Spelling Nonsense Words Requires Rules Useful in Spelling Nonsense Words

Study Reviewed:

 P. Mitchell, N. Kemp, & P. Bryant. (2011). Variations among adults in their use of morphemic spelling rules and word-specific knowledge when spelling. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(2), 119-133.

There’s no better way to start a discussion of almost any topic related to reading and writing than a quote from Frank Smith.  Here’s one from Writing and the Writer (1994) on spelling:

It is hardly less complicated to remember that a particular animal is called a “horse” then to remember that the spelling of “horse” is h-o-r-s-e. And that is the basic way in which we remember the spelling of words that we can spell. At the risk of sounding banal, I have to point out that the way we demonstrate our knowledge of the spelling of a particular word is by saying what that spelling is. We do not pause to think about how the word sounds (unless we do not know how to spell it), nor do we hesitate over the possible application of particular spelling “rules” (unless again we do not know how to spell the word). But if we know how to spell word (or think we know), out the spelling comes. How do you spell “horse”? H-o-r-s-e. How do you spell “cart”? C-a-r-t. And that is the way it is, for all of the thousands of words that we can spell (or think we can spell). If we can spell the word, is because we have remembered the spelling. (p. 149)

And now, our study:


The researchers were attempting to determine whether their college-age subjects knew and could apply two “simple” spelling rules in English when presented with words that they had never seen before, and therefore could only spell by following a spelling rule.  To do this, they followed a very common procedure in psychological experiments of using pseudowords - made-up, “nonsense” words like kinkle and gries that look like they could be real words in English but aren’t.

The first rule involves the spelling of the /z/ sound at the end of a word.  Plurals in English are formed by adding an s, which can produce an /s/ sound as in cats or /z/ sound as in dogs (with exceptions such as dishes).  Third-person singular verbs can also produce either an /s/ sound as in walks or a /z/ sound as in runs.

But some words have a /z/ sound at the end that are spelled with se, ze, or zz, as in “please,” “freeze,” and “buzz.” These are neither plural nouns nor third-person singular verbs. Thus, the “morphological spelling rule” is that when the word is a plural noun or third-person singular verb and ends in a /z/ sound, spell it with an s; when it isn’t a plural or third-person singular, use the se, ze, or zz spelling.

The second rule tested involved the /ks/ sound.  In third-person singular verbs, it is spelled with a ks or kes as in socks, picks, and bakes. Otherwise, it is spelled with an x or xe, as in box, axe, and fix.

If you have learned (consciously) or acquired (unconsciously) these rules, you could then spell new words with the /z/ or /ks/ sound by determining whether or not they were “inflected” (in this case, plural nouns or third-person singular verbs). If you didn’t know the rule, you would have to guess and essentially perform no better than chance on a test of the rules.  The researchers attempted to see if college students would differ from their non-college-enrolled age mates in their knowledge of these “simple” rules.


Two groups participated in the study: recent high-school graduates (mean age: 19.9) about to enter basic training in the British military (N = 205), which we’ll refer to as “nonstudents,” and a group of university students (mean age: 24.8) (N = 72), hereafter referred to as “students.”


Both groups were administered the same measures of spelling competence.  These included:

1. A group-administered dictation test of 40 real English words from a standardized test of literacy achievement (the WRAT). Words were dictated to the subjects in increasing order of difficulty and students had to write down their answers.

2. A real word Spelling Choice test, where students were presented with 14 sentences, each with two possible spellings of the target word. These (real) English words all contained the /ks/ sound.

3.  A set of pseudoword spelling choice tests with invented or pseudowords placed in sentences that would indicate either an inflected ending (plural or third-person singular, with the –s or -ks/kes spelling) or uninflected ended (with the -se/ze/z or –x/xe spelling).  For example, subjects saw sentences such as:

 Would you like a spees/speeze?

Applying the morphological spelling rule, the correct answer to our sample sentence is “speeze,” since it is neither a plural noun nor a third-person singular verb.  If the sentence had been:

I’ll have three spees/speeze to go, please.

then the correct spelling would be “spees,” as a plural noun.


Both the nonstudent and student groups took the same tests.  Table 1 summarizes some of the results.

Table 1: Results on Real-Word and Pseudoword Spelling Tests

(Maximum = 40)
Real-Word Spelling Choice on /ks/ words
(Maximum = 14)
Pseudoword Spelling Tests
(Percentage scoring better than chance on 3 of 4 measures)
Standard deviations in parentheses

Both nonstudents and students scored well on the real word spelling measures.  Both groups did either perfectly or nearly so on the Spelling Choice test with the /ks/ words. Students outscored nonstudents on the WRAT test (effect size: d = 1.28). However, given that the WRAT test begins with “easy” real words to spell and moves on to more progressively difficult ones, the average nonstudent score seems to indicate that they are reasonably good spellers for common words, getting only around 20% fewer correct answers than the (somewhat older) university-educated students.

The big difference between the groups was their performance on the pseudoword or nonsense word tests, where only 7.4% of the nonstudents scored above chance on three of the four measures, compared to 82% of the college students.

ANCOVA analysis was performed, with performance on the WRAT test used as a covariate.  The effect size for the covariate was significant for both the nonstudents (partial eta squared = .19) and students (.01).  In other words, good real word spellers are good pseudoword spellers.

The researchers conclude that their results show that “many adults use word-specific, rather than morphological, spelling knowledge” (p. 130). The speculate on the reasons for the difference in performance between students and nonstudents:

 We collected our data in the years 2004-2006, and in the preceding two decades, when our participants were schoolchildren, teachers in the United Kingdom provided very little instruction about the link between morphology and spelling (Nunes & Bryant, 2006). Therefore, most people’s knowledge of these rules was self-taught and probably depended a great deal on their childhood interest in and experiences with reading and writing, which may be closely related to their later decision to go to university. (p. 130)

Mitchell et al. believe, then, that the neither group (students and nonstudents) were taught these rules in school. The students “taught” themselves these rules by means of their more extensive reading and writing growing up, and were thus able to perform better on the nonsense word tests than the nonstudents, who apparently did not teach themselves the rules.


1. The failure to learn the morphological spelling rules in question did not seem to do the nonstudents any harm in spelling real words. Only a handful of them got even one wrong on the real word spelling test of the /ks/ rule. The nonstudents also did respectably well on the general spelling test, as noted above.  Their only real downfall came in the pseudoword spelling tests.  Is this important?

Hypothetically, the nonstudents may someday hear a word ending in a /z/ sound they have never seen in print.  And, hypothetically, they then may be forced to spell the word on a form or in an email, before having a chance to read it a sufficient number of times to acquire it by the “word-specific” route. Hypothetically, then, they would certainly be at a disadvantage. But this strikes me as a rather infrequent situation for a literate adult.

As the researchers themselves point out, studies show that most adults are very good spellers.  They are able to correctly spell almost all of the words they select to use in written communication. There is no crisis in adult spelling, and never has been.

2. The authors state the neither group is likely to have been taught the rules in school. The clear implication, especially for the nonstudents, is if they had been taught the rules, they would have done better on pseudoword tests. The evidence on the effectiveness of spelling instruction, however, casts considerable doubt on this assumption (Krashen, 1989; 2004). Spelling instruction is often no more effective than no instruction, and the effects tend to fade over time (Hammill, Larsen, & McNutt, 1977).

There is no good reason to believe that, had U.K. teachers spent their time teaching morphological spelling rules, the nonstudent group would have done any better. The fact that the good spellers were also the good nonsense word spellers suggests that both competencies are acquired from a single source, and that source is almost certainly reading. The burden of proof here is on the researchers to show that teaching schoolchildren morphological spelling rules would make a significant difference in the spelling competence of adults. (And remember that these were considered “simple” rules by the researchers, ones which I had to read several times to make sure my explanation of them for this post was correct!)

3. The subjects who successfully spelled the nonsense words clearly had to resort to a rule, whether consciously learned (unlikely) or unconsciously acquired through reading.  But what about the students’ real word spelling? The fact that the rules were known and applied on the pseudoword test does not mean that they were used in the case of real words, where “word-specific” acquisition could have been the source of spelling competence for the students just as much as it was for the nonstudents.

It may be that all spelling related to /z/- and /ks/-sound words in the study – and perhaps most all of our spelling competence, period – comes from “word-specific” knowledge obtained via reading, and not from the application of morphological spelling rules.  When we do acquire metalinguistic rules on top of that word-specific knowledge, such rules may only be invoked in those cases where word-specific knowledge fails us, which, for most literate adults, would happen mostly on tests with pseudowords.

To put it another way, the rules that you need to spell nonsense words are primarily useful for spelling nonsense words.

Works Cited

Hammill, D., S. Larsen, & G. McNutt. (1977). The effect of spelling instruction: A preliminary study. Elementary School Journal, 78, 67-72.

Krashen, S. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the Input HypothesisModern Language Journal, 73(4), 440-464.

Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. 2nd edition. Portsmouth, NH:Heinemann.

Smith, F. (1994). Writing and the Writer. 2nd edition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Hillsdale New Jersey