Spelling star

The key to spelling success? Keep the focus on WRITE, not RIGHT.

Learning Stages

By Melissa Catalano


Melissa Catalano is a schoolteacher and runs My Play Place, a play-based parent-participation toddler program where kids learn, create and socialize in a fun and safe setting. She holds a B.A. in Human Biology and an M.A. in Education from Stanford University. In a day filled with teaching and running a business, parenting is the job that still provides the most challenges and rewards.

One of the best things we can do for young children when it comes to teaching them to write and spell is to make writing implements and paper readily available and give them the time, space and encouragement to write.

One of the worst things we can do is to allow them to get caught up in “spelling it right.”

In my classroom, I often see first- and second-graders struggle to write because they’re worried about spelling. These children often avoid writing, get less practice writing and ultimately feel unsuccessful as writers. This can be avoided simply by encouraging children to write from an early age, without getting hung up on how to spell.

Spelling and writing, step-by-step

Learning to write and spell is a long and complex process.

Scribbling—The very earliest stages of writing actually look a lot like drawing. In fact, if a child is expressing an idea by putting symbols on a page, this is writing.

Experimenting with Letters—After a child learns to form letters, he will write by putting random letters on the page because he knows that words are made of letters. As a child learns more about letter sounds, these early writings will have some letters that correspond with the sounds in words.

Phonetic Spelling—In the next step, also called invented spelling, the child attempts to sound out words and does her best to get every sound into the written word. At this stage, a sentence may look like this: mi kat iz nis (My cat is nice).

Memorizing Simple Words—In kindergarten, children learn some conventional spellings for short, common words such as "and," “we” and “is.” In first grade, children are expected to learn more of those common “high-frequency” words. Often these words do not follow spelling patterns and simply need to be memorized, such as “was,” “what” and “they.”

Spelling Rules—By second grade, children have learned most if not all of the common spelling patterns. This is the year in which children make the leap from phonetic spelling (sounding it out) to primarily using conventional spelling.

Squash spelling struggles

Before children even know all their letter sounds, they learn that words have correct spellings. While this doesn’t deter some children and they simply spell what they hear (phonetic spelling), others can become preoccupied with getting it “right.” This is where adults can play a big role. If we tell our preschoolers how to spell each and every word they want to write, they may become reluctant to exercise their phonetics skills on their own.

So, what should we do?

  • Model how to segment a word. When you are writing something down, stretch the word out and break it into its parts. For example, when you write “bread” on your grocery list, say the sounds “b/r/e/d”. Your child will hear that words are made up of distinct sounds and she will begin to stretch and segment words when she writes. Learning how to do this is much more important than spelling it right!
  • When your child asks you for a spelling, help him stretch the word out to hear the sounds. One way to do this is by putting your hands to the sides of your mouth and making a bubble while you stretch a word to show how the word it stretching. Or break the word into its parts and clap for each part. Encourage your child to write the sounds she hears.
  • Encourage all his efforts. If your child asks you if he spelled the word correctly, try to respond with something like, “I can read it, so you wrote it very well.”
  • If your child is adamant about knowing how to spell a particular word, such as a family member’s name, put that spelling in a special place. Some children really like having a “Special Words” book. Write the word in your child’s book and remind him to look in the book when he needs that spelling.
  • Introduce your young writer to the idea that some words follow rules and some do not. Learning to spell is less about memorization and more about learning certain rules over time. When your child wants to spell a complex word and is not satisfied with sounding it out, you can say, “You haven’t learned that rule yet so I’ll tell you that spelling. It’s tricky.” But make sure you sometimes also respond with, “I think you can hear all the sounds in that word. Give it a try.” And of course, for those words that don’t follow a spelling rule, children love to hear about those naughty “rule breakers.”

Write for more practice

When learning to write and spell, a preschooler needs lots of opportunities to write without the fear of being wrong. Here is a list of some of the many ways you can encourage your preschooler to write.

  • Lists (of toys, friends, favorite foods, games, etc.)
  • Notes to parents or teachers
  • Cards and letters
  • Pictures with labels
  • Signs for the bedroom door
  • Instructions for the babysitter
  • Rules for the house
  • Taking the orders of customers in a pretend restaurant
  • Stories

Enjoy this magical time of learning and growth and feel confident that if your child is showing an interest in books and writing, your child is well on his or her way to becoming a confident reader and writer.