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"I leik aiskrim": Cognitive and linguistic predictors of young L2 learners' spelling ability

by Heike Mlakra & Joanna Hirst-Plein (University of Hildesheim, Germany)



Writing skills have gained in significance for young learners over the past decades with the real-life use of digital technologies and a more text-based society (Lindgren & Muñoz, 2013; Brandt, 2015). Written communication, often considered a secondary skill, relies on correct spelling to encode inner speech and to convey intended meaning to the reader (Helms-Park et al., 2015). As a central, lower-level component of the writing process, spelling requires precise recall and production of orthographic representation (Berninger & Amtmann, 2003; Treiman, 2017). Conversely, continued cognitive overload while spelling can have detrimental effects on the subsequent development of writing skills (Graham et al., 1997; Hayes & Berninger, 2014; Kellogg, 2008). This poses increasing challenges for young L2 learners in instructed settings where L2 spelling acquisition remains a neglected skill (Beinke, 2020). In general, predictors for L2 literacy acquisition are executive functions, lexical access and phonological awareness; however, their role in spelling has been under-researched (Harrison et al., 2016). Empirical findings on the effects of language-related and cognitive predictors of L2 spelling are scarce and findings for young learners’ L2 spelling ability are mixed (Czapka et al., 2019).

The present study investigates the effects of cognitive and linguistic factors on young learners’ L2 spelling acquisition. More specifically, our aim was to examine correlations between L2 spelling acquisition and learners’ working memory, phonological short-term memory, phonological awareness, non-verbal intelligence, L2 lexical/grammar knowledge and L2 reading comprehension. Furthermore, we explored the question which cognitive and linguistic variables best predict young learners’ L2 spelling skills. Participants (N=75) were grade 3 and grade 4 pupils at two primary schools in Lower Saxony, Germany. Learners completed six measures of cognitive and linguistic skills, one L2 reading comprehension test, and a real word and pseudoword spelling test to explore L2 spelling proficiency.

Correlations and multiple regression analyses were conducted in order to identify major component skills and knowledge bases needed for L2 spelling acquisition. In our talk, we will discuss why certain variables might affect learners’ L2 spelling skills and to what extent they might explain spelling variance. Based on our findings, we will also discuss recommendations regarding teaching practices that can assist in developing learners’ L2 spelling ability.




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