My Views on Spelling…and some on Writing

23 Sep

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t encourage invented spelling in our writing and have recently had a question about why I do this and how this works in our homeschool.

In schools (and many homeschools) invented spelling is a common strategy children are encouraged to use when writing.  Children are encouraged to “have a go” which is all well and good if you aren’t aiming to raise competent spellers.

When I was teaching in schools I taught grades two and three and saw the consequences of the invented spelling approach.  My Grade Two students came to my class as invented spellers.  They had a lot to say in their writing but much of it was misspelled.  The goal was for them to write often and a good writer was one who wrote a lot.  The problem was that unless I intimately knew the context of their writing, I had to have them read their writing to me as  I struggled to work out what they had written.  They got frustrated and discouraged when I couldn’t read their words, and worst still if they couldn’t remember what it said.  Bearing in mind that many second graders were not competent readers anyway.

By grade three their spelling repertoire had improved somewhat, however the aftermath of invented spelling was still evident.  In Grade Three the students were aware that good writers spelled words correctly and so they stopped using invented spelling as a strategy.  This was never something the teachers “told” them;  it was something they came to understand as they became readers themselves.

But they only had one strategy for figuring out the correct spelling of words – “having a go”!    So they started using only words they can spell!  Yes we teach them how to use a dictionary in Grade Three but let’s face it, how often do we as adults resort to the dictionary?!  Only as a last resort?   And as an early writer, writing is hard enough in itself without having to rely on new cumbersome skills like locating words in a dictionary.  If my two options were using a simple word I could already spell or looking up a better vocabulary choice in the dictionary, I’d go for the easier word!!  Wouldn’t you?

The other spelling issue that I blamed on invented spelling was frequently misspelled sight words, like “woz”, “thay”, “becos” or “wich” as a few very common examples.   Content words generally didn’t continue to be misspelled as frequently as the sights words which were used each day.  (These conclusions of course are my own after several years of teaching.)  The children seemed to be learning their own misspelled versions of frequently used words.   In later grades, even though they knew they needed to use correct spelling, the misspellings seemed to be  so deeply ingrained in them that they struggled to retrain themselves to use the correct versions.

Before I even had my own children I had decided that they would NOT be using invented spelling and I started exploring different spelling options in the classroom.  We’d always had lists of words that were learned each week and tested on Friday but from what I observed this skill wasn’t  translating into the students’ writing.   So I tried things like brainstorming words they might need during a task and writing these words on the board.  We also kept notebooks full of our own frequently needed words.  We started using our “have-a-go” scraps of paper as “find out how” scraps instead.  Children could actually ask an adult *shock horror* how to spell words.   And no it didn’t take longer to finish a writing piece this way.  It actually shortened the time involved as there was a lot less editing to do at the end.  The students were also a little more eager to write as it wasn’t such a frustrating task to get their ideas down on paper.

These are some of the same strategies that I use with my own boys now.   Ethan also likes to use the spell check feature on the computer.  Now that he can read it’s easy for him to see which word is the correct choice.  I’m also thinking that an electronic spelling machine would be a nice gift for him.

When I first started reading about homeschooling I was surprised to learn that my “odd” notions about invented spelling were not uniquely my own (as they had been in the classroom!).  Charlotte Mason wrote (quoted from the modernised version of Home Education (Vol 1, p. 241))

But the truth is, the ability to spell depends on the person’s ability to see the word and stamp a photographic image of it on their mind. This is a skill and habit that must be developed in children from the beginning. When they read the word ‘cat,’ they must be taught to try and see the word with their eyes closed. This same technique works equally well with big words like ‘Thermopylae.’ Imprinting words on the retina seems to be the only sure way to become a good speller. Once an error is made and corrected, there will always be doubt as to which image is the right spelling, and which is the wrong one. Most of us are never quite sure whether ‘balance’ has one l or two, and that’s because we saw both spellings when we corrected it. Once the eye sees a misspelled word, the image is imprinted for good. If there is also an image of the word spelled correctly, we will never be totally confident about which image is the correct one. That’s why the common way of doing dictation almost guarantees bad spellers. Every misspelled word makes an image in the mind that even the correct spelling can’t obliterate. Therefore, it’s the teacher’s duty to prevent wrong spelling in the first place. And if an error is made, she must cover it quickly before the image gets fixed in the student’s memory.

This made perfect sense to me as it was exactly what I was seeing happen in my own classroom.    I’m not totally convinced that one mere sighting of an incorrectly spelled word will scar a speller for life but I know firsthand how destructive repeated exposure can be.

To teach spelling Charlotte Mason encourages the use of dictation (as she describes the process and not as we might have done at school).  I tend to be a more systematic teacher and am leaning towards programs like “All About Spelling” and “Spelling Power”.  This year we’ve dabbled in both.

The other main key to my spelling approach is that it partners with intentionally delaying writing instruction.  I no longer require independent writing tasks from my beginning reader.   My first Language  goal is to teach them to read competently.   During this time however, he does complete short copywork tasks and many oral narrations.  If he chooses to write something for his own purposes he knows that spelling is done in a particular fashion and he instinctively comes to ask me how to spell words.  The other strategy I have found him using is drawing pictures accompanied by the initial letter of the required word.  He will also locate the words he wants to use in his books.

I now actually understand that it is quite absurd to think that a non-reader can write.  It’s like asking a crawling baby to skip or hop.  Good luck with that goal!!  But that’s exactly what we often find ourselves requiring of our young children.

However, leaving writing instruction until after a child can read, is not the easiest approach to adopt.  It’s not how the world teaches and I’ve experienced many raised eyebrows when people notice that my child can not yet write as much as their peers in school.  Within myself I’ve struggled with it too.   As Ethan was learning to read, I wavered from thinking he should be learning to write because that’s what expected for his age, to questioning how it’s possible to write if you can’t yet read well.

Ethan is now a competent reader (Whoohoo!!), and our primary language focus has switched to writing.  Writing is a lot easier for Ethan now than it was when I first tried to inflict it on him.   His hand doesn’t tire as easily anymore and he doesn’t have to stop and remember how to form his letters.  He also has a lot more to write and can sit still for long enough to write it.  Yes, writing is still a chore for him but so was reading when he was first learning.  I often have to remind myself and Ethan of this.

The additional benefit of learning to write AFTER a child learns to read is that spelling should be a whole lot easier to learn.  By then children have seen a lot of words correctly spelled in their reading books, and have had a lot of experience writing words correctly during copywork tasks.   It’s likely that many sight words can already be correctly spelled which reduces the need for “inventive” strategies in the first place!

Okay I think I’ll put you out of your misery and wind up this novel of a post.  I hope that I have some readers left (I’m not hopeful though) and that something made sense and may be useful for prompting your own thoughts about spelling and writing.

If you remember only one thing from this post, let it be this – it’s okay to tell children how to spell words.  Don’t we show them how to do a new Math task before we expect them to do it for themselves?!  Okay, well there are those who believe that children should “discover” new learning for themselves.  But that’s a WHOLE other topic on which I have strong opinions, having seen some of this mess at work in schools too!!


Posted by on September 23, 2010 in Language


5 responses to “My Views on Spelling…and some on Writing

  1. bernadette

    September 23, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    THANK YOU THANK THANK YOU!!!, I’m not sure how i’m going to “Fix” my 10 (and 8) year olds, but what you’ve said has made perfect sense for my 5, 3 and 1 y.o’s who are yet to come down this path! I so very much believe in the “imprinting” with incorrect spelling, up until about gr 3, my 10yo would spell ‘can’ as ‘cnu’, another terrible habit he (still) has is to leave out vowels?? he just doesn’t seem to hear them :S – As i said in my email/comment we have been deschooling/unschooling for the last 12ish months due to family routines and priorities, and while they have made leaps and bounds in most areas, basic foundations are shaky and i keep telling them “that’s no way to build a house!”
    thanks so much again, definate food for thought 🙂


  2. bernadette

    September 23, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    LOL that first emoticon is supposed to be an 8 with a bracket after it 🙂

  3. Tracey

    September 23, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Perhaps you could try something like Spelling Power which was designed for the author’s older daughter who was struggling with spelling. It would definitely suit an older student.

    Or you could try the dictation approach where they study a passage, focusing particularly on spelling and then attempt to write it. Spelling Wisdom is a curriculum that comes as an ebook that looks good. ( This is the link to the British spelling version which is what Aussie’s use).

    Glad I could help a little.

  4. Renelle

    September 23, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Hi Tracey, you make perfect sense. This is exactly the approach we have with our ds8. We have ‘Spelling Wisdom’ and have found copywork a natural lead up to this. We will most likely start in the new year with SW. Ds has always naturally asked us ..”How do you spell….?” I didn’t know there was anything ‘wrong’ with that!!

  5. Jen in NSW

    September 24, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Every misspelled word makes an image in the mind that even the correct spelling can’t obliterate. Therefore, it’s the teacher’s duty to prevent wrong spelling in the first place. And if an error is made, she must cover it quickly before the image gets fixed in the student’s memory.

    Sequential Spelling by AVKO has the child correct each word immediately and the words build on each other by the patterns of the letters. I find it very good for my “visual” reader who just doesn’t “get” phonics.

    Best wishes
    Jen in NSW


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