What we’ve found over the years is there seemed to be something with kids who are doing invented spelling on their own that’s really helping them learn how to read.
~ Gene Ouellette, Associate Professor of Psychology at Mount Allison University
It looks like it’s best to hand young children paper and pencil instead of an iPad if you want them to be reading by the end of first grade. Probably this is better than the rigorous Response to Intervention (RTI) too, the multi-tiered assessment and intervention program that starts in kindergarten.
What’s called for, according to new research, is letting children have some developmental control of their own learning.
Invented spelling (or inventive spelling) where children write unfamiliar words the way they think they sound, even if they are incorrect, gradually breaking the code and progressing to the right word, is effective. There’s also something about that kinesthetic movement, writing on paper, that reinforces neural pathways.
Gene Quellette and Monique Sénéchal, who’ve been studying invented spelling for years, found that Longitudinally, invented spelling influenced subsequent reading, along with alphabetic knowledge while mediating the connection between phonological awareness and early reading. Invented spelling also influenced subsequent conventional spelling along with phonological awareness, while mediating the influence of alphabetic knowledge. Invented spelling thus adds explanatory variance to literacy outcomes not entirely captured by well-studied code and language-related skills.
What’s not to like? Children feel good about themselves writing their own words. No one tells them repeatedly that they are doing something wrong. Dare I say that it’s fun? There’s no regurgitation of meaningless nonsense syllables like they find with RTI.
Eventually, with practice, children self-correct their own misspelled words. Teachers and parents can always gently correct the words and have the student spell them correctly if they don’t seem to be making progress.
And don’t think phonics is forgotten with invented spelling. Children are working the sounds of those letters out in their heads with every approximation.
Good teachers know about invented spelling. But this process has met unfair skepticism—caught up in the anti-whole language rigmarole.
We also live in an age of distrust—where no one likes to leave any learning up to the child. Teaching must be scripted, managed, and controlled so tightly that children have no breathing room—even when they are starting to learn to read.
Some all-phonics enthusiasts push formal phonics early. Children don’t get enough time to experiment with words as they see and hear them. They get little time to enjoy scribbling, drawing pictures, and printing letters that sound like words.
Some children might need a formal phonics program eventually, but the key is determining when. Other children need little phonics—if any.
Invented spelling seems too simple. And it doesn’t cost anything. It also might not be well understood that the brain gets a real workout when the child is writing and making those guesses. It’s easy for adults who want immediate results to grow impatient.
Yet, this sound-word relationship is important to children. It shouldn’t be ignored. It especially shouldn’t be discounted in the abnormal push to make children read earlier then their development.
Even middle and high school students with learning disabilities are assisted with invented spelling. The study was primarily about words, but writing sentences this way can also be helpful to older students.
Part of the appeal is removing the guilt and embarrassment of being reminded of spelling and writing mistakes. When one can freely write and express themselves without those fears, it’s a relief.
For teachers, the challenge is to be able to read approximations of the words, rewrite them, and have the student copy the correct words. Correcting the words later and having students rewrite a finished product they are proud of can be both instructive and rewarding.
So welcome back invented spelling! Providing students space to develop and feel good about their writing, no matter how imperfect it might be in the beginning, is sacrosanct. It helps a child learn to read.
Other phonics programs are still important, but this new research on invented spelling puts a new spin on things.
Young children need more time to develop writing and reading on their own—to feel good about who and what they can do. Let’s give them that chance.
Gentry, J. Richard. “Landmark Study Finds Better Path to Reading Success.” Psychology Today. March 30, 2017.
Loewus, Liana. “Invented Spelling Leads to Better Reading Study Says.” Education Week. May 5, 2017.
Sénéchal, Monique. 2017. “Testing a Nested Skills Model of the Relations Among Invented Spelling, Accurate Spelling, and Word Reading, From Kindergarten to Grade 1,” Early Child Development and Care, 187 (3-4): 358-370.
Quellette, Gene and Sénéchal, Monique. 2017. Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1: A New Pathway to Literacy, or just the same Road, Less Known?” Developmental Psychology. 53(1): 77-88.