What do you know about invented spelling? I find that it’s a concept which is often misunderstood. To help clear up the confusion I’m sharing invented spelling guidelines for parents.
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Welcome to Lesson 8 in the Preschool & Kindergarten Writing Lesson series from This Reading Mama and me! So far we’ve shared a variety of tips to help you teach your young writers at home or in the classroom. One thing we’ve emphasized is that all children learn to write at their own pace and level of development.
This is most evident when we look at children’s spelling.
Here’s a drawing by my almost-four-yearold. Can you decipher his writing? It says “octopus.” Clearly my almost-Four “invented” his own spelling. And even thought I’m a grammar nerd* who thinks that being a copy editor is a dream job, I’m thrilled with what he was able to do on his own.
(*Fellow grammar nerds, you might appreciate how I agonized over the spelling of “do’s and don’ts” in this post. Even though what I went with is technically grammatically incorrect (do’s should be dos), it looks right and makes the pronunciation evident. So I’m sticking to it.)
What is invented spelling?
Invented spelling (sometimes called phonetic spelling) is when children spell words the best they can using their phonics knowledge. As children grow as readers and writers, their invented spelling looks begins to look more like conventional spelling, until it disappears altogether.
How can we help our children make the most of invented spelling while also guiding them on the path to conventional spelling? Read on.
The Don’ts of Invented Spelling
1. Don’t expect all early writers to be capable of the same thing when they are the same age. When our children start to talk, we don’t expect perfection. “I are hungry” isn’t cause for concern; it’s a reason to celebrate that our children are experimenting with language.
When they learn to read, some children will grasp the concept of “sounding it out” when they’re preschoolers. Other children might be in first grade.
Kids learn to spell at different stages too. It’s important to understand what those stages are so we can celebrate what our children are able to do. To learn more about the spelling stages, visit this post.
2. Don’t view invented spelling as a crutch. It’s actually very valuable for early writers! When children have to stretch out words and hear every sound, they’re exercising their phonics knowledge. Reading back their writing is a phonics exercise, too!
3. Don’t avoid invented spelling by giving every spelling that your child asks for. Do you have a child who doesn’t want to invent spellings? A child who’s such a perfectionist that he won’t write a word unless he can spell it correctly? Believe me, I understand. My Five (not yet in kindergarten) is one of those kids. It’s temping to avoid the battle and give our children the spellings they want. But by doing that we’re crippling them. How will they ever have the confidence to spell when we’re not around?
When my Five was writing this page, he wanted to spell the word “cake.” I wanted him to puzzle it out for himself. Even though he’s a very good reader, I suspected that he did not understand the vowel-consonant-e spelling pattern. He needed to work this out himself. When I said I wouldn’t give him the spelling, he cried. He didn’t want to keep working.
I finally convinced him to give it a go. “If you write the word your own way, I will show you how to spell it when you’re done. But remember that your writing notebook is a record of what you’ve learned, so we won’t go back and change it.”
When my sister taught kindergarten, if a child asked her if his spelling was correct she’d say, “That spelling is right for today.”
4. Don’t allow careless spelling. In my experience, some parents and teachers misunderstand invented spelling. They think that a rough draft is a “sloppy copy” in which children can throw spelling and grammar out the window because they are just “getting their ideas onto paper.” I disagree.
Children should be held accountable for what they know. For very young children, that may mean writing an E that takes up part of the paper and not the whole thing. Eventually it may mean writing the E correctly and not backward. For my Four, it means writing “the” correctly, because this is a word he’s known a long time. I can expect my Five to leave spaces between words and to spell CVC (as in hat) correctly all the time. For older children with spelling lists, we can expect them to spell those words correctly after they’ve learned them.
5. Don’t leave all the writing and spelling instruction to your child’s teacher. I know it can be hard to find time to write at home, particularly if your child attends school, but if we leave it all to the teacher, how will we know what our children are capable of? By writing at least a few times a week with your child, you’ll know what he can do and what to expect. Check out my post about how to motivate kids to write at home if you’re ready to get started.
The Do’s of Invented Spelling
1. Do remember that early writing looks different for every child. I know I said this already, but it’s so important. Early spellers may use just a single letter for words. Gradually they’ll add ending sounds. Eventually they’ll add the middle. We want to recognize and celebrate where our children are at developmentally. Check out my post about teaching tips for the early stages of writing.
2. Do encourage children to write words they can’t spell. My Four drew a picture of Pete the Cat. When I asked him about it, he told me that Pete was on the beach.
“Great! You can write ‘on the beach.'”
“I don’t know how to write it.”
“You can do it! I’ll help you write the sounds you hear.”
3. Do give hints to help. For the very earliest writers, help them listen for the sound at the beginning of the word and write the correct letter. Later you’ll be able to streeeetch out the word with them and help them write the sounds they hear. (A rubber band is a great visual for this.)
When my Five was writing a thank you note, he didn’t know how to spell “dear.” Since this was a word he’d be using a lot, I wanted him to be able to spell it correctly. But I didn’t want to just hand him the spelling. So I asked if he could spell the word “ear.” I helped him spell “ear” and showed him how he could make the word “dear” using that spelling.
When is it okay to just give a spelling? Here’s the question I ask myself: “Will giving the spelling help my child for the future?” If my Five asks how to spell the number word “two,” I’ll tell him. I know he’ll remember it, and it’s an important word to know. If he asks how to spell “alligator,” I’ll ask him to streeetch out the word and write the sounds he hears. He’ll learn much more from puzzling that word out than from me handing the spelling to him.
6. Do provide resources to help your child spell.
I love to provide charts that my kids can use to help them with spelling. Your youngest writer will benefit from an alphabet sound chart. I created one with capital letters, because the very earliest writers typically write with just capital letters. You can get this useful, simple chart by clicking HERE.
Older writers will benefit from the second beginning sound chart in the picture. It can be found in the appendix of This Reading Mama’s fabulous e-book, Teaching Kids to Spell. The other two charts can also be found in the appendix.
Sherry Dell Elba
I taught kindergarten for 22 years and am now a first grade reading teacher. During my time as a kindergarten teacher I used inventive spelling in this way. I would tell the students to write down what their ears heard and under it I would write it the way we see it in books. So we called it EAR SPELLING and BOOK SPELLING. This really helped the anxious children who were needing to write the words accurately. It allowed them to take chances. In first grade I focus more on word chunking and phonic rules in order for them to visualize how a word should look.
I think it’s fantastic that they had to give it their own try before seeing the conventional spelling! 🙂
Thank you for writing this post. It was really informative. I have four year old and I was waiting till he spells mostly correctly but I guess I wont need to.
My kid is bilingual but I try to have him write in English because thats what he would be using in school. He knows this and while writing he asks me how to say the sentence he is about to write in English because he speaks a mixture of both languages at home. Then of course the spelling just comes in the question. Do you have any tip for such children to be independent in writing because he can read and understand English ok but wants to write perfectly so he wont start writing on his own.
This is tough for sure! Some of my kids have wanted to be perfect spellers, and it can really hold back their writing. What I tell them is to lightly underline spellings they’re unsure of. They have to keep writing, but when they’re finished I’ll go over those tricky spellings with them and help them.
I teach First Grade and encourage students to sound out the words and use “magic lines”. Magic lines are for the times they hear the beginning, middle, and ending sound but can’t get the others. Then, when they finish, I tell them that I can read First Grade, but a lot of people can’t so we’re going to “Make it look how it’d look, if you see it in a book!” They line up next to me at the computer station and I type out what they’ve written. I print the correct version on a label which goes on the paper in a spot where it doesn’t cover their work. I think this method is a good compromise between expecting too much and not correcting their work enough. They see the correct spelling and conventions, but their own work is not all marked up.
I have used magic lines for helping kids write sentences, and I LOVE this idea for using it to write the sounds in words! I think your solution is a brilliant one for helping kids work at attempting spellings on their own and also giving them the correct spelling when they need or want it. I am going to remember this one for my kindergartner and first grader. Thank you, Margaret!
Great post! I’m getting ready for homeschooling my son and daughter so I’m tucking all these things away in my brain for when they’re ready. This grammar nerd just wants to say that “Do’s” is correct! The apostrophe is used if there would be confusion otherwise. Example: Jennifer got two Fs on her report card. She had to miss the Oakland A’s game on Friday.
Thanks so much for clearing up the spelling of Do’s for me, Mary 🙂 That makes perfect sense, to use the apostrophe if not using it would create confusion.
I was allowed to use invented spelling as a child and it has caused me more harm than good. I have many bad habits in my spelling. I have never been able to overcome some of them. I teach my children to spell using the methods of Charlotte Mason which includes the idea that you should not let a child see a misspelled word. We study spelling and phonics rules rather than memorize lists of words. We practice that spelling through dictation and copy work. If my kids ask how to spell a word, I give it to them. At 8, my son is a better speller than I am. Spelling is an important skill, it needs to be taught. Imagined, invented, kid’s spelling – what ever you choose to call it only helps to build bad habits that must be broken later. Why not just start with good habits?
I can’t speak to how you learned to use invented spelling, Melissa, but it’s certainly true that children can be allowed to spell carelessly, which I address above and warn against. I hope I was clear that letting children write with invented spelling is NOT teaching them spelling. I believe in teaching spelling with word study (not memorizing lists of words, as you also oppose). I’ve written a five part series about it which you can find in my “teaching spelling” tab. There you’ll see that I encourage parents and teachers to teach according to children’s level of development … moving them forward as they move through developmental stages. The best analogy I can give for why I do not expect my children to be perfect spellers from the beginning is that I don’t expect my children to speak perfectly at the beginning either. Why? Because they are not developmentally ready. I am just becoming acquainted with Charlotte Mason. While she has many wonderful ideas, I think children’s time can be spent much more profitably than doing copywork. I’d rather they exercise their creativity and independence by writing what they choose to communicate. This would be impossible if they had to rely on me for every spelling. The goals of copywork are not the same goals that I have for children in writer’s workshop. In writer’s workshop children learn to express themselves and write meaningfully to communicate. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are taught within that context AND separately as needed.
In my K class, I encouraged invented spelling for many words as you’ve described, but would always give the correct spelling for sibling names when asked, out of respect for the child. I knew some of the students would refer back and use those names often in their writing, and did not want them to learn them incorrectly.
Yes, Kate, very good point. I always give my kids the spellings of their siblings’ names, too.
Great point on providing the correct spelling of names. When students want a proper noun spelled, they know to bring me a sticky note to write it on. After they copy the word, they may add it to our class word wall, or copy it into their personal dictionary, to use again.
Excellent post! Invented spelling is such a confusing topic for many. I would go on but you already spelled it out for everyone!
Thanks so much, Jeannine – your input is always valuable!
Excellent information, as always! I really liked that this year my son’s kindergarten teacher called it “kid spelling” and “adult spelling.” She told them they would of course use kid spelling to sound out the words until they knew the adult spelling. Once they knew the adult spelling, or had it at as a resource on a word wall or something, then they used that. It really clicked with my son and helped him write really freely.
I love that, Ruth — “kid” and “adult” spelling. And great point about being responsible for spellings on a word wall. That’s something I forgot to mention. Might go back and add that it.
I enjoyed this post. Spelling is something that I deal with consistently when I am writing with my tutoring students. Often, parents want their every word to be spelled correctly. I have to explain that spelling is a developmental process. But what I hadn’t really thought to say was that if it’s an important word that will be used repeatedly, then give it to them (like you said, “two”). Stretch out words that are used less often and give it a go. On a personal note, I laughed about your internal dos/do’s debate. I can relate! Thanks for the post!
Thanks, Tammie! I wish more people understood that children’s spelling is developmental. It would be nice if we could expect them to spell all words correctly from the beginning, but what a shame it would be to limit their writing to only words they knew how to spell. I’m happy to hear that you, as a tutor, “get” it! Keep educating those parents 🙂
What a fabulous post! You hit the nail on the head with invented spelling. So many abuse it and misuse it, but it is such a balancing act, as you have shared. I have loved writing this series with you!
Thanks, Becky… yes, this has been my favorite series so far!