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Inventive spelling (sometimes invented spelling) is the use of unconventional spellings of words.

Conventional written English is not phonetic (that is, it is not written as it sounds, due to the history of its spelling, which led to outdated, unintuitive, misleading or arbitrary spelling conventions and spellings of individual words) unlike, for example, German or Spanish, where letters have relatively fixed associated sounds, so that the written text is a fair representation of the spoken words.


English spelling is not intuitive and must be learned. There have been numerous proposals[1] to rationalize written English, notably by

In education

Inventive spelling for children may be encouraged or discouraged by teachers and parents who may believe that expression is more important than accurate orthography or conversely that a failure to correct may lead to difficulty in communicating more complex ideas in later life.[citation needed]

Inventive spelling programs may also be known as "words their way" in some schools' curricula.[2] Critics of inventive spelling[who?] have argued that inventive spelling does not produce superior writing skills.[citation needed]

Debate over inventive or invented spelling

Samuel Orton pioneered the study of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. where the subject is apt to confound the letter-order of words. He and his assistant Anna Gillingham, an educator and psychologist, evolved the Orton-Gillingham Approach to reading instruction which is language-based, multi-sensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible. The Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOEPE) lists about a dozen schools currently committed to this controversial method, which has evolved since about 1935.

More recently, Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London, has published work concerning spelling difficulties and dyslexia.[3]

Dyslexia, whether linked to complex spelling or not, may offer considerable potential for human development.[4][5]

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.[citation needed]

Theories of supporters

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

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.[citation needed] 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. This side of the debate was explored further in the book and short film "The deliberate dumbing down of America".[citation needed]

State of the debate

Advocates of inventive spelling focus on creativity when children are first learning to spell and write, feel this preserves self-esteem, and thus, feel creativity in spelling is most important.[6] Opponents counter that creativity is a distraction when learning spelling for the first time, and that children ought to be taught accurate spelling as soon as possible so as not to have incorrect spellings become a habit and delay the learning of accurate spelling. The overwhelming view from parents[citation needed] is that children learn to spell more quickly and accurately if accurate spelling is the focus instead of creativity when learning words. Accuracy as the focus in spelling is the manner used in conventional teaching methods and was effectively universal prior to the implementation of 1970s school reform involving whole word literacy and "new math". 4[citation needed]


Inventive spelling instruction

Pedagogical concepts [7] are based on research studies of early literacy, e.g. by Emilia Ferreiro & Ana Teberosky, Maryann Manning and others.[8] Children are encouraged to learn to read by writing in a meaningful context, e.g. by writing letters to others. To write a word they have to decompose its spoken form into sounds and then to translate them into letters, e.g. k, a, t for the phonemes /k/, /æ/, and /t/. Empirical studies [9] show that later orthographic development is fostered rather than hindered by these invented spellings - as long as children from the beginning are confronted with "book spellings", too.

To use SIL International's[10] inventive spelling program, there are several instructional principles, as follows:

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

Writing and reading are complex cognitive processes of encoding and decoding symbols, of which spelling forms only part. "Look and say" form an image of a word without spelling. Spelling training may require children to write out lists of words repeatedly, or engage in competitive spelling bee tests. Such methods of instruction do not tend to improve students' understanding of the relationship between spelling and pronunciation on any words except those prescribed.

Instruction that emphasizes conventional spelling focuses on the phonics patterns and rules in English which are anyway intrinsically weak because of the complexity of the history of the English language. 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/ sound spelled dge (as in badge, wedge, bridge, lodge, and budge) and the /tʃ/ sound spelling tch.

The same is also applicable for the process of learning acronyms. It is acceptable to use the inventive spelling of GBOL or Jeebol which can in turn be written as Jeeball.

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:

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

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.


  1. ^ Alan Beale; Paul Stought; Bob Boden. "English Spelling Reform". Wyrdplay org. Retrieved 2013-03-20.
  2. ^ Bear, Donald R.; Invernizzi, Marcia; Templeton, Shane; Johnston, Francine (May 21, 2007). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4 ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-223968-4.
  3. ^ Frith, Uta (1983). Cognitive Processes in Spelling. London, UK: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-268662-4.
  4. ^ Brock L. Eide M.D. M.A. (2011). The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Penguin USA/Plume. ISBN 978-0-452-29792-0.
  5. ^ The Gift of Dyslexia. Penguin USA/Perigee. 1999. ISBN 978-0-399-53566-6.
  6. ^ Brügelmann, H./ Brinkmann, E. (2012): Supporting individual routes to literacy: Developing concepts and skills before school by using print in meaningful contexts. Download:; Ferreiro, E./ Teberosky, A. (1982): Literacy before schooling. Heinemann: Portsmouth/ London (span. 1979); McGee, L.M., & Richgels, D. J. (2012): Literacy's beginnings: Supporting young readers and writers. Pearson/ Allyn and Bacon: Boston et al. (6th ed.)
  7. ^ e.g. by Brügelmann, H. (1986). Discovering print – a process approach to initial reading and writing in West Germany. In: The Reading Teacher, Vol. 40, No. 3, 294–298; McGee, L. M./ Richgels, D. J. (2000). Literacy's beginnings: Supporting young readers and writers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon (3rd ed.).
  8. ^ Ferreiro, E./ Teberosky, A. (1982). Literacy before schooling. Portsmouth/ London: Heinemann (span. 1979); Henderson, E. H./ Beers, J. W. (eds.) (1980). Developmental and cognitive aspects of learning to spell: A reflection of word knowledge. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association; Clarke, L.K. (1988). Invented vs. traditional spelling in first graders' writings: Effects on learning to spell and read. In: Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 22, No. 3 (October), 281–309.
  9. ^ Brügelmann, H. (1999). From invention to convention. Children's different routes to literacy. How to teach reading and writing by construction vs. instruction. In: Nunes, T. (ed.) (1999). Learning to read: An integrated view from research and practice. Dordrecht et al.: Kluwer(315–342); Richgels, D.J. (2001). Invented spelling, phonemic awareness, and reading and writing instruction. In: Neuman, S. B./ Dickinson, D. (eds.) (2001). Handbook on Research in Early Literacy for the 21st Century. New York: Guilford Press.
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  12. ^
  13. ^
  1.—SIL International
  2.—Germantown Academy Kindergarten
  3.—National Right to Read Foundation
  4. quoted from Dr. Patrick Groff, NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor