What is phonemic spelling?

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Phonemic spelling is the representation of each morpheme as it is pronounced phonemically. This means that roots and affixes may have more than one way of being written because of their allomorphs.

Phonemic spelling advantage and disadvantage

Since the beginning reader is inclined to rely heavily on sound-symbol correlation, the consistent one-to-one sound-symbol correlation of phonemic spelling aids the new reader.


As beginning readers mature, they are inclined to rely less on sound--symbol correlation in decoding and more on larger visual units such as words. The changing visual image of morphemes caused by phonological conditioning can interfere with fluency.


In most languages, certain morphophonological processes take place between words or between roots and affixes within a word. Part of linguistic research is the analysis into underlying forms of roots and affixes which are affected by such processes. The basic allomorphs and their conditioned allomorphs need to be established. Certain roots and affixes may have more than one surface (phonemic) form, often phonologically conditioned.


In contrast, in a morphophonemic spelling, one would represent the underlying form of the morpheme, irrespective of its different surface alternations. Each root or affix would have a “constant visual image.” The assumption is that the reader will recognize the word and pronounce it automatically with the surface result of the morphophonological alternations.


“Phonemic spelling helps the beginner but morphophonemic spelling helps the fluent reader. What we need to aim for in orthography development is an orthography which is sufficiently accurate phonemically so that the decoding is possible, but also one which keeps the meaning units in their basic form wherever possible” (Dawson 1978).


Here is an example from English contrasting morphophonemic and phonemic spelling:

  1. The plural morpheme in English is morphophonemically written |s|

    • cars [z]
    • cats [s]
    • cases [Iz]
  2. If the plural morpheme in English was written phonemically, it could look like this:

    • carz
    • cats
    • casiz

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Page content last modified: 25 January 1999

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