Parents of beginning writers often look at their children’s sentences and see something like this: We wnt on a rid it wuz fn. Translation: “We went on a ride. It was fun.”
When children are first learning how to write, they often use “invented spelling.” Otherwise known as phonetic spelling, invented spelling is when children listen to the sounds they hear in words and write down the letters that make those sounds. Words like "cat" or "pin" are usually spelled correctly under the invented system, but irregular words like “special” or “the” are often incorrect.
It can be frustrating to stand by and watch your child spell incorrectly. But using invented spelling is an important stage in your child’s development as a writer. In first grade, especially, children are still learning and practicing which letters make which sounds. Using invented spelling is a great way for children to practice which letter-sounds go with which letter! This practice will improve both their writing and reading. Rest assured, your child will develop standard spelling as she gets older. Use these guidelines to know how and when to help your child with spelling:
Do have your child stretch out the words she is spelling to try and hear all the sounds in the word. For example, “cat” should be stretched out /c/ /a/ /t/. Have your child say the word slowly and listen to all the sounds that she hears. If he doesn’t hear a sound in a word (let’s say he writes “ct” for “cat”) gently push him to listen carefully to the word once more (going with the “ct” example, ask him what sound comes between the “c” and the “t”).
Don’t correct your child’s spelling. Children should feel like successful, independent writers. If children feel like they can’t write without perfect spelling, they will not think of themselves as writers. Children also may develop a tendency to rely on grown-ups to tell them if their spelling is “right.” Instead of focusing on correct spelling, encourage your first grader to write phonetically. If first graders are representing all the sounds they hear in words, they will be able to read their own writing. That’s what we want from young writers-- standard spelling will come later.
Do find out what sight words/spelling words your child is learning in school. If your child’s teacher has taught the students the words “the” and “and”, then your child should be consistently spelling those two words correctly in his writing. You can hold your child accountable for words that he has spent a long time learning about and practicing in school.
Don’t worry if you can’t read your child’s writing. Try to point out why it is important for your child to be able to read her writing. Talk with her about including all sounds in the words she’s writing and remind her to put spaces between her words. Often kids will not be able to hear all the sounds in words-- that’s okay. Usually kids start by representing beginning sounds, then beginning and ending sounds. The final stage of invented spelling comes when kids are able to include middle sounds. For example, if a child is asked to spell the word “cat” she might start by writing “c” then “ct” and finally “cat”.
Finally, and most importantly, DO encourage a love of writing! Writing should be a fun, low stress activity. Take the pressure off your child to spell all words correctly and instead praise him for his imaginative story or interesting details. When your child values writing, he will see the importance of writing to be understood, and this will encourge him to develop more conventional spelling later.