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Inventive, or invented, spelling is the non-conventional spelling of a word created by a novice reader or writer. It contrasts with conventional spelling, the correct or standard spelling.



Inventive spelling is not an instructional technique but rather something that is encouraged or discouraged by a child's teachers and parents. Inventive spelling is not universally accepted. Whether teachers and parents encourage inventive spelling is generally connected to those individuals' perspectives on the importance of experimentation in learning.

Critics of inventive spelling have made compelling arguments, based on scientific research, that inventive spelling does not produce superior writing skills . Studies show that inventive spelling may actual hinder writing development by failing to correct improper spelling through a teacher's misinterpretation of the intended word or failure to follow-up with a student in order to teach the correct spelling. *

Debate over Inventive/Invented Spelling


Learning Theory

Whether an individual accepts or rejects inventive spelling is a feature of that individual's theory of learning. The debate is closely linked with the debate over whole language literacy instruction and phonics instruction.

Theories of Supporters of Inventive Spelling

Those who favor inventive spelling tend to believe in constructivism, a theoretical perspective on learning (an epistemology) grounded in postmodernism and holism. Constructivists believe that knowledge is created by individuals in a social context. Because knowledge is cultural, there are no right answers. In terms of inventive spelling, constructivists are likely to believe that the child is inventing spellings in accord with his or her understanding of language and print. These spellings are neither right nor wrong; they reflect the child's development as a speller.

Theories of Detractors of Inventive Spelling

Those who oppose inventive spelling tend to be positivists or post-positivists. Positivists believe that there are correct answers that we can discover based upon empirical observation. They would argue that encouraging inventive spelling is not helpful because there are correct ways to spell that children should learn. Post-positivists believe that while we cannot know truth completely--our own biases and perspectives prevent that--we can approximate truth. Post-positivists might agree with constructivists that an inventive spelling does reflect a child's development but might also argue that there are socially accepted spellings and that children should know these well.

State of the Debate

Advocates of inventive spelling argue that children learn to spell and writing more creatively under this system. However, there is no experimental evidence to verify these claims. Conversely, the overwhelming evidence that children learn to spell more quickly and accurately if taught to do so in a direct and systematic manner used in conventional teaching methods prior to the onslaught of 1970s school "reform" involving whole word literacy and "new math". 4


Inventive Spelling Instruction

To use SIL International's (, inventive spelling program, there are several instructional principles, as follows:

  • At first, the teachers should accept all of the student's writing as meaningful writing. As students gain more experience, they begin to learn the correct spellings of words and use these spellings in their writings.
  • Let the students write freely and independently.
  • Ask students to read what they have written.
  • Read the text, or repeat the story as if you are reading it.
  • Ignore spelling and grammar errors, unless the students ask to be corrected.
  • Rewrite the text if students want you to.
  • Help the students to create their own word lists as they write or edit so they can find out the proper spellings.

One aspect of inventive spelling rarely discussed by its advocates is the toll it takes on teachers' time. Recent studies suggest that to be effective a spelling teacher also must correctly guess what words children meant to use when they invent spellings. The possible deductions are numerous and potentially complicated.4

Instruction for Conventional Spelling

Traditional models of spelling instruction require children to write out lists of spelling words, often a prescribed number of times, in practice for a Friday test. This method of instruction does not tend to improve students' spelling on any words except those on the test.

Current instruction that emphasizes conventional spelling focuses on the phonics patterns and rules in English. For example, children can be taught that when they hear the /k/ sound at the end of a one-syllable word where a short vowel precedes the sound, the /k/ sound will be spelled ck (as in stack, wreck, stick, rock, and stuck). A similar pattern holds for the /dʒ/ʒʒ sound spelled dge (as in badge, wedge, bridge, lodge, and budge) and the /ch/ sound spelling tch.

Once children learn these phonics patterns, they can apply them to words. When children make errors, the teacher does not merely tell them they are wrong; the teacher, to the extent possible, returns the child's attention to the relevant rule or pattern.

There are also sight words that do not follow patterns; children need to memorize conventional spellings for these words, such as who.

Benefits and Costs


Whether teachers encourage children to use inventive spellings or not, analyzing them has several key advantages:

  • Children's invented spellings help teachers understand what students know and do not know about the phonetic structure of the language.
  • Sophisticated spelling, even if it is not conventional, may indicate strong phonological awareness.
  • Examining invented spellings may help researchers understand the development of phonological awareness and understanding of sound-symbol correspondences.

For those teachers who emphasize constructivist, inventive spellings, there are further advantages:

  • Children who are allowed to spell inventively may learn an earlier appreciation for writing.
  • Children who spell inventively may be more creative in their writing because they focus less on form.

It should be noted that the above two suppositions on the benefits of inventive spelling have not been empirically verified and are not generally accepted by neurolinguists, who study the natural learning process of spoken language and have recently determined that reading and spelling are not "hard-wired", natural processes.


Permitting or encouraging children to spell inventively has some costs.

  • According to some research, children may learn to spell correctly faster if they are taught to do so in a direct and systematic way.
  • Encouraging inventive spelling may delay children's conventional spelling development.
  • Early excitement about writing may give way to later frustration when students feel a lack of confidence about their misspellings.
  • Some students like to spell things correctly and may resist attempts to get them to spell inventively.
  • Practicing bad spelling habits ingrains them and makes them difficult to overcome, while spelling correctly from the beginning eliminates this problem.

In her book, Beginning to Spell, (1993) Rebecca Treiman warns in this respect that teachers who do not infer correctly what is "the logic behind children’s [invented spelling] errors" will instruct spelling in a way that "may be worse than no instruction at all." 5

However, after teachers devote great time and effort to this end, Treiman offers nothing unique nor practical that they should do to "help" a child spell. For example, typical invented spellings are her as hr, and neck as nak. For the former, Treiman recommends that children "must memorize the E of her." Nothing new here. Then, her advice that for the misspelling of neck "the child might be assured that /e/ does sound similar to /a/, but that /e/ usually is spelled with E," is far too abstruse instruction for first-grade children to profit from. There appears to be a desperate but unsuccessful search for utility of invented spelling data. 5


  1. -- SIL International
  2. -- Germantown Academy Kindergarten
  3. -- National Right to Read Foundation
  4. quoted from Dr. Patrick Groff, NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor


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