Article, Book Resources

How Children Learn to Spell

A comprehensive strategy for teaching children to spell, incorporating visual memory and spelling memory, pre-communicative writing, and multiple spelling stages

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Psychologists once believed that children learned to spell by using rote visual memory to string letters together like beads on a necklace. But that thinking has changed in the last 20 years. Researchers have discovered that a child's memory for words is not entirely or even principally rote. They have found, instead, that two important processes come into play concerning spelling.

First, we now know that a child learns to spell in a roughly predictable series of steps that build on one another (Ehri 1986, 1994; Gill, 1992; Henderson, 1990). Second, we also now understand that spelling memory is dependent on a child's growing knowledge of spoken and written word structure.

Visual Memory and Spelling Memory

While visual memory — more specifically, "orthographic" memory — is vital for learning to spell, it doesn't work alone. Spelling memory — memory for letter sequences — is enhanced by a child's awareness of phonemes, or speech sounds. At more advanced levels, spelling memory draws on a child's knowledge of word structure, words' meaningful parts, a word's relationship to other words, and so on. Word knowledge builds systematically on other word knowledge. It's that cycle of success that teachers love to see develop: Learning begets learning.

Precommunicative Writing Stage

Most young children who are exposed to print in their homes spontaneously begin to experiment with writing. Although they may know the names of some letters, recognize letter forms, and realize that letters represent speech sounds, they may not understand what a word is or realize that print represents words and that spaces represent boundaries between them. Reading at this stage is "logographic," meaning that a child guesses at whole words based on their visual features (Ehri, 1994).

Semiphonetic Stage

After children have experimented with imitative writing and developed an awareness of alphabet letter names, a shift occurs. They begin to realize that letters represent speech sounds (Bissex, 1980; Gentry, 1981; Henderson, 1990), and selectively and predictably use abbreviated spellings.

For example, a child may use a few letters, usually consonants, to represent words, syllables, initial letters, or pieces of words. Often these consonants correspond to an alphabet letter name. At this stage, children may use their knowledge of letter names and partial phonetic cues to read (Ehri 1994), but their ability to identify and segment word sounds is still limited.

Phonetic Spelling Stage

As children gain more knowledge of print and develop an awareness of speech sounds, sound-letter correspondences, and letter names, they often employ a "one letter spells one sound" strategy. This typically occurs in kindergarten and early first grade. At this point, children "spell" by matching sounds to letters and consistently representing all of a word's sounds. To do this they rely on how words feel in their mouths.

Widely known as "invented spelling" or "temporary spelling," this process means that children use phonetic spellings and letter names to represent long or short vowels and consonants. This stage is typical of five- and six-year-olds who are signaling their readiness to learn conventional spelling patterns. Here are some typical examples of invented spellings:

DA (day)

WEL (will)

KAM (came)

BAD (bed)

FEL (feel)

SAD (said)

LIK (like)

YOH (watch)

FES (fish)

YL (will)

YAR (where)

As children gain exposure to print, practice writing, and become even more aware of the sounds in words, they begin to recognize and recall larger orthographic patterns, or "chunks", and use them to spell other words. For example, a typical first grader's spellings of common words might change over a period of several months as follows:













What do children need to know to move beyond temporary spellings? A lot! To progress, children must master letter combinations, spelling patterns, and ending rules. They must also master the phonic elements of consonants, vowels, consonant blends, and consonant digraphs — and much more. When they move from early to transitional stages, they're on the way to learning the patterns and rules that make for good spelling.

Transitional Spelling Stage

After children gain more experience with print, receive systematic instruction, and improve their reading ability, they begin to understand that most sounds are represented by letter combinations. They see that syllables are spelled in predictable ways and meaningful parts of words, such as grammatical endings and Latin and Greek roots and affixes, are preserved in English. A child at this stage is likely to make errors such as the following:

PAPRES (papers)

HIAR (hair)

MOVEING (moving)

SRATE (straight)

PLAITID (planted)

NHITE (night)

While these spellings may look more "off base" than simple phonetic spellings, such as paprs or har, a child at this stage knows that many spellings for sounds require more than one letter or contain certain letter combinations. The child is using, but confusing, constructions such as multiletter vowel spellings and is now ready for direct instruction in grammatical endings (inflections, such as -ed, -s, -ing, and so on), base word plus suffix combinations, and complex vowel spellings (Invernizzi, Abouzeid, and Gill, 1994).

Integration Stage

As students move from phonetic (sound) to syllabic (syllable) and morphemic (meaning) spelling, which typically occurs after the fourth grade, instruction should yield several things: Students should begin to consistently spell meaningful parts such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes. They should know that homophones, learned in meaningful phrases, demonstrate an important principle of English spelling — that the meaning of a word can determine how it is spelled. They should recognize compounds as such.

Here are some examples:

  • Children at this stage learn more easily those roots or base words that do not require a change in sound or spelling when the prefix or suffix is added — such as enjoyment, distasteful, or words with un-, re-, dis-, or -ness  — than they learn words such as competition.

    By the fourth grade, most students are able to use their knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and roots to decipher hundreds of new words encountered in reading. (Before this point, children must have developed at least a rudimentary awareness of these common morphemes in their expanding speaking vocabulary.)


  • To spell words with prefixes and suffixes, children at this stage should become aware of "schwa," or the unaccented vowel. In multisyllable words with affixes, especially those of Latin origin, the accent or stress is usually on the root morpheme; the affixes are often spoken with a reduced vowel whose identity can't be determined from pronunciation alone (television, incomparable, benefactor).

    Knowing the meaning of the affix and its standard spelling can resolve the ambiguity created by the reduction of a spoken vowel to schwa. For example, the "pre" in prescription, or the "re" in reduce are difficult to identify if one relies only on speech, because they are unaccented. They should be learned as meaningful prefixes with standard spellings. Otherwise, students can't sound them out successfully.


  • At this stage, children use a word's context to correctly spell homophones  words that sound alike but are spelled differently -- such as two, to, and too and aloud and allowed. Children also recognize compounds  such as playmate, something, and boyfriend   and are more likely to spell them correctly if the stress is on the first word and the child recognizes the word as a compound. If not, the child may spell the "oy" in boyfriend as "oi."


Middle Grades Stages

Although we know less about the nature and the sequence of stages in spelling development in the middle years, we do know that students continue to develop their concepts of orthography and their ability to associate spelling patterns with speech patterns. As they learn more words and store more examples of common spelling patterns in their memory, they rely increasingly on analogy strategies to spell (Ehri 1987, 1989). They learn new words because they are associated in memory with words that share their patterns. This is why it's important to emphasize sound and spelling patterns: Although students must memorize many specific words, the more they are aware of the familiar letter sequences and repeated patterns in the writing system, the easier they can recall them.

When children know meaningful word parts, they can think of similar known words — such as muscle and corpuscle  — and correctly spell them even when they cannot recall the words visually. Our most capable spellers use several sources of linguistic information about words — orthographic, phonological, morphological, and etymological — to remember spellings.

What do these stages mean for spelling instruction?

We now know that whether slowly or at an accelerated pace, all children follow a predictable sequence in learning to spell. Spelling knowledge begins to accumulate when children who are aware enough of word structure to spell phonetically are taught complex graphemes that make up most spellings for sounds in an orderly, systematic way. There should be plenty of examples and practice at each step of increasing complexity.

Orthographic knowledge is acquired in a roughly predictable sequence — from individual letters, to patterns within words, to patterns that exist across several syllables. As children learn the patterns of orthography, they also assimilate the influence of meaning on spelling. They are ready to be taught the spellings for morphemes including prefixes, roots, suffixes, and grammatical endings as stable forms. By about fifth grade, good spellers are those who have learned to attend to several levels of word structure, including sounds, syllables, and meaningful parts.

Learning to spell is both conceptual and associative; children must learn concepts about language structure at several levels and remember specific letter sequences. Learning to spell is learning about words, from all their interesting angles.



Bissex, G. Gnys at Wrk: A Child Learns to Write and Read. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Ehri, L.C. "Sources of Difficulty in Learning to Spell and Read." In M.L. Wolraich and D. Routh, eds., Advances in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Vol. 7 (pp. 121-195). Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1986.

"Learning to Read and Spell Words." Journal of Reading Behavior, 19 1987: 531.

"The Development of Spelling Knowledge and Its Role in Reading Acquisition and Spelling Disability." Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22 1989: 34964.

"Development of the Ability to Read Words: Update." In R. Ruddell, M. Ruddell, and H. Singer, eds., Theoretical Models and Process of Reading. Newark, Del: International Reading Association, 1994.

Gentry, J. R. "Learning to Spell Developmentally." Reading Teacher, 34 1981: 378381.

Gill, J. T. "The Relationship Between Word Recognition and Spelling." In S. Templeton and D.R. Bear, eds., Development of Orthographic Knowledge and the Foundations of Literacy (pp. 79104). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992.

Henderson, E. Teaching Spelling. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Invernizzi, M., Abouzeid, M. and Gill, T. J. "Using Students' Invented Spellings as a Guide for Spelling Instruction That Emphasizes Word Study." Elementary School Journal, 95 1994: 155167.

Moats, L. C. Spelling:Development, Disability, and Instruction. Baltimore, Md: York Press, 1995

Morris, D. and Perney, J. Morris, D., Nelson, L.J., and Perney, J. "Exploring the Concept of 'Spelling Instruction Level' Through the Analysis of Error-Types." Elementary School Journal, 87 (1986; 1995): 181200.

Read, C. Children's Creative Spelling. London:Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Tangel, D. M. and Blachman, B. A. "Effect of Phoneme Awareness Instruction on the Invented Spelling of First-Grade Children: A One Year Follow-Up." Journal of Reading Behavior, 27 1995: 15385.

Templeton, S. and Bear, D. R. Development of Orthographic Knowledge and the Foundations of Literacy: A Memorial Festschrift for Edmund H. Henderson. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992.

Treiman, R. Beginning to Spell: A Study of First Grade Children. New York: Oxford, 1993.

Uhry, J.K. and Shepherd, M.J. "Segmentation/Spelling Instruction as Part of a First-Grade Reading Program:Effects on Several Measures of Reading." Reading Research Quarterly, 28 1993: 219233.

  • Part of Collection:
  • Subjects:
    Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Word Recognition, Spelling, Environmental Print, Communication and Language Development, Developmental Milestones, Learning and Cognitive Development, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Teacher Training and Continuing Education
  • Skills:
    Decoding Words, Spelling