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

Stage 3: Within-Word Pattern Spelling

Students begin the within-word pattern stage when they can spell most one-syllable short-vowel words, and during this stage, they learn to spell long-vowel patterns and r-controlled vowels. They experiment with long-vowel patterns and learn that words such as come and bread are exceptions that don’t fit the vowel patterns. Students may confuse spelling patterns and spell meet as mete, and they reverse the order of letters, such as form for from and gril for girl. They also learn about complex consonant sounds, including -tch (match) and -dge (judge), and less frequent vowel patterns, such as oi/oy (boy), au (caught), aw (saw), ew (sew, few), ou (house), and ow (cow). Students also become aware of homophones and compare long-and short-vowel combinations (hope–hop) as they experiment with vowel patterns. Students at this stage are 7- to 9-year-olds, and they learn these spelling concepts:

  • Long-vowel spelling patterns
  • r-controlled vowels
  • More-complex consonant patterns
  • Diphthongs and other less common vowel patterns

Stage 4: Syllables and Affixes Spelling

Students focus on syllables in this stage and apply what they’ve learned about one-syllable words to longer, multisyllabic words. They learn about inflectional endings (-s, -es, -ed, and -ing) and rules about consonant doubling, changing the final y to i, or dropping the final e before adding an inflectional suffix. They also learn about homophones and compound words and are introduced to some of the more-common prefixes and suffixes. Spellers in this stage are generally 9- to 11-year-olds. Students learn these concepts during the syllables and affixes stage of spelling development:

  • Inflectional endings (-s, -es, -ed, -ing)
  • Rules for adding inflectional endings
  • Syllabication
  • Homophones

Stage 5: Derivational Relations Spelling

Students explore the relationship between spelling and meaning during the derivational relations stage, and they learn that words with related meanings are often related in spelling despite changes in vowel and consonant sounds (e.g., wise–wisdom, sign–signal, nation–national). The focus in this stage is on morphemes, and students learn about Greek and Latin root words and affixes. They also begin to examine etymologies and the role of history in shaping how words are spelled. They learn about eponyms (words from people’s names), such as maverick and sandwich. Spellers at this stage are 11- to 14-year-olds. Students learn these concepts at this stage of spelling development:

  • Consonant alternations (e.g., soft–soften, magic–magician)
  • Vowel alternations (e.g., please–pleasant, define–definition, explain–explanation)
  • Greek and Latin affixes and root words
  • Etymologies

Children’s spelling provides evidence of their growing understanding of English orthography. The words they spell correctly show which phonics concepts, spelling patterns, and other language features they’ve learned to apply, and the words they invent and misspell show what they’re still learning to use and those features of spelling that they haven’t noticed or learned about. Invented spelling is sometimes criticized because it appears that students are learning bad habits by misspelling words, but researchers have confirmed that students grow more quickly in phonemic awareness, phonics, and spelling when they use invented spelling as long as they are also receiving spelling instruction (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). As students learn more about spelling, their invented spellings become more sophisticated to reflect their new knowledge, even if the words are still spelled incorrectly, and increasingly students spell more and more words correctly as they move through the stages of spelling development.