First- and Second-Language Learnability Explained by Orthographic Depth and Orthographic Learning: A “Natural” Scandinavian Experiment

  • Victor H. P. van Daal, Malin Wass
  • Scientific Studies of Reading, November 2016, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2016.1251437

What is it about?

We asked whether children would more easily learn a language with consistent letter-sound relations (Swedish) than a language with inconsistent letter-sound relations (Danish). Swedish and Danish have many words in common that only differ in consistency of the letter-sound relations, a feature we used to make a fair comparison between Danish and Swedish children. We found that Swedish children indeed outperformed their Danish counterparts in reading and spelling attainment, not only in their first language, but also in English as a second language. In addition, we found that Swedish children were better than Danish children in underpinning skills, such as vocabulary, phonological memory and novel word learning. These findings should have consequences for reading and spelling instruction in languages with inconsistent letter-sound relations, such as English, Danish, and Portuguese.

Why is it important?

- What was investigated? This is the first cross-linguistic study to examine effects of orthographic learning (novel word learning) over and above phonological memory and vocabulary on literacy learning. Because the first languages only differ in consistency of letter-sound relations, this aspect of the orthographic depth hypothesis could be tested. This is also the first study that extends the impact of orthographic learning to second language learning. - Why did we undertake the research? Looking into the role of orthographic learning is important to explain individual differences in fluent reading, especially beyond foundation stages, about which little is known. The orthographic depth hypothesis, which predicts that shallow orthographies are easier to learn than deep orthographies, is tested also across languages, instead of within a language, as was done previously. - How did we conduct the study? (1) We took full advantage of very similar orthographies differing in only one dimension, letter-sound consistency, by using cognates across languages. (2) A novel word learning task was used that has high ecological validity, because it is a dynamic measure of orthographic learning which fully controls for reading experience. - What will the reader learn? Languages differ in how easily they are acquired, depending on their orthographic depth. Deep orthographies are still hard to learn beyond foundation stages. Orthographic learning is a determinant of literacy acquisition in both L1 and L2 over and above vocabulary and phonological working memory. - Why do we think it is important for the reader to know? Orthographic learning skill makes fluent reading and proficient spelling possible. - How are the claims made justified by the methods used? Dynamic novel word learning task, frequency-balanced cognates and step-down MANOVA analysis.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Victor HP van Daal and Malin Wass