Thursday, May 18, 2017

Invented Spelling: Discovering How Words Work

I was excited when my niece Jennifer shared this wonderful piece of writing by her daughter, Callie. It reminded me of the joy I would take in my young students' developing understanding of how words work when I was in the classroom. Invented spelling is truly joyous because of the great value it brings to the learning/teaching interaction. I have long considered it unfortunate that the discoverer of invented spelling, Charles Read, named it that. When we use the word spelling in any context, many teachers, students, and especially parents go directly to a binary paradigm - spelling is either right or it is wrong. Invented spelling, however, is not really about spelling, and it is certainly not about right or wrong; it is about discovery and problem solving and creating communication. It is about figuring out how words work. All of us want children to discover how words work, so if we called invented spelling "word discovery" it would likely be an easier sell for everyone.

The advantages of invented spelling are clear.

  1. Invented spelling encourages children to match the sounds they hear in words to letters (phoneme-grapheme correspondence). This ability is strongly correlated to learning to read.
  2. Invented spelling allows students the independence to get their ideas down on paper without having to be concerned (for the moment) with correct spelling. So, a young writer can create an exciting story about The E Noormus Teradaktl, instead of being limited to words he can spell and writing a boring story about The Big Duck.
  3. Invented spelling provides the teacher with a clear window into what a child knows and does not know about how words are constructed, and provides data for making further instructional decisions.
Let's take a look at Callie's writing above and see what "windows" into her knowledge Callie (who is in kindergarten and who turned 6 in March) provides. Callie writes that her Mom's favorite flower is a DaFDel. First of all, any adult looking at this would immediately know that this word is daffodil, so we can say that Callie is successful in communicating her ideas through writing. Also, Callie hears beginning and ending sounds in syllables DaF and Del, and has some understanding and ability to hear vowels in syllables. Callie leaves out the middle syllable represented by the single letter o, probably because she hears it as part of the "F" as in "Fa." That syllable is particularly hard to hear and even harder to spell - I remind myself how to spell the word by over-pronouncing it as daf-o-dil as a spelling reminder. Further note that Callie represents the final vowel with an e, understandable when we realize that the i is not clearly in evidence as we sound out the word.

Clearly, Callie has a number of the words she uses here in her sight word vocabulary: to, it is, at, the, with. We might be surprised to see the irregularly spelled word sewing spelled correctly, unless we knew that Callie's mother is a skilled seamstress. The word sewing has particular power for Callie and so it is a part of her sight vocabulary.

Typical of developing readers and writers, Callie leaves off the silent e in wake and time presumably, of course, because they are silent. Similarly, r-controlled vowels such as the u in purple cause problems for the young writer. Notice also that both wakup and foskol are treated as one word and we can probably hear in our own heads what it sounds like to Callie when her Mom calls her to wake up for school.

Finally we come to my favorite from this piece, Grches, which of course praises her mother's ability with grilled cheese sandwiches. Once again we notice the expected difficulty hearing the r-controlled vowel in grilled and that grilled cheese is currently all one word for Callie. Callie does not presently hear the -ed in grilled.

Obviously, Callie is showing all the indications of being ready to apply her knowledge of letters and sounds to learning to read and to becoming a conventional speller. As Callie's teacher, I would continue to give her lots of opportunities to write, often in story or retelling form rather than on worksheets and continue to work with her on stretching out the sounds of words to listen for all the sounds. Of course, bugaboos like r-controlled vowels will continue to provide challenges until such time as Callie has more visual exposure to words through reading and spelling instruction.

All teachers can provide their students with supportive invented spelling instruction. The first step, of course, is to make sure that young learners have lots of opportunities to write their own stories, to respond in writing to read alouds, and to keep a journal to chronicle their thoughts, ideas, and activities. Secondly, teaching kids to s-t-r-e-t-c-h out words and listen to the sounds as they try to match those sounds to letters and then consistently asking them to use this strategy will help. Finally, we can help students use the strategy by responding to the "How do you spell....?" question with a gentle, but insistent suggestion to, "Stretch the word out and give it your best shot. We can always fix it later. "

Inevitably when talking about invented spelling the question arises, "When should we stop using invented spelling?" My answer is never. I still use invented spelling as a tool today. When I write, I do not interrupt the flow of an idea to check a spelling. If I am not sure how to spell a word, I put down my best guess and return to it later, because the thought is what matters most and the thought can be lost if I interrupt my flow to look up a spelling. 

But I know what your concern is. At some point, kids spelling has to move toward the more conventional. For most normally developing kids this will happen in a progression that leads to more and more words spelled conventionally and fewer and fewer inventions. That is what we need to be looking for - steady progress toward the conventional. Further, we need to be sure that children develop a spelling conscience - that is the desire to spell things correctly as a courtesy to the reader. Developing a spelling conscience requires three things - an awareness that spelling matters, writing activities that matter to the writer (Why worry about spelling, if what I am writing doesn't matter?) and a sense of audience for the writing (Why worry about spelling, if no one is going to read it anyway?). As kids move to creating final drafts of their writing, from about third grade onward, we should expect conventional spelling, but we must remember that some students will continue to struggle and need our assistance to be fully conventional spellers, and some students will struggle with this throughout their schooling.

For kids who do not develop normally in their reading, writing, and spelling, the use of invented spelling is not the reason for their struggles. Other interventions may be needed for these students, but invented spelling does not cause kids to have difficulty learning conventional spelling, in fact, it helps all students. Who do you think will be the first to learn how to spell the word enormous in the story I told above? The child who approximates the spelling of enormous for his first grade story or the child who plays it safe and writes about The Big Duck. I am betting on the inventive speller.

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