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Stages of Spelling Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 22, 2013

As young children begin to write, they create unique spellings, called invented spelling, based on their knowledge of phonology (Read, 1975). The children in Read’s studies used letter names to spell words, such as U (you) and R (are), and they used consonant sounds rather consistently: GRL (girl), TIGR (tiger), and NIT (night). They used several unusual but phonetically based spelling patterns to represent affricates; for example, they replaced tr with chr (e.g., CHRIBLES for troubles) and dr with jr (e.g., JRAGIN for dragon). Words with long vowels were spelled using letter names: MI (my), LADE (lady), and FEL (feel). The children used several ingenious strategies to spell words with short vowels: The preschoolers selected letters to represent short vowels on the basis of place of articulation in the mouth. Short i was represented with e, as in FES (fish), short e with a, as in LAFFT (left), and short o with i, as in CLIK (clock). These spellings may seem odd to adults, but they are based on phonetic relationships.

Based on examinations of children’s spellings, researchers have identified five stages that students move through on their way to becoming conventional spellers: emergent spelling, letter name-alphabetic spelling, within-word pattern spelling, syllables and affixes spelling, and derivational relations spelling (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2008). At each stage, students use different strategies and focus on particular aspects of spelling.

Stage 1: Emergent Spelling

Children string scribbles, letters, and letterlike forms together, but they don’t associate the marks they make with any specific phonemes. Spelling at this stage represents a natural, early expression of the alphabet and other written-language concepts. Children may write from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, or randomly across the page, but by the end of the stage, they have an understanding of directionality. Some emergent spellers have a large repertoire of letterforms to use in writing, whereas others repeat a small number of letters over and over. They use both upper- and lowercase letters but show a distinct preference for uppercase letters. Toward the end of the stage, children are beginning to discover how spelling works and that letters represent sounds in words. This stage is typical of 3- to 5-year-olds. During the emergent stage, children learn these concepts:

  • The distinction between drawing and writing
  • How to make letters
  • The direction of writing on a page
  • Some letter-sound matches

Stage 2: Letter Name-Alphabetic Spelling

Children learn to represent phonemes in words with letters. They develop an understanding of the alphabetic principle, that a link exists between letters and sounds. At first, the spellings are quite abbreviated and represent only the most prominent features in words. Children use only several letters of the alphabet to represent an entire word. Examples of early Stage 2 spelling are D (dog) and KE (cookie), and children may still be writing mainly with capital letters. Children slowly pronounce the word they want to spell, listening for familiar letter names and sounds.

In the middle of the letter name-alphabetic stage, children use most beginning and ending consonants and include a vowel in most syllables; they spell like as lik and bed as bad. By the end of the stage, they use consonant blends and digraphs and short-vowel patterns to spell hat, get, and win, but some still spell ship as sep. They can also spell some CVCe words such as name correctly. Spellers at this stage are usually 5- to 7-year-olds. During the letter-name stage, children learn these concepts:

  • The alphabetic principle
  • Consonant sounds
  • Short vowel sounds
  • Consonant blends and digraphs
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