Invented spelling – young children’s attempts to write words by recording the letter sounds they hear – has long been common in early childhood classrooms, but new research has brought it into the spotlight this year. A recent study suggests that engaging regularly in this analytical process is more effective at preparing children to read than focusing on word memorization.
What does this mean for parents? Well, for one thing, you can stop worrying that a note from your five-year-old that says, “U R A GRT MOM” means she’ll forever be reliant on spell check. Encouraging your child to use invented spelling will help her become a successful student, even if the immediate results look disastrous.
It also means you might struggle with how to best help your beginning writer. The following tips come from my experience as a kindergarten teacher and have passed the true test: I have a five-year-old inventive speller at home.
Take yourself back to kindergarten
As a proficient reader and writer, your brain works differently than a young child’s. You have a massive mental bank of words you read and write automatically. So it’s understandable if you’re out of practice at relying heavily on letter sounds.
It will be easier for you to help your early speller (and read what she writes) if you temporarily suspend your knowledge that the ending “shun” is often written as -tion or that care written without the “e” would technically be pronounced as the word meaning automobile.
Go back to the ABCs. Consistency between home and school is always helpful, so find out how your child’s teacher introduces letter sounds. Many teachers use a keyword carefully chosen to teach each one, as in this common phonics program. Instead of “E is for Elephant,” it’s Ed, to make the “short e” sound crystal clear. No xylophones or x-rays, either. The keyword for X is fox to teach the ending /ks/ sound.
For extra credit, watch this video clip to confirm you’re pronouncing each sound correctly when helping your child.
Set up for success
You can avoid some common pitfalls by being ready with supplies and ideas when your child wants to practice writing. It’s hard for new writers to plan use of space, so squeezing words into small areas will likely be frustrating. My son always chooses the tiniest scrap of paper, so I try to quickly swap it out for something with plenty of room.
Consider ditching the standard no. 2 pencil, also. Pencils break at the wrong moment and erasing can easily become a messy obsession. These nifty crayon rocks are a fun alternative. They come in a velvet bag, which makes them feel treasure-like, and have the added bonus of a shape that encourages a correct pincer grip. Many teachers also favor these felt tip pens, which slide easily across the paper.
It can be frustrating for everyone when adults can’t read what a child laboriously wrote. If you encourage a new writer to label an item in a picture or an actual object, you have a giant clue as to her intended message. Give your child a stack of large sticky notes and have her label things around your home. “Dangerous!” by Tim Warnes is a hilarious picture book about labeling that inspired my son to whip through an economy-sized pack of Post-Its.
There are many authentic contexts for writing lists, which are a logical next step after labeling. Suggest grocery lists, real or pretend menus, to-do lists, top 10 lists, and so on. You’ll have the list’s context to help you decipher each word. My son spent all summer getting ahead of the game and writing wish lists for Santa. A tad consumer-driven for my taste, but he was highly motivated to include as many sounds as possible so his message was legible.
Finally, if you encourage your child to attempt writing short sentences within a functional framework, the task feels worthy enough for him to see it through, and you’ll have something to go on when you try to read it. Encourage him to write thank you notes, signs, birthday cards or a caption to accompany a picture he drew.
Help, but not too much
So much of parenting is about striking the balance between giving help and leaving enough space for independence. Once your child gets the idea of saying words slowly and writing down letters for sounds she hears, let her go for it.
Constant correction or giving into to “How do you spell…?” requests quickly creates dependence. I find it useful to suddenly become very busy in another room when my son is trying to write something. When I’m out of sight, he trusts himself more.
At the same time, new writers need to maintain momentum. If your child is stuck on a sound, especially if it’s one you’re sure he doesn’t know yet, just supply it so he can move on. It’s okay to provide tips like how to spell the ending “ing” or “it takes s and h together to start shell” without lengthy explanations. My son often gets hung up on people’s names, which can be phonetic minefields anyways, so I just write them on a piece of scrap paper for him if he asks.
Like potty training, training wheels, and Velcro shoes, invented spelling spans just a short phase in your child’s development. I keep reminding myself to appreciate (rather, APRESHEAT) the window it offers into my child’s thinking. I know that, soon enough, the only notes I’ll get from him will be texts that he won’t be home for dinner.