How to Transition Young Students from Invented Spelling to Literacy

When my daughter started kindergarten, she brought home a blank composition book. A note explained that it was her diary and she was to make an entry every day. All parents want to believe that their child is above average in intelligence. And my daughter did know her alphabet, could spell a few small words, and could read simple books. But what was going on here?

At the teacher conference held the next week, The teacher explained that the school had adopted the “Whole language Integration” method. My child was not expected to spell the words correctly. She was expected to write what she thought the words would look like. Through that method, the language was the driving tool. The “spelling would come to her, eventually”.

Whole Language Integration is a concept that teaches language within the context of experience. If taught properly, I learned much later and too late, it teaches the language, and focuses on the nuts and bolts – the spelling and grammar – later, as the child progresses. The language should be taught by “integrating” it with everyday activities.

Invented Spelling is used in the Whole Language Integration process. This concept was introduced in the late 1970’s, partly based on a study by Charles Read, a professor of Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. The basis for Invented Spelling is that a child learns to spell by sounding out words and assigning letters to the words, based on phonetic sounds rather than memorization of spelling. As the child practices the writing, he learns the intricacies of spelling, grammar and sentence structure.

I skeptically accepted the teacher’s explanation and made certain my daughter wrote in her diary daily. When reading her works, they made no sense. She couldn’t even look at the earliest writings and “read” what she had written.

This method continued through the third grade. But the phonics was never taught. My daughter could read at levels higher than expected. And she nearly aced all of her spelling tests. But when unable to spell those same words a month later, I had my doubts. Her writing, although improved from kindergarten, was still very often undecipherable.

Mercifully, we moved to another state after my daughter finished third grade. The school taught actual phonics, and the teacher insisted that words be spelled correctly. My daughter was behind from the start. At our first conference with the teacher, we explained the problem. And he immediately gave us suggestions to help her catch up. He also, worked with her to help her keep up in class.

First, we bought some phonics workbooks at the local teacher supply store. We started with first grade level, cutting out the labels so my daughter wouldn’t know it. When she completed a book, she got a reward – generally, a new book to read. And we encouraged her to write outside of her school assignments. She wrote a “book”, letters to her grandparents, and to her old classmates from her previous school.

We also created our own spelling tests, based on the words from her school text books. There was very little stress involved, as she was embarrassed that she couldn’t spell very well, and wanted to improve. We spell-checked her homework. We purchased a child’s dictionary. When she asked how to spell a word, we told her to sound it out and look it up.

While there was improvement over the next two years, she never became a great speller. In middle school, her teachers advised us to have her complete her assignments on a word processor. Seeing the words in uniform print helped her to spot mistakes, since she was still an avid reader. We turned the spell checker off, of course.

My daughter is now a college graduate. She reads voraciously. But, in spite of our efforts, she still is still not a great speller. Since the introduction of text and instant messaging, it doesn’t have much effect on her daily activities outside of work. For work and business dealings, she relies on spell-checking. I am still convinced that she would have been worse off, had we not added some homework to help her catch up.

Whole Language Integration, when taught properly, probably works. And studies show that Invented Spelling, correctly applied, improves linguistic skills. But it’s advisable to teach phonics, grammar and sentence structure on the side, if the teaching program does not.