Cn U rd ths? Iz ths nvntid spln?

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.

Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.

  • 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.

Is it necessary to teach “r” words like “car” and “or” separately or should I include them with short vowel, CVC words?

Although children will pick up r-controlled words as they learn to read, it is a good idea to have a separate lesson on them since they are neither short nor long vowel words, and since “ir,” “er” and “ur” sound the same.

Just like it helps to have a reference word for short vowel words, it is a good idea to teach reference words for r-controlled words. I suggest you use nouns whose image is obvious to a child, such as

ar car, jar or star
or fork, stork or sword
er Bert (from Sesame Street) or fern
ir bird or skirt
ur church or turtle

pictures of R-controlled words to use for memory

When you begin to teach r-controlled words, choose words whose spelling follows the rules, such as

far bar fir her
purr slur stir for
nor sir sort start

Don’t choose “store,” “floor” or “boar,” or other words whose spelling varies. Start with one syllable words, and then move on to two syllable CVC-CVR words with twin consonants such as

better bitter butter differ
hammer dinner ladder matter
offer pepper rubber zipper

Continue with two syllable CVC-CVR words whose middle consonants are not identical such as

timber under lantern fender
lobster master silver winter
lumber member butler monster

Then put the r-controlled syllable at the beginning of the word, using words such as

carpet organ carbon hermit
perfect serpent verdict perhaps
perfume person Vermont artist

At this point the student should be able to add consonants after the r-controlled syllable to create flirt, squirted and discard.

If your child has already learned CVC-CVC words, adding r-controlled words should be easy for the child. Even so, take small steps, and when he is ready, move on. As for “store,” “floor” and “boar,” you can tell your child that there are some variations in the spelling of r-controlled words. Rather than confuse the child at this point, when you are reading together, point out alternate spellings as you come upon them. –Mrs. K

Use the K-W-L approach before reading to activate prior knowledge

K-W-L charts have been used by reading teachers for almost 30 years, but they can be just as useful to parents of young children to help them with reading comprehension.

K stands for “know” or what the child already knows about a given topic. W stands for “want to know” or what new information the child would like to learn about a given topic. L stands for “learned” or what the child has learned after reading (or having been read to).Empty K-W-L chart

With younger children who cannot read yet, using the K-W-L strategy sets up a pattern which the children can use in the future. One reason some children struggle with reading comprehension is because they don’t think about a topic before they read about it. If children learn to consider what they already know, and link new information to that, they will usually understand the new information better and retain it.

Since writing down words doesn’t help a nonreader such as a preschooler or a new ESL student, drawing pictures can replace the words. Even for children who can read a bit, sometimes drawing the pictures adds fun to the learning experience.

For example, suppose you read the story of Sleeping Beauty to your child, but she has no idea what a spinning wheel is. You find a book about how people used to make yarn by hand before machines did it. What kind of K-W-L chart might arise before you read the book about making yarn by hand?Example of filled-in K-W-L chart

If you, as the parent or teacher, want your child to learn a particular idea from a reading passage, you might steer the discussion to that idea as you and your child fill in the chart. But the chart works best if it reflects the child’s own understanding of a topic, and his own questions about that topic.

For example, if the topic is diamonds, the child might write:Example of a filled-in K-W-L chart

For the K-W-L strategy to help reluctant readers, the questions under “W” and the information under “L” should be linked back to what the child said she knows under “K.” So the teacher or parent might help the child create a chart like this:Example of a filled-in K-W-L chart

By connecting the “Want to Know” and “Learned” information to what the child already Knows, the child is extending the knowledge base she already has, rather than learning and soon forgetting isolated facts.

The K-W-L strategy and chart was first created by Donna Ogle. For more information, see Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570.

Strategies good readers use

Suppose you need to read something new to you, something you find hard to understand. What would you do?Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is reading

  • Would you slow down?
  • Would you start over?
  • Would you look for help on the page, using headlines, boldfaced words, diagrams, photos or highlighted words explained in the margins?
  • Would you underline main ideas as you go along?
  • Would you mark unknown vocabulary words to look up later?
  • Would you look up those words now and write the words in the margins?
  • Would you realize you recognize a word but not the way it is used, and look up this other meaning?
  • Would you take away prefixes and suffixes to see if there is a root word you understand?
  • Would you draw a diagram, sketch, or chart to make sense of relationships?
  • Would you read the whole thing from beginning to end to get a gist of the passage, and then go back to figure out individual parts?
  • Would you write paragraph summaries in the margins or on post-it notes?
  • Would you ask for help from someone who might understand it?
  • Would you seek out an easier version (assuming one exists), read it, and then try reading the harder version again?
  • Would you try to explain what you read to someone else to see if you really understand it?
  • Would you monitor your own struggle, trying to figure out why the reading passage is hard for you?
  • Or would you read until you are totally bewildered and then give up?

Good readers use many strategies as they read in order to figure out the meaning of what they are reading. They don’t use all the above strategies at the same time, but good readers “attack” difficult reading using many approaches.

Poor readers might just read the words as they appear, plodding along, hopelessly lost. Or they might try one strategy, and when they find it doesn’t help much, then give up.

In future blogs, we will discuss some of these strategies that good readers—even beginning readers—use to gain meaning from difficult texts.

What causes dyslexia?

Dyslexia (the brain’s inability to read, write and spell with ease) has many causes, not all of which apply to every impaired reader.

In people with dyslexia, nerve cells in the brain are thought not to work well together in order to achieve reading. Or those cells might cooperate, but at slower rates than for average readers. Why?

What might cause dyslexia?

faulty genes

brain injuries

problems connecting sounds to symbols

blockage of brain pathways

using the right hemisphere for left hemisphere functions

migrating neurons

hearing problems

unskilled reading teachers

  • Genetics might play a role for some readers. Defects in a gene known as DCDC2 and its interaction with another gene, KIAA0319, have been identified as related to dyslexia, according to researchers at Yale University.
  • Physical problems in certain parts of the brain might cause dyslexia. Sections of the brain specializing in language or vision, in particular, are needed to see letters; to associate those letters with sounds, syllables and words; and to derive meaning by combining words into sentences. If one part of the brain used in reading is damaged, dyslexia could result. Injuries to parts of the brain might have occurred before birth—a stroke, for example—or they might have happened after birth—a fall, for example.
  • Problems identifying sounds within words and connecting those sounds to letters or to letter patterns is the most studied possible cause of dyslexia. Children with this problem have trouble sounding out c-a-t. When they hear words like “Tyranasaurus Rex,” they don’t hear syllables or individual letter sounds; they hear words. No problem. But when they learn to read, they must take the sounds inside words apart and attach letters to those sounds and put the letters back together again to know words. For some people, this is hard.
  • Failure (blockage?) of the pathways normally used in reading could be a cause of dyslexia. Or weakness at connecting points along the brain’s pathways could cause slow processing.
  • While most readers use the left hemisphere of the brain in a dominant way when reading, it is thought that some dyslexic readers might use the right hemisphere more dominantly, or they might use both hemispheres equally. If so, reading becomes a labor-intensive undertaking.
  • Some researchers think that when the brain is developing, neurons that should be part of one section of the brain “migrate” to another spot in the brain and develop there. When a reader tries to access those cells, they are not where they are supposed to be, hampering the reading process.
  • Young children who have hearing problems might develop a life-long problem associating sounds with symbols for those sounds, resulting in dyslexia.
  • A well trained reading teacher who can identify anomalies in a child’s struggle to read can’t undo the above problems, but she can suggest strategies to lighten or even overcome some of these problems. However, if a child’s teacher is not savvy concerning strategies in the field of reading, the child might flounder. A teacher isn’t the cause of dyslexia, but her lack of skill can make the child’s struggle to read harder.

Reading is about a 6,000-year-old activity for human beings, a new activity in the evolution of the brain. The brain is not programmed to read any more than it is programmed to sing opera. Rather, in learning to read, we humans use parts of the brain which our non-reading ancestors used for something else—seeing and speaking, for example. Those same pathways which evolution streamlined for one purpose are now being used for additional purposes relating to reading, writing and spelling.

Work with brain imaging technology is revealing to researchers the parts of the brain involved in dyslexia. Work with the genome is revealing gene interactions which might have an effect upon reading. The answer to your question—What causes dyslexia?—is the brain and the complicated way in which the brain works.

For detailed information on some of these causes, read expert Maryanne Wolf, Ph.D., author of Proust and the Squid; The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

How can I jump start my child’s reading comprehension

Reading comprehension—taking meaning from printed words—is the goal of all reading. Before reaching this goal, independent readers need to advance through three other stages: recognizing that the 42 sounds in English are represented by 26 letters and combinations of letters; recognizing that arranging those letters or letter pairs with other letters creates words; and being able to say the words aloud (or in the mind) in such a way that the sounds represent the way people speak English. If children can do this, then children are in a position to comprehend what they read.

Chart of 4 reading components

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

But even with all this good foundation, some children flounder when it comes to understanding what they read. There are many reasons. One of the most important, especially for ESL students and for culturally deprived children, is not understanding the vocabulary.

What can a parent or teacher do to jump start reading comprehension?

Ask the right kind of questions, according to reading expert Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher whose views are highlighted in the February issue of Reading Rockets, an online source for excellent information about reading.  (For a link, see the end of the blog.)

According to Dr. Shanahan, three kinds of questions should be asked to guide students into understanding a text:

  • First, what are the important issues and important details raised by the reading selection? When Junie B. Jones misses the school bus, for example, the young reader should be questioned about why Junie B. didn’t want to take the school bus, not where she sat on the bus or who annoyed her. At the end of the story, why did Junie B. finally run outside to talk to the janitor? “Close reading”—the kind of reading demanded by the Common Core Standards—is not the same as trivial reading, according to Dr. Shanahan.

questions to ask when reading closely

  • Second, how has the author crafted the reading selection? These kinds of questions should be “text dependent.” That is, the child should be able to answer these questions only if the child has read the text. In Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, for example, what kind of mood is Alexander in when he wakes up? Why is that kind of mood important for the start of the story? Is Alexander the oldest child, the middle child or the youngest child? What difference does this make in the story?
  • Since a part of crafting a reading selection is choosing the vocabulary to use, children should be asked about important vocabulary words. What is Australia? Where is Australia? What is a janitor? Why is he at school when the children have gone home?
  • Third, what are the conclusions a reader can take from the story? What are the big ideas?  What has Junie B. learned?  Why are Junie B’s mother and teacher happy and not mad at the end of the story? Will Junie B. take the school bus in the future?  Why does Alexander’s mother say again and again that some days are like that, even in Australia? Why does she say Australia and not a nearby city? Why does Alexander say that too, at the very end of the book?  The purpose of these questions, according to Dr. Shanahan, is to interpret the text.

Dr. Shanahan recommends asking questions in the same order as the information is presented in the reading selection. He says it is not important to ask a particular number of questions, or that the number of questions from each of the three categories be equal. Always there should be some questions from each category asked, but sometimes one kind of question needs to be more thoroughly investigated than the other two. In particular, understanding how a writer crafted a reading selection will demand closer reading and might require more questions from a parent or teacher.

To read the posting on Reading Rockets, go to While you are there, sign up for the free monthly newsletter full of good ideas about teaching reading.

How to help a child frontload information before he reads

Frontloading means preparing a child to read new material by loading his mind ahead of time with information which will help him understand the new material.

Good readers either consciously or subconsciously do this before they read something new, but many poor readers do not. For new readers and poor readers, parents and teachers need to model this activity until the child makes it his own.

But how should a parent or teacher model frontloading?

• For a work of fiction, many teachers discuss ahead of time the setting, characters, plot, and problem the students are about to read about. If any parts of it are familiar to the students, the teacher will point them out, connecting the new with what the student already knows.

Students shouting I Know to teacher

• Some teachers prepare a list of vocabulary words the child will encounter in the new reading. Often, the children write down definitions of the words and use those words in sentences so when they see them in the text, the words will be familiar.

• For stories in reading textbooks or for nonfiction information in textbooks, teachers sometimes discuss what the title could mean and what the subheadings could mean. If there are illustrations, the teacher asks the students to describe what is happening or what information is shown in the table, diagram, map or political cartoon.

According to Kylene Beers, a long-time reading teacher and author of When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do, these prereading techniques often work with skilled readers but not with struggling or passive readers. She offers other prereading strategies to reach them.

• Because struggling readers often skip reading titles, captions, and subheadings, and rarely page through a reading assignment to see if there is any nontextual information, they need to be assigned to do what good readers do naturally, often with a teacher’s direct instruction.

• One kind of direct instruction in prereading is using an “Anticipation Guide.” Before a reading assignment is given to a student, the teacher—or parent of a young child—reads the selection and composes a short list of ideas from the reading for the child to respond to. For example, if the child is reading or being read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the list could include ideas like, If a child gets lost, does the mother and father stop thinking about that child? Or, Is there such a thing as a magic stone that can make people invisible? Together the adult and child can talk about these ideas which the child will encounter later in the book.

• Struggling readers often begin reading as if every reading—for school or for pleasure—is a cold read. While they are reading, they do almost no predicting what might happen next. Yet good readers do this all the time. One thing a parent can do is to pause as she is reading and to ask the child, “What do you think is going to happen next?” If the child shrugs, the parent might model some options—“Well, I think Sylvester will never come back to his family,” or “Well, maybe Sylvester will find a different magic pebble while he is invisible.” Gently encourage the child to respond, discussing the possible outcomes of those predictions.

For more ideas on prereading activities that can activate a child’s prior knowledge, see Beers, K., When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003. This book, by the way, is one of the best I have read about how to teach reading—useful ideas that have been tested by teachers.