Susan Sowers, invented spelling, beginning spellers, learning to read and write, literacy, Kindergarten, Pragmatic Mom,

Invented Spelling Necessary for Learning to Read: Froshus Dobrmn Pensr

What is Invented Spelling and Why is it Important?

My son’s Kindergarten teacher distributes this ground breaking article by Susan Sowers, Harvard Graduate School of Education every year to the parents in her class.  I remember as a new parent of a Kindergartener that I thought invented spelling was both cute, funny, and strange.  I clearly did not ever remember learning to write using invented spelling myself and apparently my mom didn’t save those papers (and yet, everything else).  I also remember wondering if my child would ever learn to spell correctly and when that kicks in.

The invented spelling phase is both a necessary step in learning to READ as well as write.  As a parent, it’s also a phase that is short-lived and wonderfully fun and funny.  Save those first works of invented spelling stories for your child’s memory box.  It doesn’t get any better than this!

Here’s her article.  I tried to find it on the internet, but could not.  I am rekeying it for you and hope that Susan Sowers doesn’t mind sharing her information …

1.  What is invented spelling?

Invented spelling is the name for children’s misspellings before they know the rules adults use to spell, often before they know how to read.  In some respects inventive spellers are learning to write as they learned to talk.

Inventive spellers’ errors are systematic.  Their judgments result from their tacit knowledge about our systems of sounds, but they don’t know all our conventions for written language.  Like children learning to talk, they construct a series of increasingly elaborate rule systems.  We can infer their rules, but children can’t formulate the rules they follow.  Inventive spellers’ errors give us a window on their thinking.

Inventive spellers’ errors don’t interfere with their learning to spell correctly later.  Like early attempts to walk, talk, and draw, initial attempts to spell do not produce habits to be overcome.  No one worries when a child’s first drawing of a person is a head propped up on two stick legs.  As the errors become more sophisticated — two stick arms protruding from the head where the ears should be — no one fears this schema will become a habit though it may be repeated a hundred times.  although deficient by many measures, the drawings are not interpreted a signs of visual, cognitive, or fine motor problems.  they are greeted as a display of intelligence and emerging proficiency.

2.  Why should children be permitted to be inventive spellers?

Invented spelling is not so much an approach to writing as it is a way of removing obstacles in the path of a young writer.  Here are some advantages for learners and teachers:

  • Independence.  An inventive speller doesn’t have to ask for the correct spelling of every word he doesn’t know.
  • Fluent and powerful writing. Children can elaborate their stories and play on the paper without interruptions to look up correct spellings.  With invented spelling, writing need not be the shortest distance between the title and “the end.”
  • Efficient instruction. By application of rules about the relationship between sound and symbol, children practice and drill themselves at a pace and a level of difficulty appropriate to their skills.  NO teacher has the time to motivate, diagnose, and assign the appropriate individualized material for encoding and decoding that could match the work children do when they write.  Their greater commitment to their own work also ensures a different quality of attention than they would give to worksheets and workbooks.  A beginner may struggle and reread a single sentence thirty or forty times before finishing it.  To write “sun,” the beginner may say, “Sun.  Sssssuuuunnn, ssss, ssss,” and write a S.  Then, “Sunnnn, sunnn, nnn, nnn,” and he writes N, SN for sun.
  • Early control and responsibility. Children make the system their own.  As they use it for their own objectives, they also extend their knowledge of how the system itself works.  Children learn to take risks.  The worst outcome of an unsuccessful invention is that communication stops temporarily.  But if the invention succeeds, their message will reach its audience.  Real rewards await the child who writes fearlessly about a FROSHUS DOBRMN PENSR instead of a BAD DOG.

3.  Other than being “wrong” instead of right, how does invented spelling differ from standard spelling?

First, children use the names of letters and not just the sounds we say the letters represent.  Although we sometimes use this principle — “I” and “x-ray,” for instance — it is the inventive speller’s chief strategy.  They may begin with “elephant” with L, spell “why” with Y, “bee” with B, and end “thank you” with Q.  Children don’t know that the relationship between a sound and a letter that represents it is often arbitrary, Y seems a more logical choice to begin the word “went” than W, pronounced “double-u,” so many early attempts to spell “went” look like Y, YT, or YNT.

4.  Are there stages in invented spelling?

Two types of development are visible.  First, the location of the sound spelled in a word is a clue to the child’s maturity.  The first step is writing apparently random strings of letters, then beginning sounds, then beginning and ending sounds, then beginning, middle and ending sounds.

5.  Does invented spelling get better on its own?

Yes, invented spelling improves without special instruction up to a point, and that point differs from child to child.  Some children want to spell correctly and observe the spellings in printed books with an eye to their writing.  Some children are happy to use invented spelling as a convenient abbreviation for as long as they are permitted to do so.  Children don’t automatically and spontaneously arrive at the correct spelling of a word simply because they read.

To encourage invented spelling is not to imply that spelling does not matter.  The teacher’s role is neither passive nor permissive.  But rather than demanding perfection of beginning spellers, the teacher can build on their emerging competence.  This approach also suggests to students the value of taking risks with their writing, and that attitude toward written language may be the lasting benefit of invented spelling.

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


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