew that the definite article must be a prefix rather than a separate word, independently of script considerations. They quote an example of ''simplified Chinese'' (pp. 28-9), i.e. the new script variant used in the People's Republic since the 1950s, but nothing in their example differs from traditional Chinese script. They quote /kat/ as an example of a Japanese syllable for which Japanese syllabic _kana_ script provides no symbol (p. 37); but no Japanese syllables end in /t/. (The closest Japanese approximation to English ''cat'' is /katsu/, which would be written with the _kana_ symbols for /ka/ and /tsu/.) The statement on p. 142 that ''Korean han'geul ... abandoned its original Brahmi-based ordering in favor of one based more on visual similarity'' is doubly misleading. The Korean han'geul alphabet was an independent invention, not based on an Indian model, and its original order was not the same as that of the Brahmi alphabet. (Both alphabets did show phonetic logic in their sequencing, unlike the Roman alphabet, but that was merely coincidental.)

However, in the context of the book as a whole these points and others like them are minor blemishes.

A deeper objection relates to Treiman and Kessler's Integration of Multiple Patterns idea. They call this a ''theory'', which is said to make empirical ''claims'' (p. 241) about the literacy acquisition process. But if it is a theory, it is left quite vague. The term ''theory'' strikes me as an unnecessarily highflown way of referring to what is simply a commonsensical assumption that, if any kind of patterning whatever is visible in the data available to a child, the child may well latch on to it and use it alongside all the rest of his linguistic knowledge in deciding how to write words. But to say that is not to diminish Treiman and Kessler's achievement. Pedagogy could probably benefit from less theorizing and more application of common sense. Certainly Treiman and Kessler are persuasive when they point out the limited value of other ''theories'' described in their Chapter 4.

Much of Treiman and Kessler's advice about suitable methods for teaching writing skills seems sensible and well-argued. I felt sceptical, though, when they urged (pp. 311-12) that:

children want to know why things are the way they are ... there are reasons why words are spelled as they are. In orthography, as in other domains, children can learn about the reasons ... generating reasons about why _photo_ is spelled with <ph> helps children to understand orthography.

The reason why _photo_ has <ph> is that in Ancient Greek, the word for ''light'' began not with a labiodental fricative but with a bilabial aspirated plosive. I do not want to be patronizing, but I believe this explanation might go over the heads of some teachers of five-year-olds, let alone of the children themselves. Is there really any way it could be got across to a primary-school class without creating more confusion than enlightenment?

However, a book that never took a position with which one felt inclined to disagree might be tedious and empty. Treiman and Kessler's book is a very worthwhile addition to the literature of linguistics and literacy-teaching. I have learned much from it, and I expect to consult it frequently in the future.


Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row.

Rayner, Keith, Alexander Pollatsek, Jane Ashby, and Charles Clifton Jr. 2012. The Psychology of Reading (2nd edn). New York: Psychology Press.
After graduating in Chinese from Cambridge University, Geoffrey Sampson studied linguistics as a graduate student at Yale and as a Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford. He spent the bulk of his career at the universities of Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex successively. Since becoming Emeritus at Sussex, he has been a research fellow in the Linguistics department of the University of South Africa. A new edition of Sampson's book _Writing Systems_ will appear in January 2015.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199907977
Pages: 416
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