Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

CELT, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit educational corporation, international in scope, whose members believe in the principles of education for democracy with a focus on natural language learning and inquiry.  These principles are supported by beliefs in learners and learning, teachers and teaching, and language and curriculum.  The members of CELT are dedicated to the improvement of education through a greater understanding of the relationship between language, thought, and learning.

  CELT includes a rich diversity of people who share similar beliefs about language and learning but have widely varied background experiences.  CELT members are university educators, independent consultants, school administrators, and teachers.

Questions and Answers About Spelling

What is invented spelling?

Invented spelling is the term currently used to describe the spellings that learners produce as they come to understand how written language and its spelling system work.  Children learning to write in any alphabetic language will invent spellings. Many educators believe "invented spelling" is a more accurate term than "misspelling" since it recognizes that such spellings are not random but are based on the learner's knowledge of language. For instance, a young child who writes LIX for "likes" is relating the sounds she hears to the names of letters that she knows. When an older child writes MATHYOU for the name "Matthew," it shows a knowledge that whole words can be combined to create new ones. There is a good deal of research that shows how logical children's spellings are.

Is invented spelling a good idea?

Many teachers have begun encouraging children to use invented spelling as they write, particularly for beginning writers and students who are fearful about writing, and for first draft writing. Invented spelling lets children get their ideas down on paper independently, using all the words in their speaking vocabulary, without having to ask an adult how to spell every unfamiliar word.

Doesn't invented spelling create bad habits?

Invented spelling isn't something children do instead of learning how to spell; it is an avenue to learning how to spell. This happens in two ways. First, as children think about and discuss their invented spellings as they produce them, they increase their knowledge of how our spelling system works. Second, children learn to find and correct their invented spellings when they are producing a final draft of a piece of writing.  Children also learn the spelling of many individual words as they read. In fact, a strong reading program where children read widely contributes to growth in spelling. It is also important to remember that learning and growth cannot take place without mistakes, and that errors should be welcomed as signs of growth. Just as children outgrow less mature forms of speech as they use oral language, they outgrow their early invented spellings if they make frequent use of written language.

Should children's writing with invented spelling be allowed to go home or appear on bulletin boards?

If children are spelling well already (90% or better on first drafts), then it is often appropriate to aim for 100% correctness in a polished, finished product, mainly because it is part of the pride of authorship to clean up such easily corrected imperfections. However, for less accomplished writers, many teachers publish or display work that still has invented spellings, although they still include some proofreading as a part of the process. Other teachers have adult volunteers type perfectly spelled final copies of published material because they believe that if other children are going to read the child-author's book, those children should be provided with conventionally spelled print to read. In any case, the thing to remember is that it is not developmentally appropriate to expect learners to produce perfectly spelled final copies before they can do it fairly easily.

How do I know if a child is improving in spelling?

The best way to track improvement in spelling is by looking at how a child spells when writing (rather than on tests). Three things to look for:

(1) Has the number of correctly spelled words generally increased over time?

(2) Are invented spellings becoming more mature? (For instance, the spelling IAUHG for "laugh" is more advanced than IAF because it shows a knowledge of how the word looks as well as how it sounds.)

(3) Is the student getting better at proofreading his or her own writing and making corrections for a final draft?

What is the role of spelling books?

Spelling textbooks are designed not as an ideal curriculum but as a least common denominator; they provide a very basic spelling curriculum based on learning lists of words. The other activities in the textbooks exist primarily to help students learn the words. Spelling textbooks take up a great deal of time for the amount of learning they provide. Research shows that since students already know how to spell most (about 65%) of the words in their textbooks, they are only learning a few words a week. A good teacher who downplays memorizing and makes spelling part of writing can do far more than spelling textbooks in less time.

Shouldn't students be learning words from lists every week, even if they aren't using a spelling book?

Students can become good spellers without formally memorizing words. If they do memorize weekly lists, the best approach is to learn about five words a week that are individualized for each child, based on the words they use in their writing and that they are interested in. Children can learn to choose words for themselves each week.

What about kids who aren't succeeding as spellers?

Such students fall (roughly) into two groups. The larger group is made up of those whose literacy is generally underdeveloped. What they need most is many opportunities to write and (especially) to read. Their spelling won't develop much until they read more. Students who are good readers but weak spellers usually have less natural aptitude for spelling. They need to develop a strong collection of strategies, particularly for proofreading. Spellcheckers are increasingly useful for these students as they get older.

What about standardized tests in spelling?

Standardized tests ask students to pick out the one correctly (or incorrectly) spelled word from a short list. Although this has been shown to be closely related to the ability to spell words dictated from a list, the most important measure of a student's spelling is the ability to produce good spellings in a final draft of a piece of writing (to an age appropriate extent). This can't be measured on a standardized test.

Don't students need to be good spellers for when they grow up and enter the working world?

Yes! And to do this, they need to learn to take responsibility for their own spelling; they need to learn how to proofread their own work and they need to realize when it is important to do so. Teachers circling Students' misspellings for them gets in the way of students learning to be good independent spellers.


 Bissex, G. (19801. Gnys at wrk: A child learns to read and write. Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press.

Gentry, R.J. (1987). Spel is a four letter word. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Giacobbe, M. (1981). Kids can write the first week of school. Learning, 10, 130~132.

Wilde, S. (1991). You Kan Red This! Spelling and punctuation for whole language classrooms, K-6. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Wilde, S. (1997). What's a schwa sound anyway? A holistic guide to phonetics, phonics and spelling. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED, 325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline 602-929-0929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.

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