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Review of  Spelling and Writing Words

Reviewer: Jana Hasenäcker
Book Title: Spelling and Writing Words
Book Author: Cyril Perret Thierry Olive
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Writing Systems
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 31.1692

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“Spelling and Writing Words”, edited by Cyril Perret and Thierry Olive, is the 39th volume of the “Studies in Writing” series, which aims to provide insights into the foundations of writing. The volume is a collection of contributions about current theoretical and methodological issues in the research on written word production from a psycholinguistic perspective. It is concerned with the cognitive processes and dynamics involved in individuals’ production of written words and touches upon a variety of topics, such as the role of phonology for writing, learning to spell, bilingual spelling, writing and language disorders, interplay of letter production and perception, individual differences and variability in writing, and neurophysiological correlates of writing.

The book is divided into three parts after a general introductory chapter: (1) Theoretical and Empirical Section, (2) Methodological Section, and (3) Conclusions. Each section consists of 2-5 stand-alone chapters, each tackling a unique aspect of writing research.

The introductory chapter “Writing Words: a Brief Introduction” by the volume’s editors Cyril Perret and Thierry Olive provides an overview of the cognitive processes involved in writing words, a short introduction to methods used to study written word production, and the presentation of two central issues in writing research. This is followed by an overview over the following chapters of the book and how they relate to each other.

The first section of the book focuses on theoretical and empirical issues in word production, starting with “A Role of Phonology in Orthographic Production? A historical Perspective and Some New Evidence” by Markus F. Damian. This chapter tackles the issue of the contribution of phonology to orthographic production from by taking a historical perspective, reviewing the evolvement of theories of spoken and written language processing, and then outlining some relevant experimental evidence sorted by task. The chapter end with a short outlook on several issues that remain to be solved, among them the comparison of different scripts, single vs. multiple words, individual differences, and the time-course of writing.

The next chapter, “Implicit Statistical Learning of Graphotactic Knowledge and Lexical Orthographic Acquisition” by Sébastien Pacton, Michel Fayol, Marion Nys, and Ronald Peereman, takes a developmental perspective. It reviews evidence on how children’s sensitivity to and knowledge of graphotactic regularities influences their spelling of pseudowords as well as novel and familiar real words.

Chapter 4, “BAST: a Theory of Bilingual Spelling in Alphabetic Systems” by Marie-Josèphe Tainturier, is concerned with spelling abilities and processes in individuals with more than one language. After shortly reviewing theories on monolingual spelling in alphabetic languages and bilingual spoken word production, the author proposes a theory of bilingual spelling and describes the involved lexical and sublexical processes in detail.

Chapter 5, “The Role of Handwriting in Reading: Behavioral and Neurophysiological Evidence of Motor Involvement in Letter Recognition” by Yannick Wamain, considers the interplay of action and perception. Grounded in theories of embodied cognition, he examines how the motor processes of writing letters also impact on their recognition. He also discusses the consequences this has on learning to read and write.

The last chapter of the first section is “Struggling with Writing: an Examination of Writing Difficulties in Specific Language Impairment, Developmental Dyslexia and Developmental Coordination Disorder” by Olivia Alfonso, Vincent Connelly, and Anna L. Barnett. This chapter discusses different error patterns in individuals with atypical development that is related to spelling difficulties.

The second section (“Methodological Section”) of the book begins with a chapter on “Task Differences and Individual Differences in Skilled Spelling” by Patrick Bonin and Alain Méot. The authors start out by discussing findings from written naming and spelling to dictation. They then illustrate how these tasks can be used to examine interindividual differences. Finally, they reflect on whether and how findings from these tasks can be generalized to other tasks.

Chapter 8 by Olivia Afonso and Carlos J. Álvarez is dedicated to “Measuring Writing Durations in Handwriting Research: What Do They Tell Us about the Spelling Process?”. The authors focus on the distinction and interrelation between central and peripheral processes in writing, how they can be assessed using writing durations and what the limits of this methodology are.

Chapter 9 by Laurence Séraphon-Thibon, Silvain Gerber, and Sonia Kandel is concerned with “Analyzing Variability in Upper-Case Letter Production in Adults”. This chapter introduces the measurement of stroke durations as a methodology. It then presents an experimental study measuring stroke and in-air movements in writing in order to quantify variability in this task. The results show remarkable consistency in the number of strokes in handwriting.

In the last chapter of the second section, Cyril Perret and Qingqing Qu introduce “EEG Methods of Exploring Written Word Production”. By means of two example studies, they show how electrophysiological recordings can be used as an additional source of information in writing research, especially to answer questions about the spatio-temporal dynamics of effects that have been previously found in behavioral studies.

The conclusions part starts with a chapter by Michel Fayol recapitulating the main issues the previous parts have touched upon in relation to single word production. He then outlines two key question to be explored in future research, extending to sentence and text production. He ends with a short reflection on words as processing units.

The final chapter by Brenda Rapp, “Writing Research in the 21st Century”, places writing research in a contemporary perspective. She argues why it is important in a digitalized world and how it can provide insights into current questions about mind and brain. She then outlines the way forward with a focus on methodologies that promise further insights, from neuroimaging, over patient studies, to computational modelling.


The volume presents a nice collection of current issues and state-of-the-art research concerning the spelling and writing of single words. The topic is timely and should be of interest for researchers from a variety of disciplines, such as psycholinguistics, cognitive and developmental psychology, education, and neuroscience. The chapters are a potpourri of different takes on the topic, thus nicely reflecting the diversity of both the question and methods of on-going research in the field. The broad take on the topic of spelling and writing is clearly the big strength of the volume, but it is also the cause of its greatest weakness, namely the internal coherence, which suffers from this broadness in some parts.

The required background knowledge, detail of explanation, stringency and quality vary greatly between chapters. Some chapters could have used more attentive proof-reading, for example Chapter 5 contains many grammatical errors that disturb the reading.

The book might not be ideal as an introductory reading for students, as it requires some linguistic and experimental knowledge. For example, the introduction chapter talks about “microaccelerations” without explaining what they are and why their measurement could be useful. For researchers working on related topics, such as language development or reading, who would like to gain an impression of the key issues and methodologies in writing research, it provides, however, a useful overview over current issues in the field.

The separation into a “theoretical and empirical” and a “methodological” section is, in my opinion, not ideal. From this division, I would have expected that the first section is focused almost only on theories and questions, leaving out methodologies, whereas the second section systematically introduces the methods available to answer the questions. Instead, due to a heavy focus on empirical evidence in the first section, many research paradigms are already introduced “on the fly”. This could be slightly overwhelming for students lacking this background. For advanced researchers with some previous knowledge, this should not be problematic. Researchers interested particularly in methods of writing research should, however, not be lured by the division into sections, as they can also find valuable information about the research paradigm in sections other than the methodological one. The mixing of methods, evidence and theories makes the division into the sections slightly artificial, and it could have been left out.

The concluding chapter by Brenda Rapp especially stands out for me in its clarity and ability to contextualize the topic, summarize main issues and point out the most pressing enterprises for the future. Especially impressive is her finally statement on the goal for 21st century research on writing, which “must be to develop detailed theories of the writing process that explain and predict individual human performance and also serve as the basis of optimized, personalized intervention in cases of impairment. It must be clear from this volume that it is through the continued deployment of these highly productive empirical methods, their increased integration and the development of computationally explicit models that progress towards this goal will continue to be made” (p.222).
Jana Hasenäcker is a psycholinguist at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy. She is interested in the mechanisms and representations involved in visual word recognition in skilled and developing readers.