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In our latest edition of ProSquad, our Literacy Pro, Dr. Maeve Maddox, answers a question about invented spelling. She explains why this approach isn't the best way to help children improve their spelling, and gives parents some resources to encourage mastery in this area.

My daughter has completed Kindergarten and five months of first grade, yet misspells such common words as "there", "other", "purple", and "different." When I expressed my concerns to her teacher, I was told that my daughter is using "invented spelling" and that I mustn't comment on her misspelled words for fear of damaging her self-esteem. The teacher says she will learn to spell naturally as she is exposed to printed matter and continues to write about things that interest her. Is there really such a thing as "invented spelling"?

The terms "invented spelling" and "inventive spelling" have been adopted by whole language teachers to describe the incorrect attempts at spelling that children produce before they have been taught the conventions of English spelling. Your child's teacher has been trained in the "whole language" approach to the teaching of written language.

Whole Language

Whole language instruction is based on a faulty understanding of how children learn to write and read. It assumes that children learn to write and read in the same "natural" way that they learned to speak. In fact, the ability to speak is hardwired into the human brain. Barring deafness or some other impediment, infants will acquire spoken language by being surrounded by language speakers. They will begin with babbling and gibberish. By listening and imitating what they hear, they are eventually able to pronounce recognizable words.

Written Language

Written language is a completely different matter. There's nothing "natural" about it. It's a human invention. English is written with abstract symbols that represent speech sounds. The most efficient and logical way to teach children to read and write an alphabetic language is to begin by teaching them the sound symbols and how to put them together to make words. An efficient teaching method for beginning readers is described in the introduction to Romalda Spalding’s work The Writing Road to Reading.

How to Help Your Child Improve Her Spelling

It's not a good use of teaching time to permit spelling errors to persist in the name of creativity and self-esteem. The longer that children remain uninstructed in the conventions of English spelling, the longer they have to become blind to errors and acquire the idea that accuracy isn't important when it comes to language.

Since your daughter is in a school committed to the whole language approach, the best thing that you can do is to work with her at home to make her aware of the sound/symbol connections.

For a review of the 46 sound symbols used to write English and tips on how not to teach spelling, see the following articles at the American English Doctor:


Literacy Pro, Maeve Maddox

Maeve Maddox is an academic generalist who has taught language and literature at every level from pre-school to university, in the United States and abroad. Now a freelance writer, she focuses on topics of cultural literacy, including beginning reading instruction and universal knowledge.

Her academic articles have been published in Education Today, The Christian Science Monitor, Translation Today, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and a recent textbook about the Middle Ages. Her children's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children and Jack and Jill Magazine.

Several hundred of Maeve's still-timely articles on language are archived at Daily Writing Tips where she was editor and chief contributor from its inception in 2007 until 2011. She is the School Reform Editor at the women's magazine BellaOnline.com. She offers tips on reading instruction and cultural literacy at AmericanEnglishDoctor.com, and discusses English usage in the media at BottomlineEnglish.com. Her most recent books available at Amazon.com include So You Want to Write! (50 essays on the writing craft), A Joan for All Seasons (film guide to six movies about Joan of Arc), and 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid (brief style guide to common writing errors).

Maeve holds bachelor's degrees in English from Oklahoma City University and the University of London (England). She holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville). When she's not writing, she volunteers as a Master Gardener. Her border collie Cash volunteers as a reading dog at the public library. Her cats Lilah and Lily don't volunteer for anything.