Inventive spelling helps children become confident writers

Young children love to express themselves and share their ideas. Often, when they start writing, they look for help with the ever popular question: “How do you spell . . . ?”  It is easy to fall into the trap of answering that question when your child is so earnest about getting his message onto paper. However, this practice can backfire in several ways. When parents or caretakers get into the habit of calling out the correct letters to a word as their child writes each letter, they deny their child an opportunity to solve his problem by applying what he has learned about letters and sounds, they interrupt his thoughts, they take some ownership of the project away from the child, and they diminish the opportunity for their child to feel independent.

Encouraging your child to use inventive spelling is the solution to the problems created when children ask you to spell for them. Inventive spelling is the process of listening for the sounds in words and writing letters to represent those sounds. When young children begin this process, they often hear and identify only a few of the sounds in words - usually the beginning sound(s) and some ending sounds. For instance, the sentence I LIKE RAINBOWS may be written like this: I L RB. As a child learns to listen for and identify individual sounds in words, he may indicate the same sentence like this: I LK RNBZ. Long vowel sounds are often added next, so as his skill develops, he may write:  I LIK RANBOZ. A child has used inventive spelling successfully when he can accurately “read back” his intended message. With practice and experience, adults also learn to decipher their child’s invented spelling message. It is often helpful for an adult to correctly write the intended word under the child’s attempt so that the word to be accurately identified at a later time. I always asked a child for permission to write on his paper and then did so only when I knew that the writing would be difficult to recognize later. I never had one child refuse to let me write on his work. And I always wrote in pencil in small letters so that my writing had minimal visual impact on the child’s work. As the school year progressed, children proudly recognized that fewer and fewer words needed to be written on their pages.

Parents often wonder if encouraging children to spell “any way they want to” inhibits the learning of conventional spelling. My resounding answer to this question is “No!”  Children want to spell correctly and often memorize the correct spelling of frequently seen or favorite words, including family names or words such as love, mommy, daddy, baby, etc. Rather than inhibiting conventional spelling, inventive spelling encourages writing and smoothly leads into conventional spelling. For instance, early reading words with the C-V-C (consonant-vowel-consonant) configuration can be correctly spelled by carefully listening for each sound in the word, which is the process used when writing words with inventive spelling.

The writing prompt worksheets provide fun opportunities for children to write. You may wish to read several writing prompts to your child and allow him to choose one. Your child may want to talk aloud for a moment as he thinks about his answer to the writing prompt question. Then direct him to begin by first drawing a picture that illustrates his response. Allow about 5 - 10 minutes for the drawing. Additional details can be added later. Next ask your child to “show his words” by listening to the sounds in each word and writing the letters that represent the sounds he hears in the words. I intentionally use the phrase “show your words” instead of “spell your words” because young children know that they cannot spell most words with conventional spelling. They are much more comfortable writing independently when they realize that conventional spelling is not expected at this time.

Writing Prompt Worksheets

When your child is finished writing, immediately ask him to read his words to you. (Children can sometimes forget what they have written after some time has elapsed.)  To demonstrate respect for your child’s work, ask his permission for you to lightly write the correctly spelled word under any word that will not be deciphered at a later time. There is no need to correctly write words that you could make out on your own (LV for love or SKL for school, for instance). 

Encourage your child to return to his illustration and add details and color. Often the details help spark a child’s memory as he attempts to read his writing at a later time.

I know you will enjoy hearing your child’s ideas and seeing his writing skills grow.

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