Elliott, G. and Johnson, N. (2009). All the right letters – just not necessarily in the right order. Spelling errors in a sample of GCSE English scripts. Research Matters: A Cambridge University Press & Assessment publication, A selection of articles (2011) 22-27. First published in Research Matters, Issue 7, January 2009
For the past ten years, Cambridge Assessment has been running a series of investigations into features of GCSE English candidates’ writing – the Aspects of Writing study (Massey et al., 1996, Massey et al., 2005). The studies have sampled a fragment of writing taken from the narrative writing of 30 boys and 30 girls at every grade at GCSE. Features investigated have included the correct and incorrect use of various forms of punctuation, sophistication of vocabulary, non-standard English, sentence types and the frequency of spelling errors. This paper provides a more detailed analysis of the nature of the spelling errors identified in the sample of work obtained for the Aspects of Writing project from unit 3 (Literary heritage and Imaginative Writing) of the 2004 OCR GCSE examination in English. Are there certain types of spelling error which occur more frequently than others? Do particular words crop up over and over again? How many errors relate to well-known spelling rules, such as “I before E except after C”?
The study identified 345 spelling errors in 11,730 words written, and these were reported in Massey et al. (2005), with a comparison by grade with samples of writing from 1980, 1993 and 1994. It was shown that a considerable decline in spelling in the early 1990s (compared with 1980) had been halted, and at the lower grades, improved.
Since then, we have conducted a detailed analysis of the 345 misspelled words to see if there is evidence of particular types of error. Each misspelling has been categorised, and five broad types of error identified. These are sound-based errors, rules-based errors, errors of commission, omission and transposition, writing errors and multiple errors. This paper will present a detailed examination of the misspellings and the process of developing the categorisation system used. A number of words – woman, were, where, watch(ing), too and the homophones there/their and knew/new are identified as being the most frequently misspelled words. Implications for the findings upon teaching and literacy policy are discussed.