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Cn u rd ths? A guide to invented spelling

Spelling instruction at your child's school may look different from what you remember of your school days. Here's a guide to what you might see and why things have changed.

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."

Invented Spelling Helps Children Learn

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."

Invented Spelling Is Part of a Developmental Process

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.

The Five Stages

Research studies show that children progress through five stages on their journey to correct English spelling. Remember that each child develops at her own rate and has had different experiences with reading and writing. The grade-level correspondences here are only meant to be a general guide, and your child might reach a particular stage sooner or later than indicated. If you have concerns about your child's progress with spelling, talk to her teacher. The stages as described by researcher Dr. J. Richard Gentry are:

Stage 1: Pre-communicative

What it means: In this stage, children use letters and are beginning to understand that letters are the building blocks of words, but they show no understanding that letters stand for particular sounds. Pre-communicative spellers may not know all of the letters and may not write top to bottom and left to right. A child in this stage might write the letters E, A, M, B and T scattered randomly across the page to stand for "I had pizza last night."

What you might see in the classroom: Teachers will be helping students learn the alphabet, learn the connection between sounds and letters, understand that in English we read from top to bottom and left to right, and understand what a word is. For example, the teacher might read a story from a "big book" with the class. As the class reads, the teacher might pause to talk about particular words and the letters in them, and he might point to each word as they read it to reinforce that the words go from left to right and top to bottom.

When you'll see it: This stage is typically seen in the preschool years and very early in kindergarten.

Stage 2: Semi-phonetic

What it means: Children begin to understand that letters stand for particular sounds. Spellers at this stage often use single letters to represent words, sounds or syllables and might use the first sound heard in the word to represent the whole word (M for "mommy" or U for "you"). A semi-phonetic speller might write "I M HP" for "I am happy."

What you might see in the classroom: Teachers will continue to emphasize the connections between letters and sounds, and will help children listen for all of the sounds they hear in a word. They continue to expose children to the conventions of writing, including using capital letters, writing from left to right, and the differences between words and sentences. Many teachers use a daily shared writing activity to work on these concepts. For example, the class might write a morning message as a group, with the teacher modeling and talking about when to use capitals or periods, and how to listen for and write all the sounds in a word.

When you'll see it: This stage is usually seen late in the preschool years and early in kindergarten.

Stage 3: Phonetic

What it means: In the phonetic stage, students use a letter or group of letters to represent each sound they hear in the word. In many cases, their spelling will not be standard, but their choice of letters will make sense and you'll probably be able to figure out what it says. Many simple "consonant-vowel-consonant" words may be spelled correctly at this stage. For example, words like "rat" and "hit" are likely to be spelled correctly, but you might see "fon" for "phone," "uv" for "of," and "kak" for "cake." A phonetic speller might even write: "byutiful" for "beautiful."

What you might see in the classroom: At the phonetic stage, students are ready to be introduced to word families, spelling patterns, phonics and word structures. They might talk about a common spelling pattern and then look for examples of it in their reading. For example, they might talk about the word "fish," and how it has a short "i" sound and a "sh" sound at the end. Then they might watch for other examples of that pattern in their reading: wish, dish, swish.

In their reading, they will begin to be exposed to "sight words." These are words that are very common, but are not spelled quite how they sound or are spelled with an uncommon pattern. Students usually memorize these words so they can easily recognize them in their reading and use them in their writing. Many teachers put these common words on a "Word Wall" so students see them frequently and can check their spelling when they need to.

When you'll see it: Many students are in the phonetic stage by the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade.

Stage 4: Transitional

What it means: In this stage, students are learning to recognize common patterns and structures in words, and they begin to use those patterns in their writing. For example, students learn that adding an "e" to the end of a word usually changes a vowel to a long vowel, and they apply that rule to many words. They might spell "mate" and "take" correctly after learning this rule, but they may also write "nite" and "wate." Students also experiment with less common patterns like "-igh." A transitional speller might write "hiked" as "highked." Many very common, but irregular words like "was" and "have" might be spelled correctly as students see and use these words frequently.

When you'll see it: In first grade, students are likely to move from the phonetic stage to the transitional stage, where they might stay through approximately third grade.

What you might see in the classroom: Students at this stage will study common and unusual word patterns. For example, they may have a lesson on different ways the long "e" sound can be spelled: "ee" as in "need;" "ea" as in "meat," "e" with a silent "e" as in "here," "-y" as in "happy." They might sort a group of long "e" words by the way the sound is spelled and look for examples of the different patterns in their reading. They will probably continue memorizing the spelling of common irregular words. According to literacy specialist Karen Heath, some spelling programs for primary grade students also include movement-based practice of common words to help students get the feel of writing a particular word. For example, students might trace words in fingerpaint or sand, or they might write a word over and over on a white board.

Stage 5: Correct

What it means: By this stage, students have a large number of words they know how to spell, and they will often recognize when they have spelled a word incorrectly. They understand and use basic rules and patterns from the English spelling system, including prefixes and suffixes, silent consonants, plurals, and many irregular spellings. Students in the correct stage know how to find the correct spelling of a word using reference materials. They don't spell every word correctly, but they spell most words correctly.

When you'll see it: Students usually enter the correct stage in late third grade or sometime in fourth grade, although their spelling continues to develop throughout their school years.

What you might see in the classroom: At this stage, teachers often link the spelling of words with their meaning. Students strengthen their spelling and vocabulary by studying the meaning of root words, prefixes and suffixes, especially those that come from Latin or Greek. For example, upper grade or middle school students might study the root word "sign" that evolved from the Latin "signum," meaning "mark" or "token." They might learn how the meanings and spellings of other words like "signature" and "designate" are related to sign.

Movement through the five stages is gradual and a student writing sample will often show evidence of more than one stage, although children generally do not fluctuate wildly between stages, according to Gentry.

Questions Parents Have

Why does it matter which stage of spelling my child is in?

According to Dr. Maryann Manning, a professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, if a teacher is aware of the developmental levels of her students' spelling, she can provide appropriate instruction and support at the student's level. For example, with a child in the earliest stages of spelling, the teacher might model how to listen for all of the sounds you hear in the word and represent those sounds on paper. With a more advanced speller, the teacher might point out how two words share the same uncommon spelling pattern (like "-igh").

Manning also recommends that teachers pay attention to the words their students are spelling almost correctly, and tailor spelling lists to the child's ability. She said, "When a student is spelling three of the four letters in a word correctly, the word is a candidate for formal memorization." She believes that a student is not ready to memorize a word until he gets close to the correct spelling on his own. Before that, the spelling patterns in the word are probably beyond his developmental level.

Will invented spelling make my child think it is OK to spell words incorrectly?

Correct spelling in final drafts should be the goal from first grade on, according to Heath, although it is not reasonable to expect every word to be spelled correctly in the primary grades. Invented spelling is a step on the path to conventional spelling, not an end in itself. Teachers can allow students to use invented spelling and still emphasize that there are correct spellings. As their spelling ability develops, students should be expected to spell more and more words correctly, beginning with very commonly used words like "the" and "and."

Once students have mastered the spellings of the most common words and they become more proficient with spelling resources and strategies, they can use invented spelling primarily for words they have never encountered and only until they can look up or find the correct spelling. Certainly by middle school when students are using computers with spell checker, they should be accountable for very close to 100% correct spelling in final drafts of their work.

Why is my child a bad speller?

There are two main reasons a child might be a poor speller. Some children have just not had enough exposure to reading and writing to develop spelling skills as strong as other students of the same age. These children probably also struggle with reading, and they need lots of chances to read and write. They also need spelling instruction at their developmental level, even if is lower than their grade level.

There are also kids who are avid and competent readers but have trouble with spelling. These students probably have weak visual memories. They cannot visualize what a word should look like despite repeated exposure to it. Heath notes that requiring these students to memorize words they have trouble with is not likely to help, because they will not retain them for long beyond the test. Manning recommends that these students develop strategies to compensate for their poor spelling. For example, she suggests that students keep a personal dictionary of problem words and learn to use spell checker or some type of spelling device to help.

What can I do to help my child with spelling at home?

Both Manning and Heath say: Read, read, read and write, write, write! Seeing and using words frequently is the best way to improve spelling. Heath recommends being a spelling resource for your child. Help him sound out words and tell him how to spell them correctly when he needs to know. She notes that as he writes the words correctly, he is learning them.

Heath also suggests that parents find out if a particular spelling curriculum is used at school and ask the teacher how you can support your child in spelling. She believes parents should find opportunities to talk about words with their children. For example, if your child uses the word "hymn," you can talk about what it means and how it is spelled. You can also point out how it is different from the word "him." It is important to get your child thinking about words and spelling.

Manning suggests that older students keep a personal dictionary of words they struggle with. It can be kept handy to use with homework assignments. She also emphasizes practicing spelling in the context of writing. She said, "You don't need a spelling boot camp every night! You want your child to do well on spelling tests, but there is little correspondence between spelling correctly on tests and being able to use words correctly in writing."

Comments from readers

"aye am a kyd that groo upp on inventid spilling and ay am now de CEO of a multinational conglomerate. so peepl can groe up an bee sussessful as binsness peepl. U got to C how dis ain't no bigg deel. "
"The point of this article is not to 'teach' wrong spelling it is to allow PRESCHOOLERS to develop their own understand of written language. That way when conventional spelling is taught they already have a foundation of experience learning. Many US students and adults have spelling issues because they DIDN'T learn this way. Memorizing what letters make a word is not understanding. This method allows for young children to explore language before they are taught what is correct. If you actually did some research you would see that the majority of inventive spellers learn conventional spelling faster, more efficiently and tend to become better readers. When your baby says 'dada,' for the first time you don't jump down their through saying, "it's not dada its daddy." You encourage them to further explore this new form of communication and they quickly grasp the majority of concepts on their own. It is not until after they can already speak and communicate efficiently that you im! post grammatical rules upon them. This learning process is no different in writing. If you read the article correctly you would realize that there are stages, meaning that inventive spelling changes. It transforms and transforms until it becomes correct. There is zero evidence that support this idea of bad habits from inventive spelling. One cannot form bad habits if what they write is constantly changing. Do some research and be open to new ideas. Evidence has shown that inventive spelling can be very lucrative for the majority of children. Find an article by Charles Read or Carol Chomsky, these people do not right 'crap,' they are renowned linguists and are completely supportive of inventive spelling. "
"I think those who criticize are missing the point. Invented spelling is to be encouraged in first grade to get kids writing, but not supposed to continue into upper elementary and high school. When children are first learning to read and write it is appropriate as it allows children to start writing and solidifies the vowel sounds that they are learning to recognize in reading. As time goes by they will be encouraged to spell correctly. No one is saying a child should use invented spelling forever. Research comparing children who were allowed to use invented spelling in first grade tended to write more and spell more correctly by the end of first grade than children who were corrected for every word that was incorrect. The point is to get them writing at the beginning and let them practice phonics skills. As they move into second grade, then invented spelling will be allowed less and less as they move over to checking spelling with a dictionary, seeing that it looks right and practicing correct words. It is a means to an end .....not the end product. "
"As an educator, I am disgusted by this article. I teach high school history and the majority of my students have atrocious spelling and grammar skills. The fact that our education system is encouraging "invented spelling" is insane; it's as though we are deliberately trying to make our students dumb and illprepared to compete in the real world. Whoever supports this should be ashamed, as it is setting up our youth for future failure. "
"This is horrible! Phonetics is the best way for a child to be able to sound out any word no matter how long. My sons school uses Riggs Phonics and he can sound out and read any word by using the rules. I hope when my son attends 2nd grade at a new school they do not use this garbage. This shows a child a short cut way and pushing kids to learn the phonetic sounds of letter phonograms will help them. My nephew is 3 and can read from using this program. No wonder the education in the US is terrible. The Charter school he is in pushes these kids and uses the teaching methods and tools we had as children and scored higher than Private schools. My kids has always been able to communicate way beyond most children maybe because we never baby talked and always corrected his word usage. Memorizing what a word looks like is not learning the word and the public schools and their sight word garbage is just to get kids by not really learn. "
"I feel this is a very good idea. Sure...let's go back to the basics, that for the last 20 years have failed miserably. What is wrong with embracing change and trying out new things? The only way this will fail is if the parents aren't on board and supportive in the homelife. You can't expect a teacher to be the soul instructor in a child's life. The problem with these 20-something year olds or teenagers that still use "invented spelling" lies primarily with their parents and their support of the learning environment. My five year old comes home from school every day beyond herself with excitement that she can "write". So it's not 100% right...who cares. All I do is say "That's wonderful honey! Now let's find the right spelling of the word and a good picture so you can spell it correctly next time." People who condemn change in the learning environment are simply condoning the stagnation of American culture and diversity. "
"Inventive spelling is the most ridiculous thing I have heard in a while. Teaching children to spell correctly while teaching them the sounds of letters goes hand in hand. Teaching them to spell incorrectly stays with many of them. That is why so many adults are unable to spell. They were never taught! For heaven's sake, they are taught to hold a pencil correctly. Look at some young adults trying to write. You can tell who went to public school from those who attended private, parochial or charter schools! If educators truly want to improve education, they can do it by throwing out some of the ludicrous propaganda from the NEA and use their common sense. All the money in the world will not improve education until we return to the basics that were taught 40 or 50 years ago. Visit a charter school some time and observe a school that uses Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge in the classroom. It works!"
"I don't think this is a good way of teaching spellings to the kids who are beginning to learn. I think Americans always finds an easy way to do things and end up making the issue worst. I don't recommend this for kids at all. I have a daughter who is four years old and spells and reads very well. I didn't use any of this crap to teach her. It's your child's future, take time and spend time with your child. They learn a lot when you spend more time with them."
"The sad thing is that you see so many teenagers these days still using their 'invented spelling'. I think adults assume that 'texting language' is used only for convenience, but in reality, the average teenager would not be able to pass an age-appropriate spelling test. This is going to make things very difficult for them in the workplace. It is true that a child's imagination is important, but accountability must be given. You mention reinforcing correct pronunciations, but not the reinforcement of correct spelling. The fact is that a child's brain is most malleable when the child is young, and that malleability should be used in such a way that they benefit from growing and learning. Please don't sell your children short. You'll be surprised how much they can learn, if given the chance. -age 21"
"Thank you so much for this informative letter. Keep up the good work"
"Thanks for the article and the great information. I am a former kindergarten teacher with a young grandchild. I really appreciate the up to date educational information."
"I know a woman that is 29 years old. She is still using invented spelling. I want to know if this is a learning problem, development problem, or just not a problem. I have not found anything on the www about this problem with adults. Please inform me of anything that has to do with adult invented spelling. Thanks"
"It's funny how we have all switched to teaching using 'whole language' and 'balanced appraoches' and have forgotten the importance in teaching with heavy concentration on Phonics. But since it has been put down for so many years but the teachers of this country, when we remember how important it is, we have to call it something else, so as to not give credit to phonics, and use strategies that do not actually teach anything. I keep forgetting that this is the role of todays teacher - to not teach anything and expect learning to occur anyway!"
"Do not like inventive spelling - it's slang."
"Here's the issue -- Americans can't spell worth a damn even if their life depended on it. It is plain embarrasing how poor a grown-up American's spelling is. However, Americans do excel in creativity (I wish I was encouraged to be more creative when I was little, growing up in India). It's a balancing act, right? Letting kids do a little bit of 'kid writing' is probably o.k., as long as spelling is enforced soon thereafter. Unfortunately, I don't see spelling being enforced. Perhaps we are too worried about scarring our children's self-esteem by telling them they are spelling something wrong..............."
"I love this article! It is what I've been telling parents since I began teaching 20 years ago. The students really are comfortable with their 'kid writing' . It encourages them to be creative! They aren't afraid to try to spell a word correctly. I emphasize, as they grow older they will learn 'grown up' writing, but for now they are just kids! There is time to learn the rules later, when they can understand them and apply them."
"This approach to learning is perfectly reasonable and logical to me. My first grader had a Kindergarten teacher who fostered writiing throughout the year in their classroom, at a time when none of the children could spell everything they wanted to write about perfectly. Using invented spelling freed them up to concentrate on being creative and learning to love to learn. Her spelling continued to improve and though no one sat her down and told her whenever she mispelled a word in one of her creative writing sessions, she now spells great-- for us it was a natural progression. "
"Spelling is always a sore subject, because the ENglish language is so random, with many words not following logical spelling and/or pronunciation patters. A lot of people have spent a lot of time coming up with various systems to help the process, but it seems to boil down to two core issues. 1 - The brain learns what it perceives as relevant... a core problem with phonics programs - I have yet to see one that is not putting form over content, thereby creating an irritatingly boring reading experience. 2 - I have yet to meet a person that pulls out a phonics or spelling rule when making a spelling decision. But I have seen hundreds of people stop their writing commenting that something does 'not look right.' I just enrolled my daughter in a cool online spelling program that seems to solve the problem for her... she simply uploads her spelling words and the program practices them with her. They have an interesting blog entry on this subject at, called 'Cna yuo raed tihs.'"
"Simply unbelievable. Has it ever doned on the author of this method that children may be greatly confused ? Why would phonetic spelling be OK at one point and not OK later after the child has been writing in that manner for years ? And you wonder why we, Americans don't know how to spell ?????"
"Why don't we just call this phonics. Why do we have to invent something new every 20 years. >From a kindergartener from the year 1960."