Dichotomizing spelling errors to examine language and executive function abilities in children at risk of reading failure



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Substantial evidence emphasizing the importance of linguistic systems in reading acquisition, as well as emerging literature identifying the contribution of executive function to linguistic-based difficulties, underscores the importance of clarifying the neurocognitive mechanisms affecting reading performance. Research demonstrating the interrelationship between reading and spelling, coupled with neurocognitive theories of spelling, suggests that analysis of children’s spelling attempts may capture more subtle differences in their understanding of how to decode text. This study aimed to determine the utility of applying a spelling error analysis system as a method for differentiating between reading difficulties resulting from executive dysfunction or language deficits in a sample of children at risk for reading failure.

The present study examined the relationship between executive function, language, and spelling achievement in a sample of 82 children aged 6-15 years identified as having a reading deficit and/or diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Hierarchical regression analyses indicated language-based skills, particularly word reading, and age significantly predicted the phonemic equivalency of misspellings. Tasks of executive functioning were not found to significantly contribute to performance on phonological spelling; however, analysis of group differences suggest that ADHD and Reading Deficit groups demonstrated unique cognitive profiles, including distinct performances on executive functioning tasks. Exploratory analyses also revealed that ADHD and Reading Deficit groups differed significantly in phonological spelling performance.

Results from the current study provide evidence for the presence of two distinct underlying cognitive processes affecting spelling and, in effect, reading. Current findings have implications for the need to further examine characteristic deficits in language and executive functioning affecting children at risk for reading failure. Findings also provide support for the validity of further investigating the potential to infer differential diagnostic categories using a phonological spelling analysis. The use of an analysis of spelling errors as a diagnostic data source holds promise for a better understanding of reading failure and, ultimately, may contribute to more effective intervention practices.