ERIC Identifier: ED272922
Publication Date: 1986-00-00
Author: Lutz, Elaine
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading
and Communication Skills Urbana IL.
Invented Spelling and Spelling Development. ERIC Digest.
In the past, spelling was usually taught as a separate subject;
memorization was thought to be the key to its mastery. Even now, most elementary
schools use spelling series and treat spelling as a subject separate from the
other language arts. However, during the past decade, language researchers have
shed new light on the spelling process. The acquisition of spelling rules is now
viewed as a complex developmental process. Once the stages of this process are
identified, elementary teachers can help students develop strategies for
learning standard English spelling, and they can assess students' progress more
accurately. This digest defines invented spelling, describes the developmental
stages, and considers implications for classroom instruction.
WHAT IS INVENTED SPELLING?
Invented spelling refers to young children's attempts to use their best
judgments about spelling. In one of the first major studies of children's
beginning attempts at learning to spell, linguist Charles Read (1975) examined
the writing of thirty preschoolers who were able to identify and name the
letters of the alphabet and to relate the letter names to the sounds of words.
The students had "invented" spellings for words by arranging letters. Read
writes, "One sees clearly that different children chose the same phonetically
motivated spellings to a degree that can hardly be explained as resulting from
random choice or the influence of adults." In other words, even at an early age,
the children were able to detect phonetic characteristics of words that English
spelling represents. Read concluded that, by and large, "learning to spell is
not a matter of memorizing words, but a developmental process that culminates in
a much greater understanding of English spelling than simple relationships
between speech sounds and their graphic representations."
WHAT ARE THE STAGES OF SPELLING DEVELOPMENT?
As preschool and early elementary school children discover the intricacies of
printed English, they go through several stages of spelling development. Gentry
(1982), building on Read's research, describes five stages: precommunicative,
semiphonetic, phonetic, transitional, and correct.
In the precommunicative stage, the child uses symbols from the alphabet but
shows no knowledge of letter-sound correspondences. The child may also lack
knowledge of the entire alphabet, the distinction between upper- and lower-case
letters, and the left-to-right direction of English orthography.
In the semiphonetic stage, the child begins to understand letter-sound
correspondence--that sounds are assigned to letters. At this stage, the child
often employs rudimentary logic, using single letters, for example, to represent
words, sounds, and syllables (e.g., U for you).
Children at the phonetic stage use a letter or group of letters to represent
every speech sound that they hear in a word. Although some of their choices do
not conform to conventional English spelling, they are systematic and easily
understood. Examples are KOM for come and EN for in.
During the transitional stage, the speller begins to assimilate the
conventional alternative for representing sounds, moving from a dependence on
phonology (sound) for representing words to a reliance on visual representation
and an understanding of the structure of words. Some examples are EGUL for eagle
and HIGHEKED for hiked.
In the correct stage, the speller knows the English orthographic system and
its basic rules. The correct speller fundamentally understands how to deal with
such things as prefixes and suffixes, silent consonants, alternative spellings,
and irregular spellings. A large number of learned words are accumulated, and
the speller recognizes incorrect forms. The child's generalizations about
spelling and knowledge of exceptions are usually correct.
Gentry notes that the change from one spelling stage to the next is a gradual
one and that examples from more than one stage may coexist in a particular
sample of writing. However, children do not fluctuate radically between stages,
passing from phonetic back into semiphonetic spelling or from transitional back
to phonetic. According to Carol Chomsky (1976), the major need for inventive
spellers who are beginning to read is to have someone to answer their questions
and correct their mistakes, such as the misreading of words, when necessary.
It is clear that instruction in standard spelling shapes the developmental
process in important ways. Read's research shows that the characteristics of
invented spelling do change after exposure to standard spelling instruction.
However, some children's spelling shows aspects of invented spelling for several
years. But even these children do not have any special difficulty in adapting to
standard spelling. Read's conclusion is that children's understanding of
spelling is based on a set of tacit hypotheses about phonetic relationships and
sound-spelling correspondences, and that children are able to modify these
hypotheses readily as they encounter new information about standard spelling.
HOW CAN TEACHERS NURTURE SPELLING DEVELOPMENT IN THE CLASSROOM?
An awareness of spelling development can help teachers plan instruction. For
precommunicative and semiphonetic spellers, teachers may teach alphabet
knowledge, letter-sound correspondences, the concept of "wordness," and
left-to-right directionality. At the phonetic stage, students might be
introduced, in the context of writing, to word families, spelling patterns,
phonics, and word structures (Gentry, 1982).
Gentry holds that purposeful writing experiences are the key to cognitive
growth in spelling. Teachers can encourage purposeful writing, such as the
writing of messages, lists, plans, signs, letters, stories, songs, and poems.
Teachers can also provide opportunities for frequent writing, which, when
integrated with all aspects of the curriculum, should be a natural part of the
daily classroom routine. Frequent application of spelling knowledge by students
while writing encourages spelling competency.
In teaching students to write, teachers should avoid overemphasis on absolute
correctness, mechanics, and memorization. Early emphasis on mechanical aspects
of spelling inhibits developmental growth. When frequent purposeful writing
takes precedence, adherence to the rules is secondary. The teacher in no sense
abandons expectations for correctness. Rather, correctness is nurtured more
effectively through knowledge of the pupils' level of development.
Teachers can also make use of instructional games since children acquire
language, in large part, from their alertness to language around them. Hodges
(1981) points out that language games can be used to enhance the young child's
growing awareness of words and how they are spelled. In LEARNING TO SPELL,
Hodges presents games that involve exploring sound and letter relationships,
manipulating letters to form words, building words, alphabetizing, and using the
Finally, teachers can select spelling words from varied sources. For example,
teachers can select words for formal instruction from two sources: their
students' own writing and a list of high frequency words, such as the New Iowa
Spelling Scale of 1977 (DiStefano and Hagerty, 1985).
If schools are to make use of recent insights into children's language
development, changes in teacher and public attitudes are required. Teachers must
be encouraged to relate spelling to purposeful writing rather than to conduct
rule-based instruction or to rely on memorization. Students' invented spellings
must be seen as opportunities for them to contribute actively to their own
learning. By combining an understanding of invented spelling with formal
spelling instruction, teachers should be able to develop more effective spelling
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Chomsky, Carol. "Approaching Reading through Invented Spelling." Paper
presented at the Conference on Theory and Practice of Beginning Reading
Instruction, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 1976. ED 155 630.
DiStefano, Philip P., and Patricia J. Hagerty. "Teaching Spelling at the
Elementary Level: A Realistic Perspective." THE READING TEACHER 38 (1985):
Gentry, J. Richard. "An Analysis of Developmental Spelling in GNYS AT WRK."
THE READING TEACHER 36 (1982): 192-200.
Hodges, Richard E. LEARNING TO SPELL. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers of English,
1981. ED 202 016.
Read, Charles. CHILDREN'S CATEGORIZATION OF SPEECH SOUNDS IN ENGLISH. Urbana,
IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council
of Teachers of English; Arlington, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics, 1975. ED 112 426.