Pollo, Tatiana Cury, Rebecca Treiman, & Brett Kessler. 2006, July. How do preschoolers use letter names to select spellings? Poster presented at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading (SSSR), Vancouver, Canada.


We examined use of letter-name spelling strategies when target phoneme sequences match letter names with different degrees of precision. Portuguese-speaking preschoolers often used Q when spelling words and nonwords beginning with /ke/ (its letter name) or /ɡe/, and H for stimuli beginning with /ɡa/ (the stressed syllable in its letter name) or /ka/; they did not use these letters when stimuli began with other sequences. Thus their spellings evinced use of letter-name matches primarily when consonant-vowel sequences matched, such that vowels must be exact but consonants could differ in voicing from the target phoneme.


Children exploit full letter names when attempting to spell. For example, young English speakers may spell CR for "car," using R to spell its full name /ɑr/. However, little is known about how beginning spellers might use partial and/or inexact matches between letter names and sound sequences in words being written. Hebrew-speaking children take advantage of partial letter names when spelling consonants (Levin, Patel, Margalit, & Barad, 2002), but evidence for Portuguese is mixed. Cardoso-Martins and Batista (in press) found no evidence, but Pollo, Treiman, and Kessler (2005) found that preschoolers used H (which is a silent letter named /aˈɡa/) to spell words beginning with /ɡa/ and even /ka/. If children use letters whose name only partially or inexactly matches the target sequence, letter-name strategies may be much broader than previously suspected.

Our experiment extended Pollo, Treiman, and Kessler (2005) by using a within-subjects design and nonword stimuli that were more balanced phonetically. We added items that differed from /ɡ/ only in place of articulation in order to determine whether voicing and place play different roles when children match sound sequences to letter names. To investigate whether the results generalize beyond H, we added nonwords starting with /ɡe/ and /ke/ and analyzed children’s use of Q, named /ke/, to spell those nonwords. Children used H for /ɡa/ 20% of the time and 9% of the time for /ka/. Importantly, children did not use H for nonwords that differed from /ɡa/ only in place of articulation or that had a different vowel. Children used Q for /ɡe/ 22% of the time and for /ke/ 32% of the time. These latter results show that similar effects occurred with Q as with H.

The results extend our knowledge of how children select letters by reference to their letter names. The data indicate a strategy intermediate between using letters when their whole name is found in a target word and the more sophisticated strategy that recognizes that letters usually spell only the initial phoneme in their name. Apparently children not yet capable of extracting phonemes are capable of matching target words with letter names on a syllable-by-syllable basis. Children whose spellings seem random and prealphabetical may in fact be using phonological strategies more than has been realized, because the patterns uncovered here may not always be easily detected. On the one hand, these beginning spellers will usually fail to spell consonants correctly, because consonants are not usually followed by the same vowel found in their letter name. On the other hand, children’s use of letters for consonants that differ in voicing may go unacknowledged as a phonological strategy, because spellings such as H for /k/ are so completely foreign to the standard way in which adults use the alphabet.



Poster in Microsoft PowerPoint format (.ppt).

APA citation:

Pollo, T. C., Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2006, July). How do preschoolers use letter names to select spellings? Poster presented at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, Vancouver, Canada.

Last change 2009-08-07T11:09:46-0500