Let preschoolers invent their own spelling, experts say

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 Photo: Getty Images

What if we told you that the key to learning how to read wasn't actually trying to read anything? Not the alphabet, nor sight words or phonics, all currently lauded by our education system as the way to teach kids to read.

In fact one study claims that it's actually writing that's the most important predictor of reading success for young children, more specifically, invented spelling.

While expectations that a Kindergarten (or Prep) student should be reading by the time they finish their first year in school have become the norm, developmental milestones in children haven't changed. With school starting age varying by up to 18 months in some Australian states, this pressure can come too early for some students who may not be developmentally ready.

Educators have fixated for many years on the 'essentials' of letter recognition, memorisation of sight words, and since 2004 in Australia, a heavy emphasis on phonics. A study published in the Developmental Psychology journal in January set out to discover which parts of early literacy knowledge most heavily determined future reading ability and what they found will bring sweet relief to parents.

171 Kindergarten students were assessed in five literacy areas - oral vocabulary, sight word recognition, alphabet knowledge, letter-sound association and invented spelling. They were also assessed the following year and what was revealed was a critical link between invented spelling and future reading ability.

Invented spelling involves children making guess about words when they write. It's something parents often worry about when they see their child writing 'Hlo' rather than 'Hello,' for example, but it turns out these experiments with words are the very building blocks of future success in reading. 

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Photo: The Classroom Key illustrates spelling development

Those who more frequently used invented spelling became the stronger readers. The passive act of memorising by rote - which can be too abstract for a four to five-year-old child - is much less effective. While attempting to write, they are actively involved in making decisions at the same time as creating physical memory through notation.

It's a double whammy in development terms, with the child at the helm of the decision-making and the concrete element of writing aiding their learning. And if you then have them read their writing back to you, you've helped them embed letter-sound concepts that Dr. J. Richard Gentry says "...integrates the child's invented spelling into a reading and fluency lesson."

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So what can parents take away from this new knowledge?

How you can help your child

1. Always encourage, never criticise.

2. Resist the urge to constantly correct your child's spelling.

3. Have your child read their writing back to you.

4. Occasionally 'be the teacher' and present a corrected version for your child. However the focus should be reading it back, not the corrections.

Your encouragement as they put pen to paper is more important than we ever knew, in terms of literacy learning. Now we know invented spelling is very key to mastering reading, parents can breathe a sigh of relief and fully embrace those adorable errors.