I love to read my K-2 students’ writing pieces, especially when their writing is overflowing with enthusiasm about an exciting topic, and packed with details that they consider to be important! Sometimes, it takes me a while to figure out some of the words in their writing pieces, because they are in the tender stage of literacy development in which it is beneficial for them to utilize invented spelling.
Invented spelling is a developmental stage that children go through between the ages of 4 and 7 years old. During this period, students use what they know about the alphabetic principle (letters and their corresponding sounds) to sound out and spell the words that they choose to use in their writing. The Invented Spelling Stage is actually an extremely beneficial period of development that allows students to practice what they know, and advance their thinking and understanding of written language.
This drawing above from my student says: “Grow up. It’s part of life”.
Many parents become concerned when their children use invented spelling, because they want their children to be learning and utilizing conventional spelling skills. However, solid spelling skills are not developed through rote memorization. The ability to spell well emanates from an understanding of how our alphabetic English language is organized: letters make sounds; sounds can be mapped to letter symbols; letter symbols can be put into the same sequence in writing, just as oral sounds in spoken words are. Good spellers understand that there is a structure to English, and that structure can be extrapolated into written form.
Spelling is called encoding, which means the act of putting sounds, represented by letter symbols, in a specific sequence to create spoken words in written form. Encoding (spelling) is the reciprocal skill of decoding (reading).
Young children’s spelling skills sometimes emerge before they are able to read. As they learn letter-sound relationships, children begin to experiment with the process of encoding. Encoding is the expressive form of written language, while reading is the receptive form.
This letter above from my kindergarten student says: “I love Rainbow. It is a great school. I wish I could stay there as long as I live. But I know I can’t stay there. But it would be nice to stay. Love, Heather”.
Early attempts at encoding may be very rudimentary, with one or maybe two letters written on a page, seemingly representing an entire word or even a phrase or sentence. Early encoding attempts demonstrate the child’s level of phonetic and phonemic awareness, and provide adults with a window of insight into the child’s level of literacy understanding.
Children’s early spelling skills are referred to as ‘invented spelling”. With invented spelling, children spell words, using their limited knowledge of phonics. Through invented spelling, the adult reader can observe the child’s understanding of initial consonant sounds, and may also observe that the young speller has included obvious sounds heard in the spoken word, but some of the more subtle sounds may be omitted.
Often, young spellers will rely on the names of the letters to represent the sounds that they hear (ex: the name of the letter y sounds like /w/. The use of invented spelling allows children to practice their emerging phonics skills, and they actually benefit greatly from this type of practice. As children gain phonics skills, their invented spelling expands and becomes more like that of conventional spelling. Conventional spelling instruction usually begins in first grade.
Both invented and conventional spelling rely heavily on the child’s understanding and mastery of phonemic awareness (awareness of sounds in words). As phonemic awareness develops, students learn about the sequence of sounds in words, how the alphabet letters map to speech sounds, and how words can be divided into syllables. These skills lend themselves to the creative use of invented spelling, and eventually, to conventional spelling.
As literacy skills and concepts develop and deepen, children become ready for instruction in conventional spelling. At this time, it is necessary for them to learn that the 26 letters of the alphabet actually represent 44 phoneme sounds in our English language. How is this possible? Letters can be combined to make new sounds (ex: th, ow, oy). Some letters make more than one sound (ex: c, g). This skill can be tricky! Further, some letters change their sound when combined with other letters (ex: er, wa). Finally, one sound can be created in many different ways (ex: long e = e, ea, ie, ey, y). This is an enormous learning task for young children to undertake, and takes several years to master.
At this developmental stage, children also begin to learn, either subconsciously or through direct instruction, that there are 6 basic syllable types in the English language. The understanding of these spelling patterns begins to emerge. Since each of the 6 syllable types has an exception, words can thus be classified into 12 basic spelling patterns. Children must also learn the rules that surround suffixes and prefixes to base words, and must be taught the doubling and changing rules for specific spellings. This syllable-type pattern knowledge helps children to learn that the English language has a structure which can be applied to at least 75% of words in our language. The Orton Gillingham Approach teaches these skills explicitly. Spelling does not need to be taught through rote memorization!
The process of encoding is a developmental one, with progressive stages occurring throughout a child’s schooling career. A strong foundation of phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondence knowledge, and syllable construction will serve and support the developing student at every successive level.
“Research demonstrates that combining ample support of temporary spelling with systematic, formal spelling instruction results in more rapid growth in both correct spelling and word recognition than does either approach alone”. (Teaching Reading)
“The primary goal of spelling is to instill the larger logic and regularities of the system and its conventions”. (The Guide to the California Reading Initiative)
“Direct instruction in word analysis and consonant blending is a necessary adjunct to children’s spelling development”. (The Guide to the California Reading Initiative)
Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, the Author of this Blog, is a State Certified Reading Specialist, and is certified through The International Dyslexia Association as a Dyslexia Practitioner. She is an avid advocate for children with reading issues, a speaker at educational conference, an educational consult for schools, and the creator of The Lil’ Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Orton Gillingham-based curriculum, for students ages 3-10 years old. To contact Jenelle, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view the Lil’ Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham Curriculum (digital downloads and multisensory hard goods), please click here: https://www.lilreadingscientists.com/
Lil’ Reading Scientists TM Curriculum Samples: