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For Little Kids, Crazy Spelling is a Sign of Good Literacy Skills

As long as they’re not spelling REDЯUM, you can celebrate.

Early this year, it was widely reported that one of the most important early literacy skills in kids isn’t about reading at all, but about spelling words — and not even correct spelling of words. The study, published in Developmental Psychology, found stronger reading skills long term were rooted in kindergartners’ use of invented spellings — not alphabet knowledge or vocabulary size, but by spelling words like ‘touch,’ say, as ‘fepiri.’

Now, a new study is lending even more weight to the finding and showing that invented spelling starts as young as 3, and continues to evolve, becoming increasingly language-like. This is evidence that children develop a grasp for the rules and patterns of English words before they are ever able to spell them correctly. (All findings pertain to the English language only.)

So, while you may struggle to understand the random mish-mash of letters your toddler scribbles, their attempt is more important than the meaning and shouldn’t be discouraged, said Rebecca Treiman, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the study published in the journal Child Development.

“We know that, in many areas of development, learning involves experimentation and practice. Look at how babies will drop an object over and over to learn about how it falls and the trajectory it takes,” Treiman told The Swaddle. “The same kind of thing may hold true for writing.”

We tend to think that learning to spell doesn’t really begin until kids start inventing spellings that reflect the sounds in spoken words — spellings like C or KI for “climb” — which starts around ages 5 or 6. These early invented spellings may not represent all of the sounds in a word, but children are clearly listening to the word and trying to use letters to symbolize some of the words within it, Treiman said.

As kids get older, these sound-based spellings improve. For example, children may move from something like KI for “climb” to something like KLIM.

“Many studies have examined how children’s invented spellings improve as they get older, but no previous studies have asked whether children’s spellings improve even before they are able to produce spellings that represent the sounds in words,” Treiman said. “Our study found improvements over this period, with spellings becoming more wordlike in appearance over the preschool years in a group of children who did not yet use letters to stand for sounds.”

  Read: Picking the best story book for a toddler

Treiman’s study analyzed the spellings of 179 children from the United States (age 3 years, 2 months to 5 years, 6 months) who were prephonological spellers (children who do not yet correlate a specific sound with a letter). When asked to try to write words, the children used letters that did not reflect the sounds in the words they were asked to spell, which is common and normal at this age. But a gap emerged between older prephonological spellers and younger ones when researchers asked adults to rate the children’s productions for how much they looked like English words; the adults gave higher ratings, on average, to the productions of older prephonological spellers than to the productions of younger prephonological spellers.

Spelling attempts of older prephonological spellers were more word-like on several objective measures, including length, use of different letters within words, and combinations of letters. For example: A 5-year-old who writes “fepiri” when asked to write the word “touch” might seem to know nothing about spelling words — but this attempt looks more like a word than “fpbczs” as produced by a 4-year-old.

“While neither spelling makes sense as an attempt to represent sounds, the older child’s effort shows that he or she knows more about the appearance of English words,” Treiman said.

That doesn’t mean parents should let kids run amok with letters until they stumble onto the right spelling. But it does mean parents can chill out a bit about early literacy achievements — those misspelled words are serving a larger purpose. With that in mind, Treiman said, parents can focus on efforts rather than achievement.

“With young children, it’s great to encourage them to write words of interest to them, notice what they are doing well, and acknowledge that. For example, maybe the child wrote a really nice K (a hard letter for children to write, given the diagonals). Maybe the child did a good job of putting letters along a line. It may be premature to try to teach a young child the correct spelling of a word,” she explained. “As children get older, it’s good to keep in mind that spelling errors can arise for a number of reasons. For example, maybe a child wrote ‘chr’ instead of  ‘tr’ at the beginning of ‘truck.’ But, if you listen carefully to the word, you can appreciate that the first part of it does sound like ‘chr.’ So you might want to say that this was a good try, that the word does sound like it starts with ‘ch,’ but that we use ‘t’ here and in other words like this.”

Another thing parents can do? Read to kids. While helping kids with letters and writing is very important,  Treiman said, if busy parents only have time for one literacy skills-boosting activity, crack open a book.

“If a parent only had time for one of them, I’d say to read to the child because it so useful in developing language skills,” she said. “A child who has good language skills but who is a behind in letter knowledge can learn this later with the help of a good teacher at school.”

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