Pros and Cons of Invented or Inventive Spelling in the Elementary Classroom

For many years, learning to spell has been one of the earliest benchmarks of literacy. Children are drilled on lists of key vocabulary words, study spelling books designed for practicing and avoiding the various pitfalls of the English language, and enter spelling bees to find out which of them was the best at this crucial skill. Movies like 2002’s Spellbound featured young students competing for a ten thousand dollar prize in the National Spelling Bee. Spelling bees, like other contests for children, have recently been widely targeted as a source of too much pressure and competition at too early an age. However, for many of the first generation American pre-teenagers and their families involved in this particular one, the ability to spell became a metaphor for true success in this country.

The importance of “correct” spelling at an early age is no longer universally accepted as an integral part of learning to read and write, however. Increasingly, many educators are supporting “invented/inventive” spelling (also called “phonetic spelling”) as the best way to give students ownership over their own literacy at as early an age as possible. As an incoming elementary school classroom teacher, I am finding it necessary to form my own opinions about early literacy and formative writing skills, and with the level of controversy over which techniques are better, it has been difficult to know to whom I should be listening. Bearing this in mind, in this essay, I will seek to define invented spelling and the theories of spelling development surrounding it, as well as present a brief overview of the ongoing debate on which method is most effective.

Invented spelling is defined as “young children’s attempts to use their best judgments about spelling”[1] and “the practice of allowing or encouraging beginning readers to write any way they want. The idea is that the act of writing, for the beginner, is more important than correctness of form (correct spelling).”[2] Preschool and early elementary school children are thought to go through five stages of spelling development (as described by J. Richard Gentry[3]), which I will paraphrase below:

1. Precommunicative: In this stage, writing only has meaning for the child who wrote it – letters, shapes and drawings are strung together randomly. The child usually has no knowledge that letters represent sounds, and may or may not have knowledge of the whole alphabet or the direction of English orthography (i.e. writing may be right-to-left, vertical, or scattered around the page instead of the traditional left-to-right).

2. Semiphonetic: The child begins to know that letters represent sounds. Semiphonetic spellers write only some of the letters in a word. They may or may not put spaces between words, and often represent whole words with consonants (for instance, MDGSHP might mean “My dog is happy”).

3. Phonetic: The child usually spells words the way they sound. They write all of the sounds they hear in words, though they often don’t hear all the sounds. The words are much more readable, though vowels and irregular spellings are not yet correct. There is more evidence of word spacing (ex: I ws et hm plg for “I was at home playing”).

4. Transitional: The child begins to write words in more traditional ways. There is a transition from complete reliance on sound to reliance on (visual) memory of how the word looks in print. There are more correct vowels, and often all of the right letters are present, if not in the right order (ex: tipe for “type,” huose for “house,” etc.).

5. Correct/Conventional: These spellers develop over many years. They have a working knowledge of the basic rules of the English spelling (orthographic) system. They also have knowledge of alternative and irregular spellings. A large number of words can be spelled automatically, and the child can often identify incorrectly spelled words. The fundamental argument for teaching invented spelling is that it allows children to “focus first on the purpose of writing – communicating their thoughts – without the worry of having everything spelled exactly right.”[4] Supporters of the invented spelling approach argue that children’s ability to use it shows an increasing understanding of letter-sound correspondences, as more advanced invented spelling calls for the child to write down the sounds they hear in different words. Several also mention their worry that constantly correcting children as they write can ruin their self-esteem and kill the joy of writing for them. They maintain that, if a child is allowed to write uninterrupted, they will learn to love writing much more than if a teacher is constantly intervening to change their spelling.

There is also a great deal of concern expressed about the dangers of traditional methods of learning to spell, such as using workbooks or teacher-generated word lists. Many of the invented spelling proponents believe that, in order to become good spellers, children need to learn to take responsibility for their own spelling; they need to learn how to proofread their own work and they need to realize when it is important to do so. Teachers circling students’ misspellings for them gets in the way of students learning to become good independent spellers.[5]

Errors are seen as symbols of growth, and many of the articles in favor of invented spelling make the argument that, if children outgrow immature forms of speech (like saying “bringed” instead of “brought”), there’s no reason to believe that they won’t outgrow their invented spellings as they continue to explore written language. Learning to read and write is thought to be a natural process, much the same as learning to speak.

An extreme example of such a writing program is the Rebecca Sitton method, which was originally presented as a seminar in 1995 under thetitle “Improve Student Spelling Achievement.”[6] In Sitton’s program, students are only expected to correctly spell 1,200 “core” (frequently used) words by the eighth grade (to give an idea of the contrast, phonics-taught children are generally expected to spell several thousands of words by then[7]). Core words for early grades include: a, and, at, for, he, his (but not she, her), is, it, on, one, that, the, you, etc. When writing all other words, children are encouraged to use invented spelling. In her seminar guidebook, Sitton writes that “very few spelling rulesâÂ?¦.are effective in teaching spelling,” and that “learning to spell a word involves forming a correct visual image of the whole word. All words should be introduced as whole words so that students can more easily form and retain correct visual images of them.”

Despite all of the recent support for invented spelling, however, there are many that are speaking out against it as well. On December 12, 1996, the California Board of Education mandated that “professional development for reading teachers must be limited to traditional phonics methods; instructors must sign a form stating that they will not teach other approaches.”[8] Teacher training programs are forbidden from using any material that “promotes or uses reading instruction methodologies that emphasize contextual clues in lieu of fluent decoding, or systematically uses or encourages inventive spelling techniques in the teaching of writing.”[9] Two years before, California had tied with Louisiana as the two states with the lowest average reading skills on the National Assessment of Educational Process. The task force that was assigned to examine the findings decided that the cause was a decade-long state-wide Whole Language curriculum that included, among other things, a strong emphasis on invented spelling.

Several specific invented spelling programs, including Rebecca Sitton’s aforementioned curriculum, have been the subjects of a great deal of criticism from other educators. In one of his articles for the National Right to Read Foundation[10], Dr. Patrick Groff clearly states his belief that Sitton’s work flies in the face of scientifically-based literacy research. He says that the program “allows teachers to mask failure to teach spelling effectively,” calling her approach “perverted” and attacking her position on using whole-word strategies for visual learning:

She misinterprets the ability of a person, who already can spell a word usually unerringly, to correctly observe that the version of it that he has just spelled does not “look right.” Students who have yet to learn to spell a given word correctly do not yet have this ability. The “correct visual image” of a word, to which Sitton refers, occurs only after a student can spell a word, not during the period he cannot do so.

Groff also finds fault with Sitton’s claims on the basis that she provides neither research sources nor methodologies in her published work, and that there appears to be no experimental data to support many of her hypotheses (he goes on to later note that there are many empirical studies that directly contradict them). In another of Groff’s articles, “A Critique of Inventive Spelling,”[11] he asserts that much scientific evidence shows that children learn to spell correctly faster if they are taught in a direct, methodical way, and that there is a direct correlation between children’s ability to spell correctly and the quality of their writing.

Another argument against invented spelling postulated in several articles is the belief that teaching traditional/conventional spellings does not stifle children; that, in fact, it empowers them by laying the groundwork for future academic success. Tufts professor Becky New told me a story about her daughter Francesca who, upon failing her first spelling test in second grade angrily cried, “The teachers should talk to each other!” Her first grade teacher had encouraged her students to spell words phonetically, rarely if ever providing a correct spelling. Suddenly, without warning, this method was made obsolete. Several of the articles mention similar stories, all of which recall children’s dismay at arriving at a higher grade (or different school) and finding that their invented spelling is no longer acceptable.

In both my research and practical experience, I have seen strong advantages and disadvantages to teaching children to write with invented spelling. At the Bank Street School for Children, where there is no explicit teaching of spelling until the “8/9s” (third grade) and all children are encouraged to write with “kid spelling” and not worry about “grown-up spelling”, the four-year-olds eagerly write page after page of phonetic spelling in their journals. Nothing could make a teacher happier than seeing a love of writing cultivated in students from such an early age.

However, when I worked with the “13s” (eighth grade), I found a startlingly high number of spelling errors, even in quotidian words. I began to wonder if the consistent mistakes might have to do with how long the students go without having their spelling corrected, and if perhaps invented spelling is something that should be encouraged only up to (or perhaps through) kindergarten. This notion was further corroborated upon speaking with (adult) friends who attended invented spelling-based programs in childhood and early adolescence; while they are certainly creative and often prolific writers, they are, for the most part, reprehensibly bad spellers.

After considering both sides of the argument, I am left with one big question: Why do we have to choose? Spokespersons for both perspectives often behave and write as though we as educators should be compelled to select one method over the other, rather than seeking out the most effective parts of both and combining them. In trying to force schools to choose only one, the researchers forget one crucial point: there is no one way of teaching spelling and writing that will reach every child. It is our biggest responsibility to find a way of getting through to each student, leaving aside personal preferences and theories about who’s right and who’s wrong. Taking that into consideration, I can only conclude that the “best” way to teach children to spell is to combine aspects of both programs into an adaptable curriculum (one that will differ significantly from classroom to classroom) that both fosters enjoyment and provides the basic tools for strong literacy.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – [1] Lutz, E. (1986). “Invented Spelling and Spelling Development.” Urbana, IL: Educational Resources InformationCenter (ERIC) Digest.

[2] Author Unknown. (1999). LinguaLinks Library Version 4.0. Sil International.

[3] Gentry, J.R. (1987). Spel…is a Four-Letter Word.New Hampshire: Heinemann Press.

[4] Savage, J. (2001). “In Defense of Invented Spelling.” Educators Publishing Service.

[5] Author Unknown. (1991, revised 1998). Arizona: Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT).

[6] Sitton, R. (1995). Seminar Guidebook: Improve Student Spelling Achievement. Washington: Egger Publishing.

[7] Statistics from the National Right to Read Foundation. Virginia. (1998).

[8] Reprinted by Boychuk, B. (1996). California: The Claremont Institute.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Groff, P. (Year unknown). “Rebecca Sitton Spelling Program Contradicts Scientific Research”. Virginia: National Right to Read Foundation.

[11] Groff, P. (Year unknown). “A Critique of Inventive Spelling”. Virginia: National Right to Read Foundation.

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