Using grammatical reflection to get a grasp on syntactic orthographic markers

Although the Latin script focusses on phonological representation, many orthographic forms
in French and German refer to syntactic, grammatical structures. These syntactic markers are not represented in phonology. Therefore, learners must acquire knowledge about these silent syntactic structures in order to spell correctly.
GRASP, a research project of the Institute for Research on Multilingualism from the University of Luxembourg investigates how explicit teaching of grammatical reflection enhances the spelling skills of grade 4 pupils in relation to orthographic syntactic markers that are not orally expressed.

How do we learn to spell?

Learning to spell is a complex linguistic activity that follows specific developmental patterns. In the initial stages of spelling development, children mainly use their knowledge of phonology to spell words. Later, they refine their knowledge, learn more about the complexities of phonological, orthographic, and morphological characteristics of words, and use this information when spelling. Developmental studies have shown that command of syntactic markers and corresponding processing skills are especially difficult to acquire. Indeed, as they are not represented in phonology, they require grammatical reasoning.
But how do pupils do this? If many studies have focused on spelling developmental on the level of phonology and morphology, few have focused on how pupils develop syntactic spelling, a skill that needs to apply an orthographic rule in relation to a particular syntactic context. Even less is known about how pupils acquire syntactic markers in multilingual contexts.

Spelling in multilingual contexts

To better understand the development of syntactic markers in multilingual context, The GRASP project tries to answer two major questions focusing on German and French.The first research question asks if a grammatical training in one of the two languages improves orthographic syntactic markers in the respective language.The second research question focuses on a training effect in multilingual contexts. Training in German might have an effect on the spelling of French syntactic markers, and vice versa, training in French an effect on German, although the syntactic markers and agreement structures in both languages differ.

A specific training to evaluate spelling development

In order to answer these research questions, the GRASP project is conducting an intervention study. The project consists of two separate but interrelated training, one for German and one for French, using a parallel experimental design. The intervention group of each study is the control group of the other. Effects of the training are tested in a pre-, post-, and follow-up design with a longitudinal perspective throughout the academic year 2019/20 and, due to Covid-19, 2020/21. Altogether 37 classes of Cycle 3.2 all over Luxembourg are cooperating with the researchers.

In brief, we will evaluate the spelling development of 4th graders all over Luxembourg with and without training in grammatical reflection related to syntactic orthographic markers in German and French.

The first findings are expected by the end of the year 2020. The aim of the project is to find new ways to help students overcome some of the most difficult spelling categories in German that persist during secondary school. The project assumes that learning the grammatical structures represented by these spelling patterns, will help the learners to get a better grasp on spelling.

We assume that a deeper understanding of the trained grammatical structure is a nice and important side effect. A follow-up study will scrutinize this question.

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