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Persistence of literacy problems: spelling in adolescence and at mid-life


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.

Barbara Maughan, MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, P046, King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK; Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 0470; Fax: +44 (0)20 8748 0866; Email:


Background:  Developmental reading problems show strong persistence across the school years; less is known about poor readers’ later progress in literacy skills.

Method:  Poor (= 42) and normally developing readers (= 86) tested in adolescence (ages 14/15 years) in the Isle of Wight epidemiological studies were re-contacted at mid-life (ages 44/45 years). Participants completed a spelling test, and reported on educational qualifications, perceived adult spelling competence, and problems in day-to-day literacy tasks.

Results:  Individual differences in spelling were highly persistent across this 30-year follow-up, with correlations between spelling at ages 14 and 44 years of = .91 (< .001) for poor readers and = .89 (< .001) for normally developing readers. Poor readers’ spelling remained markedly impaired at mid-life, with some evidence that they had fallen further behind over the follow-up period. Taking account of adolescent spelling levels, continued exposure to reading and literacy demands in adolescence and early adulthood was independently predictive of adult spelling in both samples; family social background added further to prediction among normally developing readers only.

Conclusions:  By adolescence, individual differences in spelling and its related sub-skills are highly stable. Encouraging young people with reading disabilities to maintain their exposure to reading and writing may be advantageous in the longer term.

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