Yes, this is invented spelling. Invented spelling (a term that goes back to the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget) is a kind of spelling that little children use as they learn to write. It is not the same thing as phonetic spelling; it is bigger than that. Phonetic spelling is one of the stages of invented spelling for most children.
Invented spelling goes through stages. Dr. Richard Gentry, a researcher in spelling, says that children go through five stages in learning to spell.
- Precommunicative stage–At this first stage of spelling, children use alphabet letters but they seem unaware that a letter stands for a sound. Children are often still learning the alphabet, both upper and lower case letters. They might also be learning that English is written from left to right and from top to bottom. Dr. Gentry compares this stage to babbling.
- Semiphonetic stage–At the second stage, children begin to learn that a sound can be represented by a letter. One or two letters might stand for a sound, syllable or whole word (U for you, or CT for cat). Dr. Gentry calls this stage abbreviated spelling.
- Phonetic stage–At the third stage, logic takes over. Children use a single letter or a group of letters for every sound. They repeat the same letter patterns in different words, such as kwik and kwen (quick and queen). Spelling is not yet conventional, yet adults can readily understand the meaning of the children’s writing. At this stage children depend on their hearing for spelling.
- Transitional stage–At the fourth stage, children begin to use traditional spelling patterns, depending less on the sounds they are trying to write and more on how the words look on paper. So instead of writing “feet,” the child might write “fete.”
- Correct stage–At the fifth and final stage, children have learned basic spelling rules. They know about silent letters, homophones and homographs, and alternative spellings (to, too and two). Children might write a word to see if it looks right, not if it sounds right. Children have formed many rules which they can turn to for spelling, even if these rules have not been formally taught to them. At this stage, children depend on sight (how letters look, how words look) more than sound for spelling.
Moving from one invented spelling stage to another happens gradually for most children, but they rarely slip back to a previous stage once they have experience with the next stage. Some children fly through the stages in a year or two; others can get stuck at one stage for more than a year.
Research has led to this change of thinking about spelling. Until the 1970’s, most children were taught to memorize standard spelling words. Spelling was a separate part of language arts courses. But now studies have shown that spelling, like speaking and reading, happens in stages.
Invented spelling has certain benefits.
- Children can write meaningful sentences before they can spell or even read.
- Children can use a more advanced vocabulary if not constrained by spelling.
- Children don’t need to concern themselves with the standard way of spelling.
- If children compose in a “flow” way of thinking, they can write long passages without stopping for spelling and thus losing their concentration.
- Children can encounter spelling in an experimental way—the way they learn to speak, for example. They can try something, see if it works, figure out why and build on their own knowledge base.
For more information, check out Dr. Gentry’s book: Gentry, J. Richard. (1987). Spel . . . is a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.