Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Creative Spelling Is Not Wrong

In educational and homeschooling circles, there can be some pretty heated debate on the topic of creative spelling. ("Creative spelling" is allowing a child who is just learning to write/read to spell things how they think they might be spelled and not correct them.)

Here's what I love about creative spelling:

1. It allows for independent writing. My six-year-old can experiment with writing, making lists and maps and messages used in her various imaginative games, without needing to ask me "how do I spell...?" This gives her a real sense of ownership, making words and letters tools of play and not just school.

2. It gives my student a chance to demonstrate her understanding of the phonics rules we've learned so far. Trying to sound out a long word and write down the sounds she hears is a fabulous mental exercise, and tells me which rules need review and which have been mastered.

3. It provides an accurate snapshot of where she is with her language skills. When I look back at a paper from two months ago and compare it to today's, I can really see how much her facility with words has grown.

Six-year-old's creative spelling of "inspector"

Now, to be clear, I do espouse a lot of the principles of classical education, and our homeschool curriculum looks more classical than anything else. And classical education does tend to discourage creative spelling, from what I've seen. I understand the reasoning behind it -- if mistakes are not corrected, the student starts to think that their "creative" spellings are the real spellings and that can be a bear to correct down the line.

We address that concern in several ways:

1. We learn phonics and spelling rules, so that over time those rules are incorporated into the creatively spelled words. It turns out that there are very few true exceptions to phonics rules, as long as you learn all of them, so eventually you will have the tools to correctly spell just about any word without ever having memorized a sight word.

2. We read a lot. For the typical non-dyslexic student, the best way to teach spelling is to read read read read read. Having seen the word correctly spelled a zillion times, the child inadvertently memorizes it (again, without flash cards or conscious memorizing) and can recall it at will.

3. We do practice writing every week, both in copywork and in our weekly letter to a friend or family member, that does use only correct spelling.

I am a vigilant defender of correct spelling and grammar. And I do strongly believe that children need to learn the right way to write and speak if they are to be taken seriously as adults. But along the path to that ultimate goal, creative spelling does have an important place.


  1. Kailyn's kindy teacher asked us to not correct them when they sound out their words and spell them but let them do it creatively. We try to do this but Kailyn is very type A and asks us continually how to spell it because she doesn't want to do it wrong.

  2. I have a difficult time reading writing like that...but Scott's teacher also thinks it's a good way for them to learn (and they work on a writing journal each day like that.) I love that word she spelled....very long and sounds exactly like she spelled it!

  3. Yes! We have LOTS of creative spelling from our emerging (5 year old Kindy) reader. I haven't been discouraging it at ALL because she is a rigid rule follower and I am afraid if I correct it, she will completely lose confidence in her ability to work with (and have fun with!) words.

    Thanks for this, Laura. I really appreciate the insight!

  4. I've always encouraged "creative spelling" when it's appropriate. It definitely gives the teacher a clear indication where the child is in terms of her phonetic rules. With K, she practices spelling her weekly list correctly but with all other writing, I go with the flow with her spelling. Yesterday we had "take your parent to school day" and I was reading lots of stories written by the first graders. It was clear which kids had parents who focused on the spelling on which on the content. I tend to write in small letters the correct spelling when I think K's teacher may have difficulty understanding what K has written.

  5. When creative spelling is not allowed, my child's writing became stagnant. She would only use words she knew how to spell instead of experimenting with much larger words that where in her vocabulary. The cat was sad instead of infuriated. The color was pink instead of magenta.

  6. I would class creative or phonetic spelling as 'virtuous errors' something that has been identified in verbal speech of children. They are basing their supposition upon sound evidence it just so happens the rule doesn't apply in the way it probably should. English is not a phonetic language so learning to spell is a complex process. Though I am a passionate believer in the importance of correct spelling and fluid writing skills I think it is important not to quash the initial impulses that children have towards communication and creativity in writing.

    I would see it as a multi layered process and I trust my instincts about when is the appropriate time to begin introducing standard spelling forms. Of course all the materials I provide and any copy work we do will be standard spellings as will the books we read, this will all soak in. Over time when I review my son's work spelling will be a part of the equation depending on the criteria I set. But it is worth remembering that it is the rules of spelling that don't make sense rather than our children who are foolish or lack intelligence. If we bear this in mind when we are working with them, our corrections will be in the right spirit and they will welcome our input rather than feeling depressed when their very first outing into the written word is rejected. Very quickly spelling will be in important element of their education but at 5 it is certainly not my first concern.

  7. hi - i just hopped over from simple homeschool - and this is so good . . . my 7 year old loves to spell things right - but when she gets going on a letter to a friend or a story, she often does creative spelling. if she has spelled a word almost correctly, and we can squeeze one more letter in or turn a "u" into and "a" for example, i help her fix it. otherwise, we leave it just the way it is . . . i like how you said this shows what needs to be worked on . . . and that's what this all is - of course they can't spell everything right right away - it takes time and effort and constructive help for our littles to learn and to love learning!

    i'll visit you again. :)

  8. I agree with emmalina73. I love that my daughter (5) loves to write. I love seeing how her mind works on paper when she writes stories for us. I never critique or criticize. Only when she asks me, when writing emails to her cousin for instance, will I make sure all is correct. I am not worried a bit. The more reading, togehter and on her own, the more she is naturally exposed to the language and the more spelling will become second nature.
    Resist the urge of perfectionism! Better to let her explore language and self-expression with joy than to blunt her confidence with endless corrections.