“Invented Spelling”

An example of “invented spelling.”

A definition of “invented spelling” that comes up from a Google search is “The practice of spelling unfamiliar words by making an educated guess as to the correct spelling based on the writer’s existing phonetic knowledge.”

The Florida Center for Reading Research defines it this way:

An attempt to spell a word based on a student’s knowledge of the spelling system and how it works (e.g., kt for cat).

I define “invented spelling” this way:

A child’s effort to spell words in a written assignment before being given adequate classroom instruction by the teacher.

A surprising number of professional educators have bought into the notion that it’s all right to allow kindergartners and first-graders to imagine that they are “writing” when they produce such efforts as these:

The writing on the left was done by a kindergarten child. The one on the right was written by a first-grader. Both samples are presented in all seriousness on the Reading Rockets site as examples of invented spelling that teachers should be prepared to interpret. Imagine the time it would take for an elementary teacher to puzzle out twenty or so “compositions” such as these every day, time far better spent teaching the children how to spell before handing out writing assignments.

I can think of no other academic skill that children are expected to perform before they have been taught how to do it.

The writing samples below show that five- and six-year-olds are, in fact, capable of producing writing that doesn’t require the teacher to possess ESP:

The writing on the left was done by a five-year-old being taught to write and spell with the Spalding method at the Riggs Institute. The six-year-old writer of the other sample began learning to write and spell while still at home. Parents are wise to send their five-year-olds to school with as much experience with spoken and written language as possible.

Two misconceptions drive the education establishment’s acceptance of the concept of “invented spelling” as a pedagogical device:

Misconception 1
Children learn to read and write in the same way they learn to speak.

The ability to speak is hardwired into the human brain. A child learns to speak by hearing others speak and by being spoken to. Writing and spelling are academic skills. They do not come naturally. They must be taught.

Misconception 2
Writing workshop techniques are appropriate in kindergarten and first grade.

Writing workshops have their uses with older students, but nothing is gained by forcing five- and six-year-olds to respond to writing prompts before they’ve been taught to write legibly and to spell the words they use. Grades K-3 are for laying the foundation of written language. The current fad of moving teaching content suitable for the upper grades to K-3 is indefensible. Children of affluent, educated, or extremely determined parents can survive it, but what about the others?

The children who suffer most from the travesty of “invented spelling” are those who come from homes in which they have not received a great deal of verbal stimulation or writing practice. These children need teachers to give them the skills they do not get at home.

In the words of Romalda Spalding, author of The Writing Road to Reading, “No child should be asked to use the tools of a written language until his teacher has taught them to him.”

4 Responses

  1. Carol Widder,
    My academic specialties may not be in early childhood, language development or learning disabilities, but I have completed university courses and attended workshops in those subjects. I have also done one-on-one tutoring and worked with high school students who could barely read. My experience persuades me that whole word reading instruction is ineffective with most children.

    Regarding “invented spelling,” I am not against “allowing kids to spell phonetically.” Many English speech sounds may be spelled with more than one written symbol. My argument is that before children are given extended writing assignments, they should be given time to master the sound/symbol relationships of the letters in the alphabet, along with the “extra letters” needed to spell sounds that do not have a single letter in the alphabet. (/sh/, /ch/, /th/, /th/, /ng/, /ow/, /oy/ at least.)

    Once learners have mastered this phonetic groundwork, then, by all means, encourage them to be adventurous. Be delighted when they write, “I had peetsa for brekfest” or “it wuz a fuhroshus ber.” At that point, the teacher can give feedback on the alternative spellings for the sounds that the child has recorded correctly.

    I would certainly avoid such negative labels as “fair” and “unfair words.” Spelling oddities should not be presented as something to be abhorred, but as a teaching and learning opportunity. For example, an encounter with a word like pizza can introduce children to the fact that English has taken in words from other languages, and that, sometimes, they have taken in a foreign way of spelling with them.

    Thanks for commenting. You’ve prompted me to write a new article regarding invented spelling. Some authorities are now using the term for an approach that differs from the one associated with whole word instruction. The newer approach is based on the work of Ouellette and Sénéchal (2017).

  2. Children who spell phonetically are showing us that they have a good phonologic awareness. Just as in language, children start with cooing, babbling, one word, telegraphic speech, etc. They make approximations, then develop. Phonetic spelling is encouraged and as kids grow and mature they can gradually learn the words, the fair words then the unfair words. To suggest that allowing kids to spell phonetically or to use language experience or whole language is some how miseducation is just plain irresponsible. Like I said, it is unethical to suggest problems until age 9. I see that your credentials are not in early childhood, language development or learning disabilities.

  3. Favour:
    My first question must be, “What has been done so far to teach him?” Without knowing more about your situation, I cannot offer advice. Get back to me if you think I can help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *