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Invented Spelling

"IRHCXZHCGHX." writes five-year-old Nathaniel in March of his kindergarten year. The teacher, Jan, comes over to him as he is illustrating his story.

"Howdy, Nate, how's your story coming along?"

"Good," he replies. He continues to work with deep commitment on the details of a large, red vehicle.

"Would you share your story with me?" asks Jan, pointing to his series of letters.

"OK." He puts down his pencil and, running his finger from left to right under his string of letters, remarks, "This says, "I went to the firehouse and I had fun."

"You liked that trip, did you? What was the best part?" responds his teacher, helping Nate to expand his story orally.

"I liked when they turned on the sirens! Wheeeeeeee!" came the enthusiastic response.

"That was fun! Noisy, too!" agrees Jan. "Perhaps you'd like to show that sound coming out of your fire engine when you're finished drawing. I'm going to write your story down here, so that other people who don't know how to read invented spelling can enjoy it, too."

"OK, 'cause I'm going to send this one to my nana." Nate resumes his drawing while Jan moves on to another young writer.

In September of first grade, one of my students, Meghann, writes, "IMEFPDEVLDK." I circulate around the room, as does Jan in kindergarten, and look over Meghann's shoulder.

"You're afraid of the dark, are you, Meghann?"

"Yeah. Sometimes when all the lights are out, I hear noises and I don't know what they are."

"That's a good topic to write about. Sometimes it helps to write about things you're afraid of."

"I know, that's why I wrote, 'I'm afraid of the dark.' See?" and she carefully rereads her piece, pointing to each group of letters that represents the individual words.

"I can see that, Meghann. Your invented spelling is so close to standard that I can read it, too. I see I - M, which are the standard letters for 'I'm', and there are the most important letters for 'afraid' - you've got the f and the r and the d; and 'of' does have that v sound in it; and 'dark' starts with d and ends with k."

Meghann grins, and returns to her drawing. I move on, making a mental note that in another week or two, when she gains confidence and starts writing more, I will ask her to look at one or two words each time I check in, and help her to listen for more medial consonants and an occasional long vowel.

These children have a tool for writing that we call "invented spelling."

Breaking with Tradition

When my son was in second grade, I was teaching first grade in the same school. Because he was quick with his work, he spent a fair amount of time in the hallway playing board games with other children who had finished ahead of time. I asked the teacher if she would let these children do some writing in their free time. "Oh no," she said. "I can't do that. I haven't the time to do all that correcting. You know, they just can't spell yet."

This attitude is traditional - no writing until children can spell. As a result, children seldom wrote, except for workbook exercises, until the upper grades. The first composition I wrote was in ninth grade. But attitudes are changing now. We realize that writing, like speech, is a developmental process; and denying a child the opportunity to write is like forbidding a young child from talking until he or she is able to pronounce every word perfectly, something no parent would ever consider doing. In fact, just the opposite occurs: we take great pleasure in hearing our children's efforts to approximate standard speech. So why are we so rigid about early writing?

The answer is tradition. We have routinely been told that our spelling and our handwriting reflect aspects of our personality: neat, tidy, careful, correct writing presumably indicates a conscientious, sociable, well-educated person. There is no doubt that illegible handwriting is irritating for the reader who must decipher it, and poor spelling does jar a reader to the point of losing the impact of the message. But is it right to impose such expectations on young children who are just learning the highly complex process of writing?

Two recent developments surpass the customary considerations of "tradition". The first is our new-found respect for the quality of ideas. With the increase in overall education and the enormous quantities of published material now universally available, we are becoming a nation of critical readers. We are starting to demand a higher quality of thinking behind the written material we choose to read. No longer able to believe everything we hear and read, we are learning to discriminate between a well-researched article and a diatribe.

The second is our new awareness of the developmental aspects of learning. We realize that children go through stages toward mastery. "Knowledge" is not imprinted on their brains in its finished form. Children need to work through processes such as walking, talking, reading, and writing. Beginning with general approximations of each process, they gradually refine and perfect them until they are able to manipulate the standard that is modeled in their environment. Think of children learning to walk -hands, furniture, walls. Then, they take a few tentative steps on their own, before dropping to hands and knees again to scramble the rest of the way in security. Once they are walking, they do so with an ungainly, stiff-kneed, spread-eagled gait. Gradually, the joints become more flexible, the legs come together, and balance is maintained. All learning proceeds the same way, including reading and writing. The rule is: whole to part, overall idea to refinement of the details.

If what we write is as important as the mechanics of getting our message down on paper, and if writing is a developmental process, then it is essential to encourage writing behavior as early as possible. After all, it takes time to become comfortable with expressing oneself in writing. Writing, as a process, involves consideration of what is important and what is not, what is of interest to others and what is boring, what needs expanding for clarity and what is so overexplained that nothing is left to the reader's imagination. Writing has become too important for us to waste precious time waiting for our writers to first become perfect spellers. 

Children Love to Write

By the end of first grade, most six-year-olds love writing if it has been treated as a no-risk activity. Meghann, who wrote one sentence, "IMEFRDEVLDK" in September, wrote the following in January: "I am GoiNg to aftar SKol GimNastikS lam IGSatiD VaRe VaRe IGSatiD I hoP that SKol is ovar soN I hoP We Do the RoP clim I hiK it wil be faN vare fan."

In four months of daily writing, during which she chose her own topics, shared her writing often with her neighbors and occasionally with the whole class, and received a bit of coaching every other week or so from me, Meghann made enormous progress. She learned word spacing, the regular - though not perfected - use of lower case letters, many standard spellings, sound-letter representations for all syllabic units, and appropriate placing of vowels. Furthermore, almost anyone could read her message. (Did you figure out "IGSatiD" [excited] and "hiK" [think]?) Although plenty of room for refinement still remained in punctuation, vowel choice, and so forth, who could complain with progress like this?

Four months later, at the end of May, Meghann wrote: "I'Am on the YMCA Swim teme. tonight IAm going to the Smith Calig Pool for a rela Meat. I'Am very icsatid abawt it. My Parinc Are Coming to hwath Me and My Brathar Swim My Bast frand is on it too."

The refinements were coming along steadily: punctuation marks, including apostrophes, began to appear; she was becoming aware that c can have an s sound; and she was learning about silent e endings ("teme") and two-vowel combinations ("Meat"). And all of this without a formal spelling lesson! Had she been restricted to using only words that she could spell, think of how dry her writing would have been. Invented spelling enabled her to use any word in her spoken vocabulary. It allowed her to record her emotions and the important events in her life. Already she could see herself as a writer, and she was a writer!

Parents can encourage their children to write as easily as they can encourage them to learn to speak. The key word is "encourage." Even as a teacher, I do not "teach" writing to my six- and seven-year-olds. I simply provide them with the environment, the modeling, and the questions that guide their own learning. Consequently, I have 20 writers at 20 different stages of development - their development.

To parents who wish to help their children on their way to becoming writers, I offer the following recommendations: encouragement, acceptance, sensitivity, and common sense. These four elements that made it possible for your children to learn to listen, understand, walk, and speak are the same ones that will enable them to write.


Encouragement means providing opportunities and purposes for writing. Children do not do anything without purpose. When they see writing as a necessary, purposeful, and enjoyable activity, they pursue it eagerly. They must see you use writing and must understand why you use it: as a memory aid (lists, recipes, reminders, birthdays, addresses), for record-keeping (checkbooks), for communication (letters, memos, announcements, invitations), for giving information (reports), and for entertainment (stories, poems). Tell your children what you are writing and why. Encourage them to write with you. Suggest that they draw first, and then label, if this seems easier. Let them help write the shopping list. When they ask you to buy something for them, ask them to write it down and put it on the refrigerator. Encourage them to write memos and make signs. Give them all the support they need.


If you accept the idea of invented spelling and the purpose behind it, then you will be able to accept, without question, all writing and spelling efforts that your child makes. There must be no hesitation, no doubt, because children are uncanny in their ability to pick up nonverbal cues. My student teachers often find this difficult because, they say, they are "no good at lying." I remind them to always refer to a child's spelling by its full title, invented spelling, to help them distinguish it from standard. This way, they can legitimately say to a child, "That's an excellent invented spelling of that word." Invented spelling and standard spelling are two very different skills. One is a problem-solving skill, the other is a rote memory skill.

For very young children, writing will consist of drawinglike "scribbles" that the child labels as writing. Always respond to such efforts as though they were real, for to the child they are real writing, just as their early babblings were real speech. Ask, "Tell me what you wrote!" or "Will you read your writing to me?"

As children learn some of the alphabet from listening to alphabet books, from playing with magnetic letters and alphabet blocks, and from casual discussions about letters, they will begin to use approximations of letter forms, mixed with invented letters, as part of their scribbles. Do not worry about reversals, upside-down letters, or placement all over the page. Just continue to model the correct form whenever you write something down for your child. Children are great imitators and inventors (how else would they learn to speak?), and eventually they will pick up the pattern. Just keep focusing on the message, not the mechanics.


Be as sensitive toward your children's struggles with writing as you were toward their early attempts at walking and talking. Encourage and model, but draw back and take off any pressure the moment you detect fatigue or overload. Remember, there is no urgency. When in doubt, ask yourself, "How did I handle this sort of situation when they were learning to talk?"

Common Sense

This is the element that you have relied on in raising your children so far. Keep using it in helping to develop the writing process. Common sense is Mother Nature's greatest gift to parents, and as long as we pay attention to her nudgings, we do a fine job of raising our young. It is when we listen too closely to the advice of "experts" (yes, including me!) that we can get confused. Only you know the limitations of your child and yourself. It is up to you to keep the balance. If your child is showing signs of frustration, stop. If he or she wants more, provide more. Also take into account the fact that children have very different styles from one another.

One last word about relatives and outsiders who disapprove. If you find that you cannot convince Great-aunt Mary that the letters she is receiving from your children are a valuable part of their development, then quietly rewrite them in standard spelling and keep the invented versions in your private treasure chest. Usually, however, receiving the original with a translation is appreciated by most relatives. As for friends and acquaintances who may disapprove, remember that you have brought up your children your way this far, and they are healthy and happy. When it comes down to it, who knows best, anyway?

Margaret Phinney is a certified independent reading consultant.

This article was first published in the Spring 1987 issue of Mothering. It is reprinted here with permission from the author and the editors.