In the last decade or two, researchers have been able to take advantage of larger numbers of test subjects and better data analysis methods to come up with interesting new ideas on why people make spelling mistakes. This is useful information for parents and teachers who are looking for ways to help children learn to spell, and also for adults who find they’re making mistakes more often than they’d like. By using these studies to identify the most frequent mistakes, it helps people target these errors and focus on eliminating them. Many of these studies are done using groups of children, because it’s during the early years of education that children learn how to spell correctly. One of the most comprehensive studies was done in 1995 by Ronald Cramer and James Cipielewski, and involved over 18,000 children, resulting in an excellent overview of common spelling errors.
One of the most common mistakes was using the wrong vowel; in fact, over one-third of the total errors made were due to this type of mistake. It’s easy to understand why so many students confused the vowels in words, since the relationship between sounds and letters is often unclear for English vowels. For the most part, the students used vowels or vowel clusters that represented the correct sound when used in other words, just not the particular word they were spelling. For example, think of word and bird and heard (and say them out loud to test the sounds) – the vowels in combination with the letter r all make the same sound, but all are spelled differently. It’s not surprising when children take the familiar spelling of bird and logically, to them, try to spell the others as wird and hird. One way to help children avoid this error is to practice these different phonemes and the various ways they can be spelled. Once they’ve seen the alternate spellings of a sound, they’ll find it easier to remember.
Another pattern that emerged from the study was the frequent dropping of doubled letters. It’s hard to explain why words like letter and missile use double consonants, because the t and s sounds don’t change. In this case, vowels are easier to understand, because there’s an obvious difference between the sounds of single and double vowels, from the short to the long vowel sounds. The difference between loot and lot is easy to see and hear. Of course, there’s the issue of explaining the word look (in most cases pronounced LEUK and not LOOHK) and why that’s a doubled vowel as well, but again, presenting these words together for consideration will eliminate a lot of confusion.
The next most common mistake, one which many adults continue to make, is confusing spellings of homophones. The study found that the words too/to/two and they’re/their/there occurred at all grade levels. Only regular practice with word groups like this will help children (and adults!) overcome the tendency for errors. Again, once a student sees these groups together and focuses on learning the correct spelling and usage of each, the better they’ll be able to automatically spell them in the future.
Reference: R.L. Cramer, J. F. Cipielewski. Research in Action: A Study of Spelling Errors in 18,599 Written Compositions of Children in Grades 1-8. Spelling Research and Information: An Overview of Current Research and Practices. (1995)