Invented Spelling
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“Using Invented Spelling to Provide Evidence of Early Writing Development in Primary Grades”

            In recent years researchers have been exploring the benefits of interpreting students’ invented spellings to indicate their developing awareness and knowledge of the English language.  Invented spelling, also referred to as developmental spelling, is a beginning writers initial attempts to associate sounds with letters.  “The fundamental idea is that invented spelling provides a direct clue to a child’s current understanding of how written words work” (Invernizzi & Abouzeid, 1994, p. 156).  The closer one looks at children’s experiments with writing, the more one understands about the major principles of the writing system they are trying to master.  As children advance in literacy, their spelling demonstrates a more complete understanding about the organizational patterns of words and will become more conventional.  This paper is an effort to encourage individuals to use children’s invented spellings as a way to understand the skills children are developing at all stages of invented spelling.  It should be looked at as a measurement of growth and not uninformed mistakes.

            Recently, invented spelling has become a popular form of assessment in many classrooms.  Early learners, such as kindergarteners, may formulate some brief but precise messages which are intended to express a message.  This form of creative writing demands that the child pay close attention to the details of print.  Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp (2000) agree that worrying about making a spelling error and feeling dependent on the adult to supply all spellings inhibits children’s engagement in writing and active listening for the sounds in words that is so useful for budding readers.

            Asselin (2001), Bloodgood (1991), and Sipe (2001) stated that traditional spelling instruction and assessment is very different.  Usually teachers delayed writing until children could spell conventionally.  They thought learning to spell was separate from both learning to read and developing vocabulary.  Spelling was taught through rote memorization.  Since teachers tend to teach how they were taught, this traditional form of spelling instruction continues in classrooms.  The problem with this teaching method is that memory is not a sufficient tool to make spelling meaningful and lasting.  Bear (1998) stated that “Children’s brains are not cameras.  We cannot “teach” spelling by trying to get kids to take better pictures of words so that their mental images are clear and precise” (p.222). 

            Many teachers continue to use traditional spelling instruction because invented spelling has gotten a bad name in many classrooms.  Routman (1993), Gentry (2000), and Harwayne (2001) all agree that this bad reputation is due to certain misconceptions surrounding invented spelling’s use.  Research (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp) has actually shown that using temporary invented spelling contributes to children’s success as readers and writers because it draws their attention to the sounds of letters and parts of words (2000).  Many educators assume that if they encourage invented spelling in the classroom, they are not allowed to interfere with children’s writing.  Even though the results may lead to students writing more and more often, they believe that much of children’s work is illegible, sloppy, and filled with misspellings of basic words.  Routman (1993) wrote that this leads to teacher and parent frustration.  He goes on to say that invented spelling recognizes that learning to spell is developmental and teachers should not expect students to get it correct immediately.  Teachers can and should help children some of the time with spelling but must recognize and respect that language develops gradually.  Learners need a lot of time and practice to take risks, make mistakes, and do plenty of reading and writing. 

            Realistically, educators should expect some of the words in invented spelling to be spelled correctly.  For example, a kindergartener should be able to write the words I, me, and my conventionally.  The International Reading Association and The National Association for the Education of Young Children designed a position statement that addresses such developmental spelling and points out that by second grade, children should be moving toward conventional spelling and editing their writing products so that their own spellings are used only in drafts (Neuman et al., 2000).  The problem is that when teachers don’t continually model the reading and writing processes, provide many opportunities for guided practice, and help kids discover and notice features of words, some kids have trouble with reading and spelling.  Invented spelling does not mean that anything goes.  Routman explains that, “Its purpose was to free kids up to write” (1993, p.37).

            Many supporters of invented spelling think that by communicating better the controversy may end.  Gentry argues that “teachers must convey which skills and knowledge children should be acquiring at young ages and how invented spelling is balanced with developmentally appropriate instruction for conventional spelling” (2000, p. 325).  He continued to explain that in his findings negative attitudes often change once parents have a better understanding of how developmental stages of invented spelling inform instruction and enhance assessment of literacy skills.  Harwayne (2001) created a parent-teacher workshop on invented spelling in order to explain predictable attempts of early writing.  She then had parents use their understanding of developmental spelling by reading pieces of children’s early writing.  They displayed the pieces on a bulletin board with explanations of learning based on the child’s spelling strategies. 

            Average childen who enters school may be able to write part or all of their name but this is usually about the limit of their practical skills in written language.  Some children enter knowing much more while others have not progressed beyond the circles and random forms of early drawing.  Dahl (2003), Asselin (2001), Ganske (1999), Bear (1998), Invernizzi & Abouzeid (1994), and Clay (1975) have all researched the developmental stages of spelling and have developed various models that convey development.  In general terms, the earliest stage of development children’s spelling range from random marks to the use of actual letters, but with no sound-symbol correspondence.  In the next stage, children acquired a concept of word.  Spellers begin to recognize that letters have sounds that are used to represent sounds in words.  In the third stage the learners are able to provide a total mapping of letter-sound correspondence; all of the surface sound features of the words being spelled are represented in the spelling.  The fourth stage is when children adhere to basic conventions; vowels appear in every syllable, and spellers begin to learn root words and common prefixes and suffixes.  Finally, in the last stage spellers have knowledge of basic rules and show an extended knowledge of word structure.  The development through the five stages just described illustrate Clay’s findings (1975) that the core of known words build in writing, and as high-frequency words become known, these provide a series from which other words can be composed by taking familiar bits from known words and getting to new words by analogy. 

            In order to achieve the goals of literacy, children must be taught strategies for recognizing and writing words.  Dahl (2003) described five spelling strategies children should be taught.  The first strategy is visualizing.  Children may remember words from books, picture words in their mind, or try alternative spellings (picnic/picnik) to visualize if a word looks right.  The second strategy is when children make connections with words.  They do this by using word families and analogies; could/ would, and starting with patterns they know.  Children can also build words, for example, adding an ending to work to make it working or worked.  The third strategy is focusing on sounds.  Children can sound out words or chunk sounds together (br, sh).  Reflecting words is the fourth stage.  Learners can verify their spellings and correct errors by checking with resources.  The last stage is when children combine information.  They can use multiple strategies or a routine of strategies to arrive at a word.  Past research supports these strategies by labeling good spellers as those who use visual imagery, break words into parts, and use active monitoring (Asselin, 2001).  These findings show that children who engage in writing and are manipulating the units of written language are gaining some awareness of how words can convey spoken messages. 

            Educators must be aware of the developmental stages of learners and teach them spelling strategies to help children improve on skills they have not yet mastered.  In order to do this, teachers must analyze students’ invented spellings in order to inform them where each individual child is at and what they need to review.  By understanding children’s mistakes are not random errors but rather attempts to use rule-governed principles of sounds, teachers can understand the logic and complexity behind invented spelling and guide individuals with appropriate word-study activities that focus on spelling features that are appropriate to students’ current level of competence.  Also, by analyzing children’s inventions with spelling, teachers can identify groups of students with similar instructional needs.  Pinnell and Fountas (1998) described quality literacy program as one where “teachers use systematic observation and assessment to identify children’s understanding and to inform teaching” (p. 15).  Once the teacher is informed, they can then act.

            After a teacher identifies features of correctness, features that are absent, and features that students use but confuse, they need to intervene.  For early learners, one way to help guide children’s writing to be more conventional is through interactive writing.  This is when children dictate their invented spellings and a teacher acts as a scribe and records exactly what they said.  By doing this Button (1996) explains that it increases children’s participation in the act of writing and helps them attend to the details of letters, sounds, and words while working together on a meaningful text.  This is one form of modeling conventional spellings to children.

            Another way for teachers to guide student’s spelling to become more conventional is through mini lessons called “word studies.”  A word study is a broad term that applies to a wide variety of word activities and games.  They involve using categorization sorts and word-play activities that help student investigate word patterns and become knowledgeable spellers so they do not need to rely solely on memory.  When the teacher identifies a group of children with the same misconceptions in their spellings, a word study can enable learners to explore and practice the elements they are trying to understand. 

            Mechanics would not read instructions to learn how to change a tire if they have already attempted and shown that they have mastered that skill.  The same idea applies to spelling instruction.  Why review word endings with the whole class when more than half of the students show evidence of doing it correctly in their writing samples.  A teacher should instead encourage children to write continuously over time in order for him/her to assess skills that need to be taught for that individual child.  There is a significant chance that others in the class have the same misconceptions and small groups can review strategies that they need extra help.  Children’s invented spellings are red flags for teachers to interpret skills that are mastered, misconceptions, and skills not yet reached.  It provides evidence of a child’s developmental stages and growth over time.  The research supports the conclusion that educators need to use this invaluable record to help guide instruction and understand writing development.  Teachers should ask themselves where lessons are coming from, the next section in the plan book or from assessments of children’s ability.  Then ponder the question, “What method of instruction would be more beneficial to the children?”  My prediction is that the most beneficial instruction will be from one designed around children’s current knowledge.





            Asselin, M. (2001). Supporting students’ spelling development. Teacher Librarian, 29 (2), 49-51.


            Bloodgood, J.W. (1991). A new approach to spelling instruction in language arts programs. The Elementary School Journal, 92 (2), 203-211.


            Button, K., Johnson, M.J., & Furgerson, P. (1996). Interactive writing in a primary classroom. The Reading Teacher, 49 (6), 146-154.


            Clay, M.M. (1975). What did I write? Beginning writing behaviour. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


            Cunningham, P.M., Cunningham, J.W. (1992). Making words: enhancing the invented spelling-decoding connection. The Reading Teacher, 46 (2), 106-115.


            Dahl, K.L., Barto, A., Carasello, J.C., et al. (2003). Connecting developmental word study with classroom writing: children’s descriptions of spelling strategies. The Reading Teacher, 57, (4), 310-319.


            Gentry, J. R. (2000). A retrospective on invented spelling and a look forward. The Reading Teacher, 54 (3), 318-332.


            Graves, D.H. (1983). Writing: teachers & children at work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.


            Hall, N. (2000). Interactive writing with young children. Childhood Education, 76 (6), 358-364.


            Harwayne, S. (2001). Writing through childhood: rethinking process and product. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


            Invernizzi, M., Hayes, L. (2004). Developmental-spelling research: a systematic imperative. Reading Research Quarterly, 39 (2), 216-228.


            Neuman, S.B., Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2000). Learning to read and write: developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: National Association of the Young Children.


            Pinnell, G., & Fountas, I.C. (1998). Word matters: teaching phonics and spelling in the reading/writing classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


            Routman, R. (1993, May). The uses and abuses of invented spelling. Instructor, 102, 36-39.


            Sipe, L.R. (2001). Invention, convention, and intervention: invented spelling and the teacher’s role. The Reading Teacher, 55 (3), 264-272.