Reading & Literacy

Invented Spelling Leads to Better Reading, Study Says

By Liana Loewus — May 05, 2017 3 min read
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Encouraging kindergartners’ attempts to spell unknown words on their own can help them become better readers, according to a recent study by two Canadian researchers.

Gene Ouellette, an associate professor of psychology at Mount Allison University, and Monique Sénéchal, a psychology professor at Carleton University, have done a number of studies on how invented spelling plays into literacy acquisition.

“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,” said Ouellette in an interview. “I’d say it’s like the missing piece” in early literacy instruction.

Integrating Reading Skills

Invented spelling (also known as inventive spelling), as explained in Ouellette and Sénéchal’s recent study, published in the journal

Developmental Psychology, refers to “children’s spontaneous or self-directed attempts to represent words in print.” Children generally start with the first sound in a word; for instance, they might spell dog by writing a d, possibly followed by random letters. Then they typically represent final sounds (d becomes dg), and gradually children will include the sounds in the middle.

“It’s an engaging and cognitively strenuous activity,” said Ouellette, “It helps bring together all the skills kids use when they learn how to read,” including alphabetic knowledge and phonemic awareness.

The researchers’ recent study followed about 170 students from kindergarten to 1st grade. It found that children who did more invented spelling and were better at it tended to have stronger literacy skills after a year.

The results, the researchers explain, were causal—meaning that by statistically controlling for how well students knew the alphabet or could listen for sounds, they could see that invented spelling led to better reading (and not the other way around).

With this study, the researchers “have mapped the powerful beginning reading-writing connection, moved us closer to being successful teachers of reading in 1st grade, and cleared up decades of confusion,” J. Richard Gentry, who was not involved in this study but conducted early research on invented spelling in the 1980s, wrote in Psychology Today.

Fears About Teaching the ‘Wrong Way’

To put this into practice, Ouellette recommends that teachers let students attempt to write words before showing them the correct spelling. “Instead of giving them a word list and telling them to memorize it, before a student has ever seen the word, you’d encourage them to spell it,” he said. “It’s a spelling-first approach.”

But the idea of encouraging self-directed spelling does worry some people.

Critics of the tactic are often concerned students will learn incorrect spellings for words and hang onto them.

“People get super defensive” about invented spelling, said Ouellette. “They think we’re saying you should just let kids spell how they want and never teach them the right way.”

But teachers can be supportive of students’ attempts without actually reinforcing misspellings, said Oullette. After students try to spell a word, the teacher can show them the correct spelling and talk about how the spellings differ. “You gradually shape them into the correct spelling,” he said.

As some will remember, invented spelling was once seen as part of the “whole language” approach to reading, which minimizes phonics in favor of simply exposing students to text. That approach fell out of favor in the 1990s based on research showing that students learned to read better through systematic phonics instruction.

Ouellette emphasized that the way invented spelling was used in his research is distinct from the whole language approach, and not compatible with it. “That approach has children writing passages and narratives with invented spelling,” he wrote in an email. “We are advocating word-level work. ... We would also help [children] discover how to improve their spellings over time. “

Top Image: Ellis, a kindergartner, visited the Education Week offices with his mother, assistant managing editor Lesli Maxwell, on Take your Child to Work Day last week. He documented his experience in this note, concluding that his mother is a “gurnalist.”

Lower Image: Ellis writes his mother a card “for a vare speshil resin.” —Lesli Maxwell for Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.