Pupils aged 11 and 15 'make few spelling errors'

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MOST 15-year-olds and 11-year-olds make few spelling mistakes in general writing tasks, according to a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales.

The report, which may challenge the view of some traditionalists that the nation's spelling is in a desperate state, found that from a sample of 1,500 scripts, more than half contained no errors, or only one error, in the first 10 lines. The average number of errors for both age groups in 10 lines was 2.2, while 40 per cent of the 15-year-olds made no mistakes.

The scripts, representing approximately equal numbers of 15-year-olds and 11-year-olds, boys and girls, were collected during Assessment of Performance Unit Language Monitoring surveys between 1979 and 1988.

The report found that there was considerable improvement in spelling ability between 11 and 15 and that the spelling of 11-year-olds in 1988 was better than that of 11-year-olds in 1979. Girls were better spellers than boys, in both age groups.

The report concludes: 'The general picture derived from these results can be interpreted as quite good. When producing 'general' writing, most 15-year-olds, and indeed most 11-year-olds, can show control of a great deal of the English spelling system. They make few errors, and most of the errors they make are slight and would not hinder communication.'

However, about 6 per cent of 15-year-olds were found to have 'relatively severe' problems with spelling, 'to the extent that their ability to communicate effectively in writing is seriously handicapped'.

Two general writing tasks were analysed for the report: an argumentative task, where both age groups had to state a rule that they were familiar with, and then discuss it, and a narrative task - for 11-year-olds, an account of their earliest memory, and for 15-year-olds, a story suitable for reading to a 4- or 5-year-old. Pupils made more spelling mistakes in the argumentative piece of writing - perhaps, the report suggests, because of the more complex conceptual and linguistic demands.

The pieces were judged for their overall impression, and the report found that, in general, spelling ability corresponded to ability in the 'compositional' aspects of writing - content, organisation and style. A small number of pupils (fewer than 1 per cent at age 15) were considered to be good writers, but had specific difficulties with spelling.

Three-quarters of all errors involved a single letter, and the most frequent type of error occurred over same-sounding words.

Spelling It Out: The spelling abilities of 11- and 15-year-olds. NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, Berkshire SL1 2DQ.