I teach kindergarten. We’ve been arguing over whether we should teach spelling or developmental spelling. Which is best?
You’re asking if learning to spell comes more surely from “transmission” (teaching by telling or demonstrating) or from “construction” (learning through discovery or operating on the world). Arguments in educational psychology have raged over this for decades.
I think the dispute – at least with regards to spelling – is misleading. The two approaches are posed as contradictory, that teachers must choose one way or the other.
I don’t see it that way.
Explicit spelling versus invented spelling is a false dichotomy. I encourage both – and did so in my classroom teaching, in my research, and these days even in what I urge on my grandkids.
What does the research say? There is an extensive body of studies showing that explicit spelling instruction results in better spelling and reading and enables better writing. There is also a body of research into invented spelling showing that it results in better phonemic awareness, word reading, and spelling.
Although these approaches may appear to emerge from different philosophical positions, they both confer learning advantages to children. We should not forget that.
It’s easy, of course, to caricaturize proponents of each these approaches. Those who advocate explicit instruction are unreformed behaviorists who champion spelling accuracy at the expense of creativity. Those on the invented spelling side are a bunch of Rousseau-inspired hippies rebelling against society and its rules – including spelling rules.
None of that claptrap has anything to do with the real issues. Everyone wants kids to spell well, and as I pointed out, there is plenty of research supporting both approaches.
What does it mean to “teach” developmental spelling?
Let’s clear one thing up right away. Developmental spelling isn’t something that you teach.
You encourage it, you nurture it, but you don’t teach it, per se.
That’s the whole idea of “invention.” The kids are using what they know about letters, sounds, and words to try to determine reasonable spellings.
I know some on the explicit spelling side dismiss this approach as being akin to the cueing-system guessing that they deplore. But that isn’t the case. One of the major reasons for engaging kids in spelling invention is to induce them to closely think about the phonemic structure of words and the relationship of those phonemes with letters.
That isn’t guessing, it’s analysis – analysis beneficial to kids’ learning.
Not surprisingly, many phonics advocates prefer “speech-to-print phonics.” Part of the reason for this may be that speech-to-print – getting kids to go from sounds to letters – provides a greater opportunity for kids to develop phonemic sensitivity.
If you have any doubts, compare the number of phonemes a nascent writer analyzes when composing a single sentence, and the number included in a good phonemic awareness lesson. That’s also likely the reason that invented spelling is a better predictor than is accurate spelling of growth in reading during the first year of reading instruction (Senechal, 2017).
We encourage developmental spelling because kids may balk at writing in fear of mistakes. A lot more learning happens when students set aside those anxieties. Encouraging students, in this case, means urging them to spell the words in they think they are spelled and not to worry about getting them exactly right. “Just try,” we tell them.
We also need to nurture developmental spelling. There is no learning benefit from laborious corrections. That feels like punishment and kids will avoid attempting to spell if they think their errors will lead to that. Celebrate their efforts rather than reproving them. Bring parents into this equation too – they need to know why you aren’t correcting those misspellings (and that you recognize those spellings as incorrect).
One big benefit of invented spelling is that it provides teachers with a window into their students’ understanding of the spelling system. It is valuable to analyze students’ spelling attempts to try to understand what is going on. That way instruction can be better targeted on students’ needs.
If you are uncertain how to do that, I strongly endorse Richard Gentry’s books on spelling or Charles Temple et al.’s Beginnings of Writing, or Words Their Way. They all have a ton of insight and good teacherly advice.
I know some teachers and parents worry about invented spelling. Their concern is that once kids misspell a word, they will learn the error. That isn’t really how it works. Young children’s spellings are more fluid than that. Their hypotheses about the spelling system are based on what they know, and as they know more – from phonemic awareness and phonics lessons, and from reading words – they adjust their hypotheses.
That’s where formal spelling instruction comes in (Graham, 2000). That teaching adds to what children know about words and becomes part of the grist that they mill. At first, knowing the spelling of a word likely only affects how a child spells that word but over time (memorizing isn’t enough) – as children incorporate that new information into their thinking, their spelling improves more generally. Over time, they incorporate the new information, and their spelling attempts get closer and closer to accuracy.
Of course, kids make plenty of spelling progress just by learning to read (Share, 1999), but with explicit instruction students can make even more rapid progress (Treiman, 2017, p. 273). Good spelling instruction is not the enemy of invented spelling – it’s just another source of information that feeds that invention.
Some facts about early spelling:
Ball, E. W., & Blachman, B. A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26(1), 49-66. doi:https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.26.1.3
Berninger, V. W., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R. D., Begay, K., Coleman, K. B., Curtin, G., . . . Graham, S. (2002). Teaching spelling and composition alone and together: Implications for the simple view of writing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 291-304. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-06220.127.116.111
Graham, S. (2000). Should the natural learning approach replace spelling instruction? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 235-247. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0618.104.22.168
Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27(9), 1703-1743. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11145-014-9517-0
Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Adkins, M. (2018). The impact of supplemental handwriting and spelling instruction with first grade students who do not acquire transcription skills as rapidly as peers: A randomized control trial. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(6), 1273-1294. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11145-018-9822-0
Martins, M. A., & Silva, C. (2006). The impact of invented spelling on phonemic awareness. Learning and Instruction, 16(1), 41-56. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2005.12.005
Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2008). Pathways to literacy: A study of invented spelling and its role in learning to read. Child Development, 79(4), 899–913. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01166.x
Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77-88. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179
Ouellette, G., Sénéchal, M., & Haley, A. (2013). Guiding children's invented spellings: A gateway into literacy learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 81(2), 261-279. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2012.699903
Sénéchal, M. (2017). Testing a nested skills model of the relations among invented spelling, accurate spelling, and word reading, from kindergarten to grade 1. Early Child Development and Care, 187(3-4), 358-370. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2016.1205044
Sénéchal, M., Ouellette, G., Pagan, S., & Lever, R. (2012). The role of invented spelling on learning to read in low-phoneme awareness kindergartners: A randomized-control-trial study. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 25(4), 917-934. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11145-011-9310-2
Treiman, R. (2017). Learning to spell words: Findings, theories, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(4), 265-276. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2017.1296449
P.S. Evidence that students will not need later to “unlearn” their early misspellings comes from a rather extensive body of longitudinal developmental evidence on children’s spelling growth over time (references below). This week my granddaughter shared with me her year-long kindergarten journal – which reveals yet again the fluid nature of young children’s spelling attempts as they try to master an understanding of the phonological/orthographic structure of words. For those, for whom such descriptive studies are insufficient, there are also experimental tests of the idea refuting the notion that invented misspellings are learned (Ehri, Gibbs, & Underwood, 1988). The preponderance of evidence suggests it is better to encourage developmental spelling attempts than to try to prevent children from putting to use what they are learning about words. Learning to read and spell words is more than a rote memorization task – nascent readers benefit from analyzing the speech stream and attempting to map letters to those sounds.
Bissex, G.L. (1980). GNYS AT WRK: A child learns to read and write. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Clemens, N. H., Oslund, E. L., Simmons, L. E., & Simmons, D. (2014). Assessing spelling in kindergarten: Further comparison of scoring metrics and their relation to reading skills. Journal of School Psychology, 52(1), 49-61.
Ehri, L. C., Gibbs, A. L., & Underwood, T. L. (1988). Influence of errors on learning the spellings of English words. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 13(3), 236-253. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(88)90024-0
Ferreiro, E. (1978). What is written in a written sentence? A developmental answer. Journal of Education, 160, 25-39.
Frost, J. (2001). Phonemic awareness, spontaneous writing, and reading and spelling development from a preventive perspective. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 14(5-6), 487-513.
Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.
Godin, M., Gagné, A., & Chapleau, N. (2018). Spelling acquisition in French children with developmental language disorder: An analysis of spelling error patterns. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 34(3), 221-233.
Henderson, E. H. and Beers J. W. (1980). (Eds.) Developmental and cognitive aspects of learning to spell: A reflection of word knowledge. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association.
Huxford, L., Terrell, C., & Bradley, L. (1992). 'Invented' spelling and learning to read. In C. M. Sterling, & C. Robson (Eds.), Psychology, spelling and education; psychology, spelling and education (pp. 159-167). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Kamii, C., & Manning, M. (1999). Before “invented” spelling”: Kindergartners’ awareness that writing is related to sounds of speech. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 14, 16-25.
Lazo, M. G., Pumfrey, P. D., & Peers, I. (1997). Metalinguistic awareness, reading and spelling: Roots and branches of literacy. Journal of Research in Reading, 20(2), 85-104.
McBride-Chang, C. (1998). The development of invented spelling. Early Education and Development, 9(2), 147-160.
Lie, A. (1999). Effects of a training program for stimulating skills in word analysis in first-grade children. Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 234-250.
Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). See above.
Read, C. (1971). Preschool children's knowledge of English phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 41, 1-34.
Read, C. (1975). Children’s categorizations of speech sounds in English. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English
Read, C. (1986). Children's creative spelling. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Zhang, C., Bingham, G. E., & Quinn, M. F. (2017). The associations among preschool children’s growth in early reading, executive function, and invented spelling skills. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 30(8), 1705-1728. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-017-9746-0
Zhang, Y., Nie, H., & Ding, B. (1986). The ability to manipulate speech sounds depends on knowing alphabetic reading. Cognition, 24, 31-44.
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