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What Little Kids’ Early Spelling Reveals

There’s More to Wacky Writing Than Meets the Eye!

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Even before they invent spelling based on sounds, preschoolers are starting to grasp rules about how letters go together to form words.

You’d never guess that “fpbczs” or “fepiri” were meant to be spellings of the word “touch.” But you might agree that “fepiri” just looks more like a word than “fpbczs.” It shows that the five-year-old who wrote it has a better idea of letter patterns (like alternating vowels and consonants) than the four-year-old who wrote “fpbczs.”

“While neither spelling makes sense as an attempt to represent sounds, the older child’s effort shows that he or she knows more about the appearance of English words,” says Rebecca Treiman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. She coauthored a study that looked at whether young children start to learn spelling rules even before they can connect letters with the sounds they make.

“Our study found improvements, with spellings becoming more wordlike in appearance, over the preschool years in a group of children who did not yet use letters to stand for sounds,” she says.

Stages of Spelling

“Invented spelling” is a learning stage in which kids attempt to write words with letters that represent sounds, like “tk” for “truck” or “bonn” for “balloon.” It usually happens at around age five or six, and it’s a normal (and important) step in the learning process.

Before this stage, though, comes the one Treiman studied: “Prephonological” spelling. That just means kids don’t yet know the connection between letters and sounds—common and normal for children three to five years old. The results of the research, which looked at spelling attempts from kids this age, suggest that “children are starting to learn about one aspect of spelling—what words look like—from an earlier point than we’d given them credit for,” she says.

Just like invented spelling, in which kids might advance from “bn” to “bonn” to “blun” when attempting to write the word “balloon,” Treiman and her team show that prephonological spellers make progress too. The older kids in her study showed more knowledge about “English letter patterns” than the younger ones did—patterns like length, use of different letters within words, and combinations of letters.

It’s possible, says Treiman, that “educators could get useful information from children’s early attempts to write—information that could help to show whether a child is on track for future success.”

What to Do at Home
See Also: Big News About Picture Books for Little Listeners

Helping your child make her way through those spelling stages is simple.

  • Expose her to reading and writing regularly so she sees what letters are and what they do. This acquaintance is the starting point for successful reading, writing, and spelling.
  • Show her the letters in her name—research shows kids can use “their” letter (the one their name starts with) correctly before other letters. In other words, if a child named Tyler were asked to spell the word “touch,” he might start it off with a T before another child named William could.

So read books together, both picture books and alphabet-style books. Talk about letters as you’re going about your day. Play with ABC toys, such as fridge magnets or foam letters in the tub. Play with sidewalk chalk together, and offer writing tools and other activities that strengthen little fingers. Soon enough, scribbles will become letters, and letters will become real words.