Short Vowel Substitution in Third Grade in Reading and Spelling.

Carol A. Sullivan, M.S.
Roy F. Sullivan, Ph.D.
Rebecca F. Kooper, Au.D.​

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A criterion-referenced instrument of monosyllabic real- and non-words was developed to probe internalized phonological/orthographic rules of 275 third grade students for spelling and reading of short vowels and silent /e/ vowel monosyllables. Statistically significant external correlations include: Benchmark (r=.60), ELA (r=.41), IQ (r=.29). Consistent vowel substitution patterns provide remedial direction.


Children acquire spoken language with little awareness, whereas they must consciously think about individual phonemes used in sound/symbol relationships and apply them to orthographic patterns (Apel & Apel, 2011). This research uniquely examines in depth, short vowel patterns applied in the automaticity of reading and spelling. These errors can be detected randomly in current standardized reading tests without consideration to phonological neighborhoods and regularity of use. Persistent short vowel errors inhibit accurate, fluent reading and writing. Targeted identification of these errors leads to focused short term intervention across disciplines.


This study arose from the expressed need of a suburban school district for timely and efficient identification of phonological and orthographic deficiencies in short vowel proficiency as a potential impediment to future efficiencies in learning. To that end, in 2005, a sampling of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students was evaluated to determine the feasibility of concurrently assessing orthographic and phonological acquisition of short vowel skills in reading and spelling. Based on performance, 3rd grade was selected as the target population for this detailed study.


A short vowel assessment instrument was constructed using monosyllabic real and non-words in CVC (short vowel) and CCVCC (short vowel and silent /e/) formats, balancing target vowel occurrences, consonants and blends while avoiding homonyms. Given the inverse relationship between word-frequency and time required for perception (Hall, 1953), thirty low probability monosyllabic words were selected from catalogued vocabularies. (Thorndike, 1968; British National Corpus, via Webster’s Online Dictionary, Rosetta Edition). Monophonic and biphonic phonotactic probabilities (Vitevitch, 2004) did not differ for real and non-word items (P>.10). Subsequent validation of real word frequency counts (=4.4/10^6;SE=0.8) was obtained using the Corpus of Contemporary English (Davies, 2008)

Based on an analysis of potential real- and non-word monosyllabic test items in 2005-2006, 60 items were selected for use both in reading and spelling assessment. Thirty items were real words and 30 items were non-words. The basic instrument design includes 2 groups of 20 words each incorporating two instances of each short vowel {I/E/A/O/U} 10 CVC (real words, tab,rut),(non-words: vip,tob) and 10 CCVCC (real words: hack,clot; non-words,: shug, glesh). A third group of 10 silent /e/ long vowel {aI/EI/o-oU/u-ju} monosyllables (real words, mute,cone), (non-words: nide,bave ) served as a cross-check on the integrity of discrimination between short and long vowels. This format was presented in the following task sequence: spelling non-words(Sn), spelling real words(Sr); one-to-four weeks later, the same 60 items were applied to reading non-words(Rn), and reading real words(Rr). Spelling was tested in a class-sized group context, average duration 20 minutes. Reading was evaluated individually, typically 3 minutes per child. A vowel-matched, split-half analysis of 120 test items for all 275 students indicates a high degree of internal reliability (Cronbach a=.98).


Test administration was performed in two stages. Spelling non-word and real, was tested by SLPs using a classroom FM sound field system to assure consistent acoustic access. The child’s task was to hand-write the spelling words dictated twice in isolation, following the prompt; “Write the word you hear”. Timing of test administration was systematic and rapid in order to capture the automaticity of the phonological-orthographic response. After 1-4 weeks, the reading portion was administered individually by SLPs.


Scoring and Analysis:

Spelling results were scored by SLPs on-site, facilitating in situ categorization of student responses. A computer application was developed by the authors, converting both reading and spelling responses to a keyboard-compatible SAMPA (Wells, 1997) phonetic code. This enabled a direct comparison of virtual phonology, generated by the spelling response, with actual phonology, generated by the reading response. Results of the four subtest segments (Sn, Sr, Rn, Rr) , processed by short vowel error type, were presented in tabular and graphic formats. In addition to scoring subtest outcomes, a summary page displays all responses, highlighting errors, including initial and final consonants. A weighted total % error score is calculated: 2/3 short vowel and 1/3 silent /e/. Intervention priority levels are designated: High=5-8 errors/vowel; Mid-=3-4 errors per vowel; Low=2 errors per vowel ; N/A=0-1 error per vowel.

Summary findings follow, based on 33,000 vowel data points, N=275.

​• Mean error score of total items incorrect (N=275) was 12.32% , ranging from 72% to 0%; median error score: 8.3%; modal error score: 1.7%.


(• Mean total items correct (N=275) was 87.68% , ranging from 38% to 100%; median 91.7%; mode 98.3%.)


• Short vowel substitution errors display consistent cluster patterns both in phonological neighborhoods and on long-vowel cognates.


• Long vowel, silent /e/ rule substitution errors cluster in phonological neighborhoods and on short vowel cognates.

• Short vowel errors (N items=2329): [O]:29.5%; [U]:25,5%; [E]:21.7%; [I]:13.0%; [A]:10.2%.

• Silent /e/ long vowel errors (N items=1735): [o/oU]:30.8%; [aI]:29.0%; [u/ju]:22.7% ; [e/eI]:17.5%

• CSE-designated case error performance: SLI:19.8% (N=22); LD:25.0% (N=19); Other Health:11.1% (N=10); Autism:8.7%(N=7); HI:8.7%. (N=2).

• Correlation spelling with reading: r=.79, P <.0001.


• Correlation total score w/ F&P Benchmark (*N=78): r=.60, P<.0001.


• Correlation total score w/ contemporary NYS ELA: r=.41; P=.0001.

• Correlation total w/ forward ELA scores +1 year r=.39; +2 years r=.19; +3 years r=.28; + 4years r=.26.


• Correlation total w/ Otis IQ: r=.29; P < .0001

Clinical Intervention:

Diagnostic categorical information derived from these data provides a documented, prescriptive basis for targeted remediation strategies to correct the identified short vowel errors. These strategies tap the phonological loop for auditory and verbal processing. (Fuchs, et al., 2011) Remediation techniques include: auditory training, association of sound/symbol relationships, auditory differentiation between target vowel and error vowel, and application of skills to real- and non-words.

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