How Do Kids Learn to Spell? (Word Study, Part 2)

In my last post I shared a better way to teach spelling.  Children learn best from a developmental, research-based approach to spelling instruction.

It’s called Word Study.  It’s for kids from preK through high school.  It’s inexpensive.  It’s hands-on.  It works.

Can you tell I love it?

But before I get into the how to teach it, I have to get into the technical.

Sorry about that!

I’ll try to make  it as painless as possible.


Kids learn to spell just like they learn to read: they progress through developmental stages.  You know that kids learn to read at vastly different rates. One child starts chapter books in kindergarten.  Another isn’t read for chapter books until second grade.  Both might be excellent readers, but they learn at different rates.

Keep that in mind as you look at the age ranges.  These are estimates – children may fall at either end of these spans or even out of them.  (And it’s helpful to remember that children with special learning challenges may not progress through these stages.)

Here’s a simplified look at the five stages of spelling development:


The Emergent Stage (ages 2-5):

Children might recognize their alphabet, but they are just starting to write it.

early emergent stage

Here’s a sample from the beginning of the emergent stage.  Writing looks the same as drawing.  My just-turned-Three draws and scribbles, but he doesn’t write letters yet.

emergent stage

 For more detailed information about this stage, visit This Reading Mama’s post.

 The Letter-Name Alphabetic Stage: (ages 5-7)

 Children know their alphabet and sounds – this comes out in their writing.

letter name alphabetic stage

My four 1/2 year old is at the middle of this stage.  His letter and letter sound knowledge is solid, and he is putting that to work in his writing. Sometimes he writes just a single letter for a word (H for have), but other times he sounds out the whole thing (BLO for blue and HAT for hat).


For more detailed information, visit This Reading Mama’s post.

The Within-Word Pattern Stage (ages 7-9)

 Children start to see patterns within words.

within word pattern

My six-year-old (who just finished kindergarten) is at the beginning of this stage.  She does well with blends (streebarres and plants) and is starting to experiment with long vowel sounds (baens for beans).

within word

For more information, see This Reading Mama’s post.

The Syllables and Affixes Stage (ages 9-14)

Now kids start to understand how to put endings and extra syllables onto words.

(Sorry, my oldest is six years old – I don’t have a writing sample for the last two stages!)


For more information, see This Reading Mama’s post.

The Derivational Relations Stage (middle school through adulthood)

Understanding the meaning of words helps us spell them.

derivational relations

For more information, see This Reading Mama’s post.

Woah, that was a lot of information. Now what?

If that was information overload, pin it or print it for future reference.  As you start becoming aware of your students’ spelling abilities, your understanding of the five stages will come together.

In the meantime, you’ll need to determine your students’ level of development.  Words Their Way has an easy-to-use test for just that purpose. I’ll talk about it next time!

And click on the picture for your must-have resource!

words their way

Be sure to check out the rest of my Word Study series!  If you like what you’ve read, I’d love for you to share with other homeschooling parents or classroom teachers!

© 2013 – 2014, Anna Geiger. All rights reserved.


  1. Conny says

    Enjoyed your explanation. I find it especially interesting to compare this to our German approaches to reading and writing … It is funny how your 4,5 year old has solid letter knowledge and my 4,5 year old has just started learning first letters. In Germany, children aren’t taught how to read and write until primary school (starting at the age of 6 or 7). Everybody thinks my daughter is early with her interest in letters – different culture, different standards…

    • annageig says

      Hello, Conny!
      I know that in the end kids will learn to read and spell whether they start at age 4 or 7. I just see how much enthusiasm and ability young kids have, so I like to start my own children young if they have the interest. It’s also true that America’s education system has changed — as I often hear, “Kindergarten is the new first grade.” I don’t have a problem with that as long as children are not pushed beyond their ability. (Sometimes it’s questionable!)

      It’s also true that I just love teaching kids to read and write, and I want to get the chance to do it before their teachers do :).

  2. says

    Really interesting. I have two who have really struggled with spelling and am thankful for spell check myself!
    Interestingly, my spelling has improved since I became an adult and one of the children who is now almost an adult, has improved spontaneously over time. There has certainly been major improvement since formal spelling lessons finished.

    • annageig says

      I’d say the best way to improve spelling is to do lots of reading and writing! Formal spelling instruction is just a piece of the learning, and if it’s not done well it’s not a very big piece at all! Glad to hear that yours and your kids’ spelling has improved over time. I found that the longer I taught, the WORSE my spelling got – isn’t that funny? I read somewhere that teaching is the profession where one’s spelling can decline – because of reading all the incorrect spellings over and over!

  3. says

    This is great information. Just keep in mind if your child is not reaching these milestones, they may have a learning disability. My daughter is dyslexic and can barely spell past the kindergarten level. She will be going into the 6th grade. She may never be able to spell well. I have accepted this and this is how she will be. So Not all kids learn these stages.

    • annageig says

      Thank you, Amy – that is very good to keep in mind. I’ll make an adjustment to my post to call attention to this.

    • Anna Geiger says

      You’re very welcome, Becky Marie! I really love Word Study — it lays it out so well (if you condense the basics, as I’ve done in this series) – and I think that after doing picture sorts to cement the distinction between sounds, their word lists are a great place to start.

  4. says

    That’s a lot of information. Very helpful! It’s important to read to your kids so they can grasp the words and their meanings and eventually spell them and teach them how to read by themselves.


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