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«WHAT CAUSES SPELLING ERRORS OF THAI EFL STUDENTS? WORALAK BANCHA Abstract The present study aimed to investigate types of spelling inaccuracy and to ...»

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ARECLS, 2013, Vol.10, 107-129.




The present study aimed to investigate types of spelling inaccuracy and to examine the

causes of misspellings found in first year Thai university students' sentence writing.

Participants were 31 first year Thai university students at Prince of Songkla University

majoring in International Business (focusing on China). The findings showed ten types of spelling errors including consonant substitutions, vowel substitutions, space inaccuracy, confusion in writing scripts, inaccurate double consonants, inflectional endings, letter reversals, vowel omissions, and consonant omissions. The results revealed that differences between English and Thai writing systems were not the major causes of errors. In fact, it was the lack of adequate awareness of phonology and insufficient knowledge of inflectional morphology that were found to be the prime causes of their mistakes. Some implications are suggested here to improve teaching.

Key words: spelling errors, causes of spelling errors, orthography, writing systems, linguistic differences between L1 and L2 1 Introduction English writing skills are significant as it plays an important role in communication.

To convey messages effectively, accurate spelling is strongly required. Spelling is essential since one misspelling may change the meaning which the author intended to convey in the text (Fagerberg, 2006). Spelling in particular is one of the many English writing problems EFL students encounter, including Thai students. Considering all the writing errors made by Thai students, misspellings are found to be amongst the most frequent mistakes most students make (Sattayatham, and Ratanapinyowong, 2008; Na-ngam, 2005; Khaourai, 2002; Tananart, 2000). As Na-ngam (2005) highlights, misspellings are not found only in lower levels but also in higher levels. Although spelling is crucial for second language users to write with accuracy, there is still a limited number of research on this matter (Cook, 1997). Undoubtedly, knowing and understanding the causes of misspellings is one technique to help improve Thai students' spelling proficiency.

Background Thai writing system It may be difficult to gain insights into the reasons why Thai students produce spelling mistakes without understanding the Thai writing system. The writing system is defined by Coulmas (1999, p. 560) as ‘a set of visible or tactile signs used to represent units of language in a systematic way’. Thai is a sound-based written system. The sound-based writing links letters as written symbols or graphemes to sounds or phonemes (Cook, 2004). For example, ก in Thai corresponds to the phoneme /k/or the grapheme k in English.Thai scripts are originally Indic. Thai writing is written from left to right without spacing between words.

Spaces are implemented only to separate sentences and phrases. The Thai orthography

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instance, two consonant symbols ล, ฬ in Thai are equivalent to the grapheme l which corresponds to the phoneme /l/ in English, and there are 19 vowel symbols and 21 core vowel phonemes; for example, the Thai vowel ก /ku/ (Diller, 1996, p. 458). These consonants provide different sounds depending on their initial or final positions. Thai can be mapped between graphemes and phonemes, but there are multi-graphemes that correspond to phonemes, such as /tςh/, /kh/, /ph/, etc. Thai consonant letters are written in a linear order, but vowels can be put in any places: preceding, following, above, or below a consonant letter.

Thai is a tonal language consisting of five tonal marks which result in different tones and meanings of syllables and words (Winskel and Iemwanthong, 2009). Cook (2004) explains that the phonological route which converts letters to phonemes allows spellers to spell unseen or unknown words. Most sounds of Thai alphabetic symbols correspond to English letters and phonemes, so Thai students can spell words they have not seen or learned. Letter and sound correspondence also fosters students to memorize spelling. Therefore, it can be noted that correspondence between Thai graphemes and English phonemes can aid Thai students to cope with English spelling.

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Apart from knowing how the Thai writing system works, understanding why students make spelling errors is essential. A number of research conducted with students learning English at different levels as a second language or foreign language reveals some causes leading to misspelling. Many studies agree on the fact that the first main cause of spelling errors is irregularities of the English spelling system (Smith, 1973; Bahloul, 2007; Al-Hassan, 2011; Jayousi, 2011). The fact that English spelling is inconsistent makes it more difficult and requires more effort to memorize. For instance, vowels ea can be pronounced as /i:/ in

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inconsistency requires spellers to put more attention to correct spellings of particular words.

Some other causes of mistakes occur as a result of linguistic differences between English and learners’ first languages (Brown 2000; Swan and Smith, 2001; Saville-Troike, 2006; Corder, 1993). These causes take place as a result of different orthography, morphology (Tonga et all, 2009), and phonology (Holligan and Johnston, 1991; Hatfielda and Patterson, 1983). The percentage of serious causes was even given by Al-Jarf (2009) who states in his work that 63% of the spelling errors were phonological and 37% were orthographic. This supports the fact that spelling errors are caused by those aspects as mentioned earlier. Other light serious mistakes exist because of students’ carelessness when writing. Careless errors may be a result of attention difficulties (http://www.allkindsofminds.org/discover-all-kinds-of-minds).

Students may be tired or lose some concentration, so they are unaware of their spelling mistakes.

This paper aimed at exploring spelling errors produced by first year Thai university students and examining why these types of mistakes occur in their writing. Gaining understanding on the causes or reasons why they make mistakes should facilitate the understanding of language teachers and enable them to cope with problems appropriately. The study begins by reporting the types of spelling errors, then discussing causes of the errors, and finally sharing some implications.

The Purpose of the Study and Research Questions The purpose of this study is to investigate the types of spelling inaccuracy produced by first year Thai university students and to examine the causes of misspellings found in their

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1. What types of spelling errors were produced by first year Thai university students?

2. What caused the spelling errors produced by first year Thai university students?

Participants The subjects in the study were 31 first year Thai students majoring in International Business in China (IBC) at the Faculty of International Studies (FIS) at Prince of Songkla University, Phuket Campus. These students were placed as low proficient students by the use of TOEIC scores. Students who gain lower than 400 TOEIC scores are considered low proficient, and they are required to take more preparatory English courses than those who obtained over the minimum set criteria. The study took place while they were taking Chinese language courses in China. They were required to take a Reading class for an hour every day over a 4 week period for a total of 20 hours as supplementary English classes.

Research procedures and instruments 31 first year students were arranged to study Reading as supplementary English activity during summer courses in China. They were required to read Graded readers which referred to short story books containing contents of stories, target vocabulary, exercises on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and grammar summaries with exercises. The books were divided into four levels: starter, one, two, and three. They were divided based on levels of difficulty and on the numbers of headwords: 250, 400, 550, and 700 respectively. The three chosen books in the study were Mulan: Dominoes Starter, Sherlock Holmes: The Blue

Diamond: Dominoes One, and The Lord Arthur Saville’s Crimes and Other Stories:

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asked to study each book and do exercises before coming to class every day. They were also encouraged to study target words of each lesson, to make up sentences using the target words chosen by themselves, and to submit their assignments before the following lessons. The teacher corrected their sentences and returned their work before the beginning of the following class. In class, the teacher and students spent an hour checking comprehension, meanings of vocabulary, grammatical rules, and exercises. One book was studied for a week.

The class practiced in this way for 20 hours or 20 days. Finally, at the end of the course, the students were given one hour to write 45 sentences containing 80 target words taken from the Graded readers provided on the board. The main purpose of this test was to check if they could remember meanings of target words and if their sentence writing was improved, but only spelling mistakes were recorded in the study. Subjects were not aware and not informed they were part of the experiment as it took place in a normal classroom setting.

Findings and Discussions Data obtained from the students' sentence writings were recorded to find types of spelling mistakes, and the results of students spelling inaccuracies were analysed in order to find the causes of misspelling problems and were later discussed to explain why they occurred.

1. Types of spelling mistakes found in university students written work Data revealed ten types of misspelling errors produced by the 31 first year Thai university students. The ten main types of errors are presented in the table below.

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With respect to the data obtained from the students’ inaccuracy of spelling, four main causes leading to misspellings were found.

2.1. Differences between the English and the Thai writing systems It is interesting that most Thai alphabetic consonants can be matched with English phonemes even though their orthographies are different. While Thai is originally Indic, English is Roman. A study on the positive impact of L1 on L2 literacy shows that L1 aids L2 learners with basic knowledge of written letters and their corresponding sounds (LessowHurley, 1990 cited in Roberts, 1994). Results obtained from research conducted by Berkel (2005, p. 97) with Dutch learners learning English as a second language supports this explanation. The findings showed that Dutch learners could learn English spelling very

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spelling system and spelling strategies. In contrast, a study on spelling errors conducted by Al-Karaki (2005 in Jayousi, 2011) demonstrated problems regarding the differences between Arabic and English. Her subjects were Jordanian students who made mistakes on /p/ and /b/ as the phoneme /p/ does not exist in the Jordanian Arabic language. This is a reason why many students make a mistake by writing /b/ instead of /p/. In this study, based on the results found in first year Thai university students' sentence writing, a few students were confused with the consonant letters b, d, r and n. A possible explanation may be that differences between L1 (Thai) and L2 (English) orthographies may cause a problem for some Thai students. This type of mistake can be found in learners having a problem of Dyslexia (Cook, 2004). However, in this case the students could write other sentences and convey meanings appropriately, so these mistakes may not be relevant to the defective health effect.

Another problem that may be related to differences between the two writing systems is that there are no spaces included when writing a sentence in the Thai language. The findings revealed some mistakes when using spaces like in ‘everyweek’ and in compounds, such as ‘super star’ and ‘book store’ that require students to put more effort in memorizing whether two words can be combined as one word or have to be split. Dowling (2012) mentions that it is easy even with well-educated people to make mistakes on compound words because they are uncertain whether to use the hyphen to combine two words or to put two words into one.

In Thai, all the words are written with no separation except when writers would like to separate sentences, so students may carelessly put ‘every’ and ‘week’ together as one word or just write them continuously and unconsciously without a space as if they were writing in Thai. Although in the Thai writing system compound words are combined as one word as for many English compound words, the fact that the English language is written with a space

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to be combined while some words cannot can cause confusion to learners.

Above all, it is possible to conclude that similarities in the two languages can promote learning at a certain level and differences can lead to more difficulties.

2.2 Phonological problems Many misspelling instances occur as a result of phonological problems. This type of inaccurate spelling is categorized as articulation or interference errors which occur as a result of spellers' use of particular pronunciation (Carney, 1994). Based on this study, four problems that were found are associated with sounds.

First, irregularities or inconsistency of correspondence between letters and sounds is problematic. To illustrate, one sound can be written or pronounced differently such as in mistakes like wather-water, sene-scene, teble-table, tolk-talk, famus-famous, bord-board, and brake-break. Cook (2004) explains that there are more sounds (44 phonemes) than letters (26 letters), so a grapheme can correspond to many phonemes in English. For example, the

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