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Teacher question: I teach kindergarten. We’ve been arguing over whether we should teach spelling or developmental spelling. Which is best?

Shanahan’s response:

You’re asking if learning to spell comes more surely from “transmission” (teaching by telling or demonstrating) or from “construction” (learning through discovery or operating on the world). Arguments in educational psychology have raged over this for decades.

I think the dispute — at least with regards to spelling — is misleading. The two approaches are posed as contradictory, that teachers must choose one way or the other.

I don’t see it that way.

Explicit spelling versus invented spelling is a false dichotomy. I encourage both — and did so in my classroom teaching, in my research, and these days even in what I urge on my grandkids.

What does the research say? There is an extensive body of studies showing that explicit spelling instruction results in better spelling and reading and enables better writing. There is also a body of research into invented spelling showing that it results in better phonemic awareness, word reading, and spelling.

Although these approaches may appear to emerge from different philosophical positions, they both confer learning advantages to children. We should not forget that.

It’s easy, of course, to caricaturize proponents of each these approaches. Those who advocate explicit instruction are unreformed behaviorists who champion spelling accuracy at the expense of creativity. Those on the invented spelling side are a bunch of Rousseau-inspired hippies rebelling against society and its rules — including spelling rules.

None of that claptrap has anything to do with the real issues. Everyone wants kids to spell well, and as I pointed out, there is plenty of research supporting both approaches.

What does it mean to “teach” developmental spelling?

Let’s clear one thing up right away. Developmental spelling isn’t something that you teach.

You encourage it, you nurture it, but you don’t teach it, per se.

That’s the whole idea of “invention.” The kids are using what they know about letters, sounds, and words to try to determine reasonable spellings.

I know some on the explicit spelling side dismiss this approach as being akin to the cueing-system guessing that they deplore. But that isn’t the case. One of the major reasons for engaging kids in spelling invention is to induce them to closely think about the phonemic structure of words and the relationship of those phonemes with letters.

That isn’t guessing, it’s analysis — analysis beneficial to kids’ learning.

Not surprisingly, many phonics advocates prefer “speech-to-print phonics.” Part of the reason for this may be that speech-to-print – getting kids to go from sounds to letters – provides a greater opportunity for kids to develop phonemic sensitivity.

If you have any doubts, compare the number of phonemes a nascent writer analyzes when composing a single sentence, and the number included in a good phonemic awareness lesson. That’s also likely the reason that invented spelling is a better predictor than is accurate spelling of growth in reading during the first year of reading instruction (Senechal, 2017).

We encourage developmental spelling because kids may balk at writing in fear of mistakes. A lot more learning happens when students set aside those anxieties. Encouraging students, in this case, means urging them to spell the words in they think they are spelled and not to worry about getting them exactly right. “Just try,” we tell them.

We also need to nurture developmental spelling. There is no learning benefit from laborious corrections. That feels like punishment and kids will avoid attempting to spell if they think their errors will lead to that. Celebrate their efforts rather than reproving them. Bring parents into this equation too — they need to know why you aren’t correcting those misspellings (and that you recognize those spellings as incorrect).

One big benefit of invented spelling is that it provides teachers with a window into their students’ understanding of the spelling system. It is valuable to analyze students’ spelling attempts to try to understand what is going on. That way instruction can be better targeted on students’ needs.

If you are uncertain how to do that, I strongly endorse Richard Gentry’s books on spelling or Charles Temple et al.’s Beginnings of Writing, or Words Their Way. They all have a ton of insight and good teacherly advice.

I know some teachers and parents worry about invented spelling. Their concern is that once kids misspell a word, they will learn the error. That isn’t really how it works. Young children’s spellings are more fluid than that. Their hypotheses about the spelling system are based on what they know, and as they know more — from phonemic awareness and phonics lessons, and from reading words — they adjust their hypotheses.

That’s where formal spelling instruction comes in (Graham, 2000). That teaching adds to what children know about words and becomes part of the grist that they mill. At first, knowing the spelling of a word likely only affects how a child spells that word but over time (memorizing isn’t enough) — as children incorporate that new information into their thinking, their spelling improves more generally. Over time, they incorporate the new information, and their spelling attempts get closer and closer to accuracy.

Of course, kids make plenty of spelling progress just by learning to read (Share, 1999), but with explicit instruction students can make even more rapid progress (Treiman, 2017, p. 273). Good spelling instruction is not the enemy of invented spelling – it’s just another source of information that feeds that invention.

Some facts about early spelling:

  • Invented spelling increases student awareness of the speech segments in words (Martins & Silva, 2006)
  • Invented spelling, together with alphabetic knowledge and phonemic awareness, influence reading and spelling development (Oulette & Sénéchal, 2017)
  • First-graders who are encouraged to spell as well as they can end up with significantly better reading scores than those that relied on traditional spelling instruction alone (Clarke, 1988)
  • Invented spelling and phonemic awareness training lead to the same level of phonemic awareness processing (Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2008; Ouellette et al, 2013), even for students at risk of reading difficulties (Senechal, et al., 2012)
  • Explicit phonemic awareness instruction increases the quality of students’ spelling inventions (Ball & Blachman, 1991)
  • Giving students appropriate feedback on their invented spelling leads to greater progress (Ouellette, Sénéchal, & Haley, 2013)
  • Explicit spelling instruction should do more than get kids to memorize words — it should focus on the analysis of spelling, including considering spelling alternatives (Berninger, et al, 1992)
  • Explicit teaching in spelling improves spelling and increases the vocabulary diversity in student writing (Graham, Harris, & Adkins, 2018)
  • Adding explicit spelling instruction to developmental approaches improves spelling (Graham, 2000)
  • Explicit spelling instruction improves spelling, reading, and writing (Graham & Santangelo, 2014)

Selected comments

Comment from Jo Anne Gross

Thank you very much for this detailed post about spelling and all those papers. I sometimes get asked — we teach Speech to Print — why do the spelling scores go up faster than the reading scores? My work is mainly Tier 2 and 3. My gut feeling is it’s easier to encode, not dependent on fluency, than read which even when learning your graphemes and blending needs to involve several repetitions.???

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Jo Anne —

My explanation (and this is a guess, not a tested hypothesis) is that physically forming something in response to sound is more prominent in children’s cognition — easier to perceive — than trying to remember how a series of sounds matches to a series of letters to say a word. Even the memory demands are pretty different… with writing you can go back and try again without having to start over from the beginning, but with reading words if you don’t make it through the first time, you can’t just go back to the letter you started having trouble on since there is no record of what you accomplished.

There are other explanations, but no doubt that engaging in those writing/spelling activities benefit early reading skills.


Comment from Janice

I love this! This backs up exactly how I teach kindergarten and now I have your expert article to back up my teaching. Last year I did dictation with my class the first trimester — spelling sounds, words and sentences with what we had learned each day. I did not start formal independent writing until January. They were writing cards and letters and notes the first semester but nothing assigned. When we started more formal writing they already knew how to write a sentence and what is included in a sentence — subject and predicate and capital letter and punctuation. Writing was fun and they loved it and wrote plenty. No tears or anxiety about it as they had so much practice the first half of the year with immediate feedback on corrections that they made as we wrote. Even though I think it was a more student friendly way to teach I feel like I am breaking the rules by not making them do independent writing the first semester. Any suggestions on this or can you point me to a book or article on that?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Janice —

Take a look at the Early Writing book (Temple et al.) that I noted in the article. Great book that I think can help you.


See all comments here › (opens in a new window)


Ball, E. W., & Blachman, B. A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26(1), 49-66. (opens in a new window)

Berninger, V. W., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R. D., Begay, K., Coleman, K. B., Curtin, G., … Graham, S. (2002). Teaching spelling and composition alone and together: Implications for the simple view of writing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 291-304. (opens in a new window)

Graham, S. (2000). Should the natural learning approach replace spelling instruction? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 235-247. (opens in a new window)

Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27(9), 1703-1743. (opens in a new window)

Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Adkins, M. (2018). The impact of supplemental handwriting and spelling instruction with first grade students who do not acquire transcription skills as rapidly as peers: A randomized control trial. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(6), 1273-1294. (opens in a new window)

Martins, M. A., & Silva, C. (2006). The impact of invented spelling on phonemic awareness. Learning and Instruction, 16(1), 41-56. (opens in a new window)

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2008). Pathways to literacy: A study of invented spelling and its role in learning to read. Child Development, 79(4), 899–913. (opens in a new window)

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77-88. (opens in a new window)

Ouellette, G., Sénéchal, M., & Haley, A. (2013). Guiding children’s invented spellings: A gateway into literacy learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 81(2), 261-279. (opens in a new window)

Sénéchal, M. (2017). Testing a nested skills model of the relations among invented spelling, accurate spelling, and word reading, from kindergarten to grade 1. Early Child Development and Care, 187(3-4), 358-370. (opens in a new window)

Sénéchal, M., Ouellette, G., Pagan, S., & Lever, R. (2012). The role of invented spelling on learning to read in low-phoneme awareness kindergartners: A randomized-control-trial study. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 25(4), 917-934. (opens in a new window)

Treiman, R. (2017). Learning to spell words: Findings, theories, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(4), 265-276. (opens in a new window)


Evidence that students will not need later to “unlearn” their early misspellings comes from a rather extensive body of longitudinal developmental evidence on children’s spelling growth over time (references below). This week my granddaughter shared with me her year-long kindergarten journal – which reveals yet again the fluid nature of young children’s spelling attempts as they try to master an understanding of the phonological/orthographic structure of words. For those, for whom such descriptive studies are insufficient, there are also experimental tests of the idea refuting the notion that invented misspellings are learned (Ehri, Gibbs, & Underwood, 1988). The preponderance of evidence suggests it is better to encourage developmental spelling attempts than to try to prevent children from putting to use what they are learning about words. Learning to read and spell words is more than a rote memorization task — nascent readers benefit from analyzing the speech stream and attempting to map letters to those sounds.

More references

Bissex, G.L. (1980). GNYS AT WRK: A child learns to read and write. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Clemens, N. H., Oslund, E. L., Simmons, L. E., & Simmons, D. (2014). Assessing spelling in kindergarten: Further comparison of scoring metrics and their relation to reading skills. Journal of School Psychology, 52(1), 49-61.

Ehri, L. C., Gibbs, A. L., & Underwood, T. L. (1988). Influence of errors on learning the spellings of English words. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 13(3), 236-253. (opens in a new window)

Ferreiro, E. (1978). What is written in a written sentence? A developmental answer. Journal of Education, 160, 25-39.

Frost, J. (2001). Phonemic awareness, spontaneous writing, and reading and spelling development from a preventive perspective. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 14(5-6), 487-513.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Godin, M., Gagné, A., & Chapleau, N. (2018). Spelling acquisition in French children with developmental language disorder: An analysis of spelling error patterns. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 34(3), 221-233.

Henderson, E. H. and Beers J. W. (1980). (Eds.) Developmental and cognitive aspects of learning to spell: A reflection of word knowledge. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association.

Huxford, L., Terrell, C., & Bradley, L. (1992). ‘Invented’ spelling and learning to read. In C. M. Sterling, & C. Robson (Eds.), Psychology, spelling and education; psychology, spelling and education (pp. 159-167). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Kamii, C., & Manning, M. (1999). Before “invented” spelling”: Kindergartners’ awareness that writing is related to sounds of speech. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 14, 16-25.

Lazo, M. G., Pumfrey, P. D., & Peers, I. (1997). Metalinguistic awareness, reading and spelling: Roots and branches of literacy. Journal of Research in Reading, 20(2), 85-104.

McBride-Chang, C. (1998). The development of invented spelling. Early Education and Development, 9(2), 147-160.

Lie, A. (1999). Effects of a training program for stimulating skills in word analysis in first-grade children. Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 234-250.

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). See above.

Read, C. (1971). Preschool children’s knowledge of English phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 41, 1-34.

Read, C. (1975). Children’s categorizations of speech sounds in English. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English

Read, C. (1986). Children’s creative spelling. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Zhang, C., Bingham, G. E., & Quinn, M. F. (2017). The associations among preschool children’s growth in early reading, executive function, and invented spelling skills. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 30(8), 1705-1728. (opens in a new window)

Zhang, Y., Nie, H., & Ding, B. (1986). The ability to manipulate speech sounds depends on knowing alphabetic reading. Cognition, 24, 31-44.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
June 15, 2022