By GreatSchools Staff
Your first-grader proudly shows you the story she wrote in class and it looks something like this:
"Ther ouns was two flawrs. Oun was pink and the othr was prpul. Thae did not like ech athr becuse thae whr difrint culrs. Oun day thae had a fite."
Don't panic. It is called "invented spelling" or "inventive spelling," and many teachers encourage it in the early grades. It's not because they've given up teaching children to spell, but because of a general shift in understanding about how children learn.
When children create their own spellings for words they do not know how to spell correctly they're using invented spelling. They use what they know about letters, sounds and spelling patterns to spell the word as well as they can.
Written in standard spelling, the above excerpt from a first-grader's story would say: "There once was two flowers. One was pink and the other was purple. They did not like each other because they were different colors. One day they had a fight."
The writing tells you a lot about what the author has and has not learned about spelling in English. She has mastered simple consonant-vowel-consonant words like "not," "had" and "did." She knows that adding an "e" to the end of a word can make the vowel sound long, although she does not always know where to apply this rule: "thae, fite." She has mastered some irregular, but often-used words like "was," "day" and "two," but she still needs to work on "were," "they" and "there." She does not yet know how to use the common -er ending in words like "other" and "flowers," but she clearly understands that the spellings of words must reflect each sound you hear in the word: "flawrs," "difrint."
If you don't remember being praised for spelling like this when you were in school, it's no surprise. For a long time spelling was considered to be mainly a process of memorizing individual words. Today, many experts believe that spelling is a developmental process in which children acquire certain ideas or theories about spelling as they are exposed to correct, or standard, spelling. Studies analyzing many samples of young children's writing led to this shift in understanding.
Visual memory, or being able to see in your mind what a word should look like, is still recognized as an important part of spelling. However, many experts believe that visual memory is best developed by studying word patterns, and seeing and using words in reading and writing, not by memorizing unrelated lists of words. Children learn about standard spelling by reading, studying words and word patterns in school, attempting to spell words on their own, and editing their attempts.
Invented spelling allows children to communicate in writing long before they are ready to spell each word correctly. Another benefit is that children can express their ideas quickly and smoothly in a first draft, without being bogged down by trying to spell each word correctly. Invented spelling also helps children progress toward standard spelling. Sounding out words and predicting how they will be spelled reinforces students' understanding of the connection between letters and sounds, and lets them experiment with the spelling patterns they are learning. As they edit their writing and make a final draft, students get additional practice with the correct forms of words.
In an article on the Natural Child Project, reading consultant Margaret Phinney compared the process of learning to spell and write to learning to speak. She noted that parents would never forbid a child from speaking until he could pronounce each word perfectly. Instead parents encourage early speaking attempts and reinforce correct pronunciations. Phinney suggested that parents do the same with early writing - encourage children to write often and be accepting of their attempts.
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