The Spelling Development Process

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

The process of learning to spell can often be complicated and frustrating for students. With the right method of instruction and a solid understanding of the relationship between spelling and reading, spelling can be a breeze. Read on for details.

Learning to Spell

Back in the day, children were taught spelling the same way they learned math or other concrete, repeatable facts - rote memorization. We now know that the brain is more complicated and relies on making connections between new and old ideas. Spelling instruction these days focuses on two strands for a solid understanding of reading and writing - memory and comprehension of how speech works.

Young learners use their ability to discriminate between letters visually, a process called orthographic memory in conjunction with knowledge of phonics - things like letter sounds and word structure. Each of these processes relies on the other in the early stages of development, laying the foundation for literacy. Eventually a student's language system begins to emerge and grow, using the foundation as a house would and adding new knowledge brick by brick until a solid grasp of spelling conventions is learned.

What are the stages of spelling development? Let's follow Lucy, an education major completing her student teaching experience, as she studies for an exam on spelling and literacy.

Lucy's professor is big on making sure the education students understand child development. He taught the class that, though not all children are the same, they mostly learn to spell in predictable patterns. Each of these stages has differing abilities and builds on the next Let's take a look at these.

Precommunicative Stage

Lucy notices the first stage, when broken apart, includes the word 'communicate' as a root. She recognizes the prefix 'pre' probably means this stage includes children who do not yet concretely understand writing and spelling but are aware of it. They may:

  • Pretend to write and use pictures to help tell stories in books with text
  • Know the alphabet in some form, such as the famous alphabet song
  • Be able to recognize letters in their names or on signs they see frequently

They may not quite know how sounds and letters work together or understand what written language really means.

Semiphonetic Stage

With enough exposure to literature and some direct instruction, children become aware of letters and their role in spelling and writing. They understand that each letter represents a sound in speech and that when put together, a word can be written. Lucy knows children at this stage know some word sounds, or phonemes, but aren't consistently putting them together on paper to write just yet.

Phonetic Stage

With consistent exposure and a budding awareness of phonemes and letters, children soon begin to make connections between speech and spelling. Students at this stage can identify what sounds letters make and spell words using the most basic formations. For example, a first grader Lucy worked with wrote the sentence 'I like cookies' the way she heard the letters, 'I lik kokes.' Children at this stage aren't quite yet aware of more complex spelling rules and instead use their very basic understanding of phonemes, a method sometimes called inventive spelling.

Transitional Stage

Once children have that solid foundation built, they begin to add bricks by becoming aware of more conventional rules of spelling. This happens in a few ways.

Lucy observed her cooperating teacher directly instructing students on some spelling rules, such as prefixes and suffixes. She also noticed that children's knowledge of spelling patterns and rules grew from their exposure to reading. The relationship between spelling and reading is important. As students are learning to spell and write words, they also are learning to read them in text. They see the word 'cookies' on the page and later remember there were some more complicated spelling involved than originally thought.

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