authentic writing · independent writing · Inventive spelling · word study · writing workshop

Building Word Superheroes: With Permission and Invented Spelling

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“Hi, honey did you go to the fire department today?” My daughter nodded, yes and walked inside. I looked in her backpack and pulled out a paper, “OUR fmlY mtg Pls is the MalBox.” I walked over to hang it on the refrigerator. My daughter stopped me, “No mommy, see I did that all wrong.” She pointed out where the (well-intentioned) teacher had rewritten the sentence at the bottom of the page. Our family meeting place is the mailbox. “ I spelled everything wrong.”

I understood the teacher wanted my daughter to see the traditional spelling, and she intended to support her in spelling development.  But what my daughter saw and felt, was failure.

Spelling unknown words is a common hurdle for young writers.

  • “Teacher, how do you spell ….?”
  • “I don’t know how to write the words.”
  • “Can you help me spell…?”

I have heard these requests in my classroom many times, and I bet you have too. How can we teach our writers to use what they know about letters, sounds, and words and trust themselves as wordsmiths?

Establish a Common Resource

I have found teaching a student how to use an alphabet chart that links letters to a commonly understood pictures helps students learn not only what a letter looks like, uppercase and lowercase, but also the sound(s) the letter represents.  So what does it mean to teach a student how to use the chart?

Letter chart idea_DebTeaching Students to Read the Chart

I begin by saying the letters name while pointing to both the uppercase and lowercase letter, then point to the picture as you say the name of the object pictured, and then back to the letter as you say the letter sound. For example, Bb bat /b/.

Teach the Students How to Use the Chart

Interactive writing and shared writing is an excellent time to demonstrate and model how to use the linking chart to spell words. After we have determined what our message will be, I begin by asking a student to say the first word slowly. Then, I ask other students what sound they heard at the beginning, (the part of the word I ask them to listen for can vary). Repeating that sound to myself, I begin looking at the chart and saying the names of the pictured objects, searching for the sound I need and what letter represents this sound. I make mistakes that mimic the mistakes of the students. I ask them to help me, “Am I right, pointing at a b I asked, “Does this say /d/?”  Then I allow them to lead me to another choice, asking them to explain their thinking as they go. Once we agree on a letter, I ask the class to read the letter, picture, and make the letter sound, just to be sure we are all hearing the same sound linked to a letter, and now a word.

Make the Chart Accessible to Students

  • Hang the linking chart in the room where everyone can easily see and reach the chart.
  • Glue (or tape) linking charts to the front of writing folders.
  • Send a copy home with directions on how to read and use the chart to practice inventive spelling.
  • Place several copies in familiar places around the room; on tables, in the writing center, in the science area, the play area, or anywhere students will be writing.
  • If you have iPads in your classroom, teach students how to snap a photo of the chart and add it to iBooks where they can easily access it when needed.

Make it Fun!

Consider tasks that reach multiple-modalities of learning supporting kinesthetic, visual, and auditory learners.

  • Write corresponding letters in sand, pudding, or finger paint.
  • Teach students how to use screencasting tools on tablets or laptops. Students can then write letters or words saying their corresponding sounds while watching the video they’ve created.
  • Bring your music teacher in on the fun and create songs, rhythms, or chants to reinforce letter-sound relationships.
  • Teach students to be word superheroes!
    • Ask students to write a high-interest word. Look through student writing for words writers use often but are slightly out of their word knowledge level. A few common words in my room were words like elephant, tornado, monster, and pumpkin.  
    • Ask students to write a word on a post-it-note, index card, whiteboard, tablet, or whatever is comfortable in your classroom.
    • After students write their words, collect the post-it notes. Search through the words, look for correct, almost correct, and your Favorite No.
    • Write the word on a chart or display the chosen card for all to see.
    • Ask students to celebrate all the letters that we also hear in the word.
    • Then ask students what we can see the student knows about the letters, sounds, and words. Celebrate all that is known and correct.
    • Finally, complete the spelling of the word together, sharing and thinking aloud as you go.

Teaching students to take the risks necessary to be inventive spellers means I have to respect the stage of development of the student. I can’t expect the students to know (or use) something I haven’t taught.  It also means communicating to parents about what it means to use inventive spelling and its role in developing writers and readers.

On the We Are Teachers blog, Stacey Shubitz shares the following, in her post, “Why Invented Spelling Matters.

In the early 1970s, a researcher named Charles Read asserted that young children’s attempts at spelling words were not displays of ignorance. Rather, they were windows into each child’s word knowledge. Read coined the term “invented spelling,” which refers to the way a child spells words that aren’t stored in his/her memory phonetically. Earlier this year, Gene Oulette and Monique Sénéchal published a study on invented spelling. In it, they state that “Allowing children to engage in the analytical process of invented spelling, followed by appropriate feedback, has been found to facilitate learning to read and spell, not hamper the process.

Students want to learn, they want to feel safe, and they want to please their teachers. With careful consideration and planning, we can enable our students to feel pride in trying their best and taking risks as learners.

Read More

Brave Spelling by Dana Murphy

Why Invented Spelling Matters by Stacey Shubitz

Word Walls and High-Frequency Words by Beth Moore

Interactive Writing: Don’t Close the Door By Betsy Hubbard

Explore Screencasting Apps

2 thoughts on “Building Word Superheroes: With Permission and Invented Spelling

  1. Kristin,
    Thanks for leaving a comment. In my experience students who are willing to take the risk with inventive spelling show growth in writing, word study, and reading with more confidence and understanding. As far as conventional spelling, this comes as students are exposed to more text and continued developmentally appropriate word study lessons that build on what students know. Working with children in their proximal zone of development enables us to support children in their development and leaves less (if any) gaps in the understanding of how letters work together to create words. This understanding is essential in becoming a conventional speller.


  2. I have a lot of my teachers who model invented spelling in their shared and interactive lessons. At what point do they switch to the conventional spelling? Is this helping kids learn to spell the words incorrectly? Thoughts?


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