Creative spelling? Inventive spelling? Seriously?
I get a lot of questions about this topic, so I figured that the beginning of a new school year is a good time to explain what’s going on.
When it comes to spelling and writing, there are two well researched reasons for encouraging young writers to ignore spelling as they are writing. The first reason has to do with brain development and the analytical process that occurs when a child learns how to read and write. The second has to do with allowing the words to flow without breaking the train of thought.
Two Canadian researchers, Gene Ouellette and Monique Senechat, published an article in the journal, Developmental Psychology, explaining that children’s attempts to sound words out is actually a “cognitively strenuous activity.” They start with the first sound and the last sound, such as dg for dog, and then gradually include the middle sounds. Students use phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge to do this, which in turn improves their reading ability. In this study, children who used more inventive spelling had stronger literacy skills by the end of the year.
This does not mean that we don’t care about spelling at all. Rather, we want to see what the student is hearing phonetically before we gradually introduce proper spelling.
The second reason that inventive spelling is useful is that editing while writing makes it impossible to achieve a rhythm or flow when writing. When you are typing at the computer and see the read squiggle under a word, do you go back and fix your mistake or do you continue on, planning to fix it later? Imagine that instead of a red squiggle, it’s a teacher standing over you telling you to stop writing and fix the spelling mistake. This is definitely going to interrupt the writing process!
Peter Elbow is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He spent his entire career studying writing and the way we teach writing. In a nutshell, his theory is that when it comes to teaching writing, we should get out of the way and let our students write. When it comes to our own writing, we should get out of the way and free ourselves to make a mess. One of his most often quoted lines is, “It’s an unnecessary burden to try to think of words and also worry at the same time whether they’re the right words.” We want to allow students to focus on expression while they are writing, and then will introduce the concept of editing.
None of this means that spelling is irrelevant. There is a time to be concerned with spelling and a time to simply write.
If your child comes home with a worksheet with inventive spelling, you will now understand that the teacher isn’t simply deciding that spelling doesn’t matter.