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Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2018

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Young children begin to learn about characteristics of their writing system even before they receive formal schooling. Such early knowledge has been found to predict formal literacy acquisition. However, researchers have not paid much attention to preschool-aged childrenճ knowledge about writing. To help address some gaps and controversies in the literature on early spelling development, the present dissertation examined what preschool children knew about several aspects of the English writing system and how such knowledge might be different in children with different spelling abilities.

Study 1 explored preschool childrenճ knowledge of one graphotactic pattern: the frequency with which letters co-occur in print. Four- to 5-year-old children completed a delayed copying task, in which they saw a nonword for 20 seconds and were then asked to reproduce the nonword when it was removed from their view. Whereas some nonwords consisted of digrams that commonly occur in written materials targeted at young children (e.g., ched), others consisted of digrams that are rare (e.g., ehdc). Preschool children, even those who did not yet represent the sounds of words in spelling, copied nonwords with high-frequency digrams with less deviation than nonwords with low-frequency digrams. The findings suggest that, at an early age, children learn about which letters tend to occur together and use such general knowledge to process specific novel letter strings.

In Study 2, a large set of previously collected data was analyzed to examine whether the first soundЬetter correspondence in a childճ name (e.g., /k/Мcݠin Campbell) helped the child to use the correspondence in a plausible manner (e.g., using ܣݠfor /kel/ kale) more often than in an implausible manner (e.g., using ܣݠfor /mun/ moon). Such a name advantage in the use of correspondences was found to be influenced by childrenճ spelling ability. Children who did not yet represent the sounds of words used correspondences, including the first correspondence of their name plausibly as often as implausibly. Children who had begun to represent some sounds in words, however, used the first correspondence of their name appropriately (plausibly but not implausibly) more often than other correspondences. The findings of Study 2 shed light on how children transition into phonological spelling. That is, they use their existing knowledgeѫnowledge of their own namesѴo acquire new knowledge about how letters correspond to sounds in words.

As children begin to spell phonologically, they sometimes include intrusions, or letters that do not correspond to any of the sounds in words. Few studies have explored intrusion occurrence in novice spellers. Study 3 is the first study to have systematically examined this issue using a large set of previously collected data, asking questions such as how often intrusions occur in early phonological spellings, which letters tend to occur as intrusions, and where intrusions tend to occur in spelling responses. The findings show that intrusions are quite common among preschool children who have begun to spell phonologically, particularly those whose phonological spelling is less advanced. Letters are used intrusively in a way that reflects their availability to children. Common letters and letter groups, letters from childrenճ own names, and recently used letters are therefore particularly likely to occur as intrusions. Children tend to include intrusions in later parts of spelling responses, possibly reflecting their strategy of producing letters that they are confident in early on and resorting to intrusions to prevent short spellings.

Together, the present studies suggest that even preschool children understand a good deal about their writing system. Findings from the dissertation provide new insights into knowledge and processes involved in spelling during preschool years. These findings therefore have implications for theoretical perspectives of spelling development and spelling instruction.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Rebecca Treiman

Committee Members

David Balota, Heather Hayes, Brett Kessler, Lori Markson,


Permanent URL: 2020-08-23

Available for download on Monday, August 15, 2118

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