How useful is inventive spelling for primary school children?

Whether you’re an experienced primary school teacher or you’re only just starting out, there’s a good chance you’ll have already heard the term ‘inventive spelling’. It’s sometimes a surprisingly controversial topic in certain educational circles, but whatever your personal opinion on it, there’s no denying that it’s invariably going to be something you’ll see your class use in their personalised school exercise books.

So, what exactly is inventive spelling, and should it be encouraged in class?

How useful is inventive spelling for primary school children?

What is inventive spelling?

Inventive spelling refers to the approach that young children tend to use for writing words they know how to say, but not necessarily how to spell. It involves using what they know about letters, sounds, and spelling patterns to spell the word as well as they’re able to.

Some examples of inventive spelling could include:

  • Difrint (different)
  • Fite (fight)
  • Shuld (should)
  • Sord (sword)
  • Zilofone (xylophone)

Inventive spelling is also sometimes known by the alternative names of invented spelling, or phonetic spelling.

Interestingly enough, inventive spelling is often regarded as being markedly more common in English than it is in other languages such as Spanish or German, mostly because English has a far greater proportion of words that are spelled somewhat counter intuitively. Far more Spanish words, for example, are largely spelled phonetically, so once children know all the different sounds in the language, then it becomes a lot easier for them to guess at the spelling.


How important is inventive spelling?

As we’ve touched on above, there’s historically been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the idea of whether it’s an acceptable approach for teachers to encourage in young children. In the words of Doug Lemov, a prominent US academic: practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.

It’s easy to see where he’s coming from; bad habits can be hard to reverse, especially when they’re ingrained very early on. (Adults can experience the same when learning a musical instrument for example, or even starting a new job.) But having said that, there now seems to be a general consensus that it’s generally appropriate for children to utilise phonetic spelling in their early years.

Now, for a long time, there was a persistent idea in the world of education that spelling proficiency relied on a process of memorising individual words. Today, we’ve largely moved away from that concept.

Instead, experts generally believe that visual memory is a much more important resource for children when internalising the spelling of words. Visual memory, or the ability to mentally envision what a word should look like, is best developed by studying word patterns, seeing words in context during reading sessions, and practicing them while writing.

And of course, while good spelling is ultimately vital to solid written communication, in the early stages of learning, teachers generally believe that it takes a backseat to grammar, which is arguably even more essential for helping children to effectively articulate themselves, and clearly convey their emotions, intentions and opinions.

According to this perspective, children should be given space to explore their language creatively, even as they learn the mechanical skill of spelling correctly. Inventive spelling helps them to build their own confidence, and gives them the ability to pick up on and later correct their own mistakes. Conversely, stopping them in their tracks to correct their spelling can be demoralising, and may even end up actively posing an obstacle to their progress with the more important aspects of writing like grammar and structure.

Should inventive spelling be discouraged?

Generally, no. While it’s understandable that some adults (parents especially) often have their concerns about the approach, it’s worth bearing in mind that the practice of inventive spelling itself very rarely translates into poor spelling attainment in the long-term. On the contrary, it’s an invaluable learning stage, and arguably essential for children to ultimately become confident and successful in their spelling.

The benefits in a nutshell:

  • It allows children to practice written communication long before they’re ready to spell each individual word correctly
  • It enables them to express their ideas quickly and smoothly in a first draft, without being impeded by the technicalities of proper spelling
  • It gives teachers a useful insight into each child’s individual progress, helping them see which concepts and techniques have been mastered, such as irregular words, and how adding e on the end of certain words can make them sound longer. That can provide some valuable information when forming future lesson plans!

Ultimately, the extent to which you’d encourage it in your classroom is all up to you. We’re not here to make the decision for you - instead, we’re just here to provide excellent range of personalised exercise books, teacher planners and other resources.

With more than 40 years of experience behind us, we’re top of the class when it comes to producing resources and learning solutions for schools, so you can count on us to provide answers in as much or as little detail as you need. Feel free to give us a call on 01254 686 500!

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