A multi-dimensional framework for characterizing the role of writing system variation in literacy learning: a case study in Malayalam

Nirmala Vasudevan, Mithun Haridas, Prema Nedungadi, Raghu Raman, Peter T. Daniels, David L. Share

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most children across the world learn to read and write in non-alphabetic orthographies such as abjads (e.g., Arabic), abugidas (e.g., Ethiopic Ge’ez), and morphosyllabaries (e.g., Chinese). However, most theories of reading, reading development, and dyslexia derive from a relatively narrow empirical base of research in English—an outlier alphabetic orthography—and a handful of mainly Western European Roman alphabets. Consideration of the full spectrum of the world’s writing systems reveals multiple dimensions of writing system complexity, each of which could possibly create obstacles for the developing reader. Daniels and Share (Sci Stud Read 22:101–116, 2018) proposed a multi-dimensional framework for assessing a range of writing system characteristics likely to challenge literacy acquisition: linguistic distance, non-linearity, visual uniformity and complexity, historical orthographic inertia, spelling constancy despite morphophonemic alternation, omission of phonological elements, allography, dual purpose letters, ligaturing, and symbol inventory size. The present study examines the applicability of these ten dimensions to understanding reading and spelling acquisition in Malayalam, a non-European language written in a non-alphabetic script. Malayalam, a south Indian language spoken by some 35 million people, employs a writing system typical of the Brahmi-derived Indic scripts used by almost two billion people throughout South and Southeast Asia. We found that a majority (7/10) of the D&S dimensions are indeed useful for understanding the challenges of learning to read and write in Malayalam. Three dimensions are not applicable, and an additional dimension, word length, needs to be added to the framework. The popular uni-dimensional approach of characterizing orthographies as shallow/transparent or deep/opaque (mis)classifies Malayalam as a highly transparent or shallow script simply because the characters almost invariably have a one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sound. Clearly, however, there are many other dimensions of complexity, such as non-sequentiality, visual similarity, allography, ligaturing, and inventory size, that challenge the learner and prolong the task of learning to read and write. We conclude that the popular uni-dimensional characterization of writing system variation along a single continuum of spelling-to-sound consistency fails to do justice to the multi-dimensional complexity of many, perhaps most, of the world’s writing systems and the challenges they pose for literacy learners.

Original languageEnglish
JournalReading and Writing
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.


  • Dyslexia
  • Malayalam
  • Orthographic complexity
  • Reading
  • Spelling
  • Writing system variation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


Dive into the research topics of 'A multi-dimensional framework for characterizing the role of writing system variation in literacy learning: a case study in Malayalam'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this