On the role of morphology in early spelling in Hebrew and Arabic

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It is well known that learning to spell is a complex and challenging process, especially for young learners, in part because it relies on multiple aspects of linguistic knowledge, such as phonology and morphology. The present longitudinal study investigated the role of morphology in early spelling in two Semitic languages, Hebrew and Arabic, that are structurally similar but differ in the phonological consistency of phoneme to letter mappings (“backward consistency”). Whereas Arabic mappings are mostly one-to-one – allowing children to rely mainly on phonology to spell words correctly, Hebrew has numerous one-to-many phoneme-to-letter mappings that are governed by morphological considerations, thereby precluding a purely phonological spelling strategy. We, therefore, predicted that morphology would make a more substantial contribution to early Hebrew spelling than to Arabic spelling. We tested this prediction in a longitudinal study of two large parallel samples (Arabic, N = 960; Hebrew, N = 680). We assessed general non-verbal ability, morphological awareness (MA), and phonological awareness (PA) in late Kindergarten and spelling in the middle of the first grade with a spelling-to-dictation task. Hierarchical regression analyses revealed that after controlling for age, general intelligence, and phonological awareness, morphological awareness contributed a significant additional 6% variance to Hebrew spelling but only 1% to Arabic word spelling. The results are discussed within the framework of the Functional Opacity Hypothesis (Share, 2008), which we extend to spelling.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
Early online date29 May 2023
StateE-pub ahead of print - 29 May 2023

Bibliographical note

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


  • Arabic
  • Early spelling
  • Hebrew
  • Morphological awareness
  • Orthography
  • Phonological awareness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics


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