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.
“It doesn’t cost anything.” That also means that invented spelling doesn’t make anyone money, either. It’s not an entrepreneurial opportunity. Invented spelling needs lots of good PR, like this blog and the Psychology Today article to (re)gain a strong place in schools. Thank you!
Nancy Bailey says
Short of a PR marketing campaign, parents will need to understand it to accept it. My guess is a lot of the backlash came from parents who were never given more of an explanation than, “recent research shows this is better.” I’ve heard a parents complain about it before and, after reading this article, I realize all of their complaints stemmed from ignorance (not in a pejorative sense). I imagine the teachers didn’t anticipate it being such a hot button issue, so it didn’t occur to them to give a longer explanation. And it’s the kind of thing parents just grumble about to their friends or online, but probably not the kind of thing they complain about to teachers.
Nancy Bailey says
I’m getting an earful from parents on FB. Here is what confuses me. Phonics has ruled in the classroom for what? 20 years? If it is working, why are there so many children with reading problems?
I am not opposed to phonics. I taught it and believe it is important. But invented spelling is phonics. I’d like to hear more about what’s being taught k-1.
“I don’t want my kids to invent spelling! I want them to spell right!”
I’ve heard the same concept as “phonetic spelling” or “developmental spelling.” Maybe it just needs rebranding.
How about “Next Generation Spelling?” 🙂
Arlene Farray says
Children cannot spell because they never lean the sound of letters, and there are many children with LDs who have difficulty with spelling. I came from a third world country, and we did not directly learn phonics, but the phonetic content of our books were strong. We learned the alphabet through repetition-something not endorsed now-, and the sounds came. We were then given word building exercises, that helped us further with phonetic content and spelling, We also had assigned texts for reading designed to expose us to sophisticated vocabulary and the depth of language.. And before I forget we learned standard English Grammar. I recently did an online course in English and it stated that one of the benefits of grammar is to enhance writing. I do not know if it is beneficial though since I was accused of writing like a book.
I work as one of the most despised people-an Education Assistant-and what the students do for Language Arts can never improve their spelling skills. Here is the list:
Silent reading-how does the teacher know that the book is sufficient to develop language skills;
The Daily Five: Read to self, read to someone else, listen to someone reading; read with the teacher, and for vocabulary building-scrabble.
Learning language including spelling and writing has been made unserious because of the belief that students will pick up. What happens if they do not pick up?
Cynthia Dallmeyer says
Invented spelling freed my LD middle school students to write their ideas without having to continually second guess themselves. It was important in teaching a writing process that a first draft did not need to be letter perfect. Editing and proofreading would perfect the product in the final or future drafts. It allowed their ideas to drive the process and put mechanics in the back seat. The focus was on their thought process while they were composing. It also emphasized for them that writing is not a one step process.
Over the years of teaching various ages, I saw the anxiety created by the internalized demand to produce mechanically correct writing product. More children were stalled by the need to spell every word correctly than they ever were by having trouble choosing a writing topic. By the time I taught in high school, even the thoughts were frozen solid. Thank goodness it was still possible to get them to engage orally.
Nancy Bailey says
I had the same experience, Cynthia! Both teaching middle and high school students I always started the class with free journal writing. It allowed me to get to know my students. Thank you for sharing.
Nancy Bailey says
Now that’s a thought, Carrie! You would do well with a career in marketing. Thank you!
Roy Turrentine says
What ever we do, it will fail if it does not cost something. There is no free ride. RTI might work, but no one is going to fund it. It strikes me that the invented spelling thing is pretty intensive in terms of labor. Someone has to pay. Cost is always the problem.
Arlene Farray says
I do not agree with this finding based on my experience with children and invented spelling. First sometimes the spelling is so far removed from the actual word in phonemes and recognizable sound that when the children return to the words especially if it is new vocabulary they can never decipher it.
In addition, it appears that once you have adopted this way of spelling it sticks with you. You never develop the awareness each word has its own unique assembly of letters for correct spelling. I have seen students writing with word prediction software and they do not know what word to select among those presented because they do not know how to spell the word they want to write.
invented spelling is not new children have been doing it for a long time and we know the results when universities posit that freshmen cannot read, spell and write.
Modern education is so obsessed with the idea of transmission of knowledge to students, that they will go to any lengths to avoid it. I believe that a large part of the spelling problem arises from memory problems. in any event, given the vagaries of phonetic content in the English language, spelling words by how it sounds to the ear makes for a lot of confusion.
In conclusion, inventive spelling can only teach you to spell incorrectly.