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Why is my kid allowed to make spelling mistakes?


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Dear Cult of Pedagogy,

Last week, my son brought home a stack of papers from his first-grade class. Some of them had obvious spelling errors, but no one had marked them wrong. Later that same day, I was helping my 10-year-old daughter with a research paper. I noticed a few misspellings on her draft, but when I pointed them out, she said, “My teacher told us not to worry about spelling when we’re drafting.”

What’s the deal? Why don’t teachers seem to care about spelling anymore?


When kids first learn how to write, they grapple with many different skills at once. After they master letters and build them into words, their next step is stringing those words together into complete ideas. That takes a lot of mental work, and trying to spell every word perfectly can slow the whole process way down. For this reason, many teachers in the early grades encourage inventive spelling, also known as temporary spelling — where the child makes his best guess on the spelling of the word, rather than stopping to find out the correct version.

This practice is grounded in research. A number of studies demonstrate that kids who are allowed to use inventive spelling learn to write more quickly, more fluently, and with a richer vocabulary than those who work under more rigid spelling expectations (Kolodziej & Columba, 2005).

Researchers suggest that parents think about inventive spelling the way they once viewed their child’s early attempts at speech:

When the child said “ba-ba,” did the parent say, “No, honey, it is pronounced “bottle”? Parents treasure this developmental step their child took towards conventional speaking by lavishly praising the child and offering the bottle…The child will not call the item a “ba-ba” for the rest of his/her life; rather, when the child is developmentally ready, he/she will be able to say “bottle” (Kolodziej & Columba, 2005, p. 217).

In the later years, spelling does “count,” but it has a time and a place. Most writing teachers use some version of the Writing Process, where students are taught to (1) gather and group their ideas (pre-writing), (2) flesh out those ideas in sentences and paragraphs (drafting), and (3) reorganize the piece so that it accomplishes the writer’s goals (revising). Only then, after the piece has been revised into a shape that’s close to finished, do most teachers tell their students to start the next step: editing. In this stage, final corrections are made to spelling, punctuation, and usage.

The reason spelling and mechanics are de-emphasized in the first few steps is the same as in the younger grades: Too much focus on correctness interrupts the flow of ideas. Furthermore, teachers want students to understand that good writers revise their pieces many times for structure, development, clarity and voice. Although the mechanics are important for polish, correct spelling can’t make up for a poorly structured, underdeveloped piece of writing. And if a piece is going to be revised several times, it makes no sense to keep correcting the mechanics, only to have those words dumped entirely in a later revision.

Producing a finished piece of writing is a lot like putting on a polished musical performance: It requires the synthesis of many skills, some of which need to be handled separately. Imagine if a band conductor brought a brand-new piece of music to her band and expected all sections to play it together, perfectly, the first time. Even someone with no musical training can see that this is an unreasonable approach. Instead, if each instrument section starts by practicing their part separately, the performers will get really solid on their individual parts before pulling it all together to refine the complete performance.

So what should you do if your child comes home with a paper full of spelling or other mechanical errors? Take a cue from the teacher: If the teacher hasn’t mentioned the errors, then spelling was not a priority for this particular assignment or at this particular stage. Instead, praise the content itself. Here are some specific things to look for, and if they are there, to praise:


Strong, vivid vocabulary: “You chose a really interesting word to describe that monster – ferocious.”

Idea development: “You described how the lizard’s tongue works really clearly. At first I couldn’t understand how a tongue can smell, but this sentence helps.”

Audience awareness: “This introduction really grabbed my attention.”

Organization: “Nice transition here: ‘On the other hand.’ That’s a good way to show that you’re going to talk about a different side of the issue.”

Attempts at sophisticated construction: “Is that a semicolon? That’s a pretty advanced punctuation mark. I like to see you trying new things with your writing.”


If you want to help your child improve his spelling, keep assignments that contain errors in a folder. Later in the year, after a certain kind of word has been taught – say, the difference between there, their, and they’re — have your child go through the folder and see if they can catch some old mistakes with this set of words.

Rest assured, teachers still care very much about spelling. They just recognize that learning other skills — harder, more complex skills — often works best when those skills get a student’s full attention. Single instruments first, then the whole orchestra.



Kolodziej, N.J., & Columba, L. (2005). Invented spelling: Guidelines for parents. Reading Improvement, 42 (4), 212-223.



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  1. Irina Shatrova says:

    Thank you, Jennifer! I have this very problem with my own kids. I translated your writing into Russian and shared it with my friends (worrying parents, too). They all say Thank you!

  2. tony hunt says:

    Spelling is a problem – as are grammatical and syntax errors, etc. The actual problem, I have found, is that students rely on the teacher to edit their papers to locate and change the errors. This happens, especially, in the high school. Students have learnt that if the teacher doesn’t mark it there is no error there.
    I have taken to drawing a line after 5 mistakes in a paper and then handing it back to the student. This goes on and on until they have worked to fix those errors and are able to have pride in what they’ve done; in a perfect world, they would use the lessons learnt from the 1st grade on, and remembered the rules – but they tend to be lazy (I find teachers and, especially, administrators are quite guilty of errors that are glaringly obvious, as well!) and want someone to do the work for them – and why not?! Teachers do it. However, I’ve taught my students I’m not their editor, and when they leave school they should know how to function in this manner on their own.
    The papers then begin to be written with more care. It does take longer for me to accept them, and the rotating pile seems to move well. It’s when they have 3 – 4 papers in process they begin to tire. Then, voila! With the next quarter, things have changed! Spelling and other errors go down with the first draft!

    • This is a great idea, Tony. I can imagine that to sustain this, a teacher would need patience and a certain amount of comfort with mental clutter, because there would always be that sense of things hanging out there, unfinished. Still, I think it would be worth it to deal with this discomfort for the sake of changing students’ habits. I have two questions, to help me understand how you worked this:

      (1) Did you correct the first 5 mistakes, or mark them in any way? Or did you just mentally count them and draw the line after you got to five?

      (2) How did you keep track of where each student was in the process? I’m assuming you had some way of recording that a student had turned a paper in, but was in the re-writing process. How were points/grades given to students who were still in the middle of this cycle? And did there come a point where a grade had to be assigned, regardless of mistakes that were still there?

      Thanks for contributing. I look forward to hearing back from you!

    • Well done you how will children learn my daughter aborimary school teacher in Belfast County Antrim Northern Irelandb

  3. TwoSpaces222 says:

    If the research says ignoring spelling errors builds better writers, then I think that’s good. On the other hand, when does a teacher draw the line? My older daughter (now 30 years old) was told by her fifth grade teacher that spelling wasn’t important. My wife and I put an end to that quickly. What do you guys think? When should a student be told to worry about spelling? At some point, it should be important. You should see the spelling in some of the essays I have seen seventh graders write!

    • Teachers who say spelling isn’t important have missed the message, and they are doing students a disservice by making blanket statements like that. Of course, any teacher will tell you that kids often misquote us completely out of context. Any parent whose child comes home telling them their teacher said something like that should double-check with the teacher, because my guess is that the original message was something more nuanced than that.

      For most writing teachers, it makes the most sense to draw the line at the final copy — when the student has done sufficient revising, editing, and proofreading and declares a piece “done” and ready for grading. This is when misspellings would (and should) be marked off. I want my students to understand that poor grammar and misspellings WILL cause others to judge it unfavorably, and that it’s in their best interest to represent their intellect accurately. In many cases, a piece that is submitted with lots of spelling errors will simply be returned to the student for correction and resubmission. Because a lot of student work is done and saved digitally nowadays, making these corrections isn’t too terribly time-consuming or arduous.

      Although I have not done a lot of research on the subject, this 2002 research summary tells me that direct instruction of spelling using basal lists is still the most effective way to build good spelling skills in students. When we study how words are spelled structurally, examining groups of words that share similar patterns, students get better and better at spelling words correctly the first time around. This, coupled with proofreading work in its final stages and making sure students do a TON of regular reading, should result in students who can generally spell quite well.

  4. I know you mean well but you’re putting us back ten years by promoting a ‘whole language’ approach:-( We’ve had 3 major inquiries about this and your advice contradicts th recommendations (National Reading Panel, USA, Rose Report, UK and AU Inquiry) But, more importantly, we can actually see what is happening in the brains of children who struggle to code (translate speech sounds to print) and we know why. This advice ignores that. We need to teach children to code speech sounds with their representations on paper to increase white matter/ overcome the poor phonemic awareness issues. This advice is a nightmare for dyslexics who actually need their brains rewiring using specific spelling strategies – as seen in clip I will post.

    When teachers do not understand how to teach all learners to spell (not by rote/ look cover say- authentically, using the brain!) at an early age prevents them from reaching their potential – it impacts on reading as well.

    So just because teachers don’t understand how to teach children to write their thoughts and feelings on paper by hand as quickly as they write, before Year 2, and get 90% of the spellings correct, don’t tell the kids ‘it doesn’t matter’ and t focus on content. Please. Every time they spell the same word incorrectly it makes it harder for the brain to identify what is wrong. And with spelling there is a wrong or right answer. All words are in the SSP King’ Code Book ie the Dictionary – and children who learn using SSP understand how important it is to not only write creatively, but also stick to the code. Most who write similar articles have just never seen students using SSP, or understand that kids WANT to know the right way to spell what they are saying.

    Knowing what ‘looks right’ is what adults do when unsure – why deprive kids of that? It’s how the brain makes sense of coding out of context.

    Miss Emma
    Wiring Brains Education, Australia.

    • Hello Miss Emma,

      I appreciate you taking the time to share this information with me. I certainly have no interest in contradicting sound research or taking us backward. This piece is written based on my own experience as a middle school writing teacher, my experience teaching my own three children to read and write, how I was trained as a teacher, and the research I did while working on this piece. I would be very interested in seeing the recommendations you mention above (National Reading Panel, USA, Rose Report, UK and AU Inquiry) — can you reply with a few links so I can read up on this?

      I really enjoyed the video — your enthusiasm is contagious, and I can well imagine that a child who has been trained in the use of the Spelling Clouds and the keyring would develop strong spelling skills. Because my training is not in early education, I am not familiar with methods like SSP, but I appreciate you sharing it here so that others who are interested in learning new methods can become acquainted with them.

      I do have one question, however: While watching the process a child would go through to determine the correct spelling of a word, I couldn’t help but think that doing this many times during the course of a paragraph might take quite a bit of time. I’m curious about when you recommend the child do these steps in the writing process. Should it happen right in the middle of composing a sentence — before moving on to the next word? Based on your initial reply (above), my guess is that you would not advocate for the child writing “sed” first, moving on with the rest of the sentence, and then going to the keyring after getting the paragraph down. I just want to be clear that I do not think a child should never correct a word, but I imagine that stopping so often to investigate the correct spelling might cause many children to forget what they wanted to say in the first place. I think of it almost like riding a bicycle — if you maintain a minimum speed, you can keep the bike upright, but if you slow down too much, you topple over. So I’m wondering if SSP recommends that students stop every time to get the word right, in order to wire the brain correctly. And if this is indeed the recommendation, I wonder if this hampers students’ writing fluency.

      I look forward to your response. Thank you for introducing this information here and for helping to further this discussion.

    • I am a dyslexic; I find that many educators do not comprehend the issue. In the end, their instruction becomes useless. They can not see the forest for the trees. (It is my opinion that proofreading should always come last)

  5. Shama Kazi says:

    Thanks for the article. I was just as stressed about my daughter’s spelling in KG, but her teacher had assured me that building confidence and content was more important at that age. I could see her confidence and willingness faltering the next year when a different teacher insisted that she look up every spelling in the dictionary before using it in her writing. Watching how the two approaches changed her attitude about writing was enough to convince me!

    • Hi Shama,

      Thanks for sharing this story. Hearing individual families’ stories is especially helpful in deepening our understanding of these ideas. How is your daughter’s confidence (and spelling) these days? How old is she now?

  6. Spell check goes a way towards fixing errors when typing on the laptop but does it teach them to check for their own errors.
    noticed while helping my son with his project last night by the time he clicked the spacebar the incorrect word was auto-corrected and he just thinks he spelt it right , as I mentioned to him to please check…he said “Look I did spell it right.”
    Our school gives them word families to learn as spelling words , but the actual weekly test is different words to see if they follow the word/sound rules.

    • I agree, spell check has significant limitations, and we need to teach students how to use it, but not to rely on it. How do you feel about the word family approach? To me, it sounds like a smart idea to test them on different words with similar patterns — I don’t think I’ve heard that one before, but it makes sense.

  7. Jessica-Robyn says:

    When I was in my early school years I wasn’t taught the writing process because the focus was put on word by word spelling and structure. Honestly, I feel like this bit me in the butt. Not only did it not work for me, (I am horrible at spelling and my grammar is even worse), but it also didn’t prepare me for the bulk of my essay writing.

    When I first learnt the writing process I didn’t want to look stupid so I edited the hell out of my first drafts and claimed they were always that way. My first draft and final draft were identical and I got horrible marks! My teachers wanted to see that the first draft was vastly different from the final draft because it showed that I was learning the skills they were trying to teach me. Fixing my errors and developing my ideas by editing my drafts meant that I could thoughtfully self critique. This plays into the idea that there isn’t always going to be a teacher with a red pen to tell me when I’m wrong. When I finally got on board I got better marks because the teacher could see me developing and give me better advice on how to improve. This made me a better writer. So maybe I rely too heavily on spell check, but I have a strong sense of how to convey my thoughts, which is what writing is suppose to accomplish.

    Example being I read and re-wrote this comment multiple times. It looks nothing like what I originally wrote. I’m sure there are still mistakes, but it is a better expression of my ideas than my first draft which looked more like “GOOD POST! LOVE IT! WRITING PROCESS IS THE BOMB YO! ahfhadfadhf!?”

  8. I’m 49 so, I learned spelling through phonics, lists, and drills. I’m a good speller now, and I’m a good writer now. I’m a high school English teacher now. The thing to remember, though, is that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. Since I teach in high school, I don’t teach spelling per se, but I do have to find a way to convince poor spellers to work on improving their skills, and different techniques are necessary for different students. Research can tell us best practices, but it can’t trump experience. By that same token, experience tells us not to dismiss research out of hand. It’s all a balance. I think I meandered a bit, but my point is that exposing students to a variety of teaching methods is best.

  9. Maisy says:

    I taught 8th grade U.S. history for 13 years and have been a school librarian for 16. When teaching history I did have a spelling/grammar component on my rubrics, but did not correct each error in an assignment. I simply circled each error and would then add points if the student did corrections. But I have worked with adults who have spelling and grammar errors in every email. It really lowers my opinion of them as educators. If you don’t respect language, I have a hard time respecting you.

  10. Aaron Pugh says:

    Meh. This is how it was when I was in school… and it makes sense to me.

    First grade is when reading, writing and spelling start being actively tested and graded. However, Children need to learn these things granularly and gradually. Thus, they are given a list of very specific words each week that they are then tested on at the end of week (or whatever their teacher’s schedule is).

    How are we to expect children to suddenly be able to write every word they may want to use correctly? Should we limit their creativity to only the words they can spell correctly.

    Additionally, these children have to learn all of the ‘rules’ of English… Which is notorious for having inconsistent and even arbitrary rules.

    In my experience, it has been that teachers will bring up when something like ‘ba-ba’ is written for ‘Bottle’… but they won’t mention incorrect spellings if it’s phonetically spelled out in a way that makes sense with the ‘rules’ they’ve been taught so far… Unless, of course, that word is actively on the spelling list that they’re being tested on.

    But yeah, I think the main thing here is that you can’t expect children to suddenly know how to spell every word they might want to use while they’re still learning the various and aribitrary rules of English. There’s a reason why English is often considered one of the hardest languages to learn to write.

    But hey, you’re their parent… I suppose you can take it upon yourself to tell them not to writing words they don’t know how to spell… even if they’re simply trying to follow the rules they’ve learned thus far to write out a common phrase they’ve heard.

  11. Natalie says:

    I found this really interesting,as we have bilingual children (English and Welsh), especially as my 6 year old is now practicing independent writing. It is something that I have learned just comes with practice, there is no point in getting uptight about it. I quite enjoying seeing the inventive spellings!

  12. Sharon says:

    This was fantastic to read, due to the fact l’m working with children with literacy and writing. Maybe you can give me more helpful hints encouraging children getting interested in writing

  13. Mona says:

    Thank you very much for sharing the research. My own experience in writing was terrible because my primary teachers focused more on spelling, handwriting and presentation rather than the writing ideas which was given to us in order to present good writing. As I started my secondary school I found that I have to find my own ideas for writing, it took me a while to get the balance between good spelling and good writing.. As a teacher for early years I completely agree with you. When children are obsessed about spelling it often delays the flow of writing. Keeping the balance between encouraging writing, flow of thoughts and to love writing on one side and presenting good spelling, punctuation,etc., is a challenge for the child and the teacher. I would say it is mostly in the teacher’s hands (and parents) to wisely encourage, support and discuss next steps in a positive way. Building a child who is confident and can reflect on his/her own work and consider mistakes as ways forward is the key to it from my experience.

  14. Matthew says:

    Wow, Jennifer, you are a true master of dealing with parents.. You should be a superintendent. It’s reached far BTW. I have a small English school in Bangkok and if I were half as good at talking to parents as you I would be a rich man.

  15. May says:

    This is what I do with my Grade 1 students. I teach them Science and I don’t deduct points for wrong spelling if it is not part of the learning objectives (and usually, it’s not). However, when they submit their papers for grading, I do write the correct spelling of the words they’ve misspelled. Some students take note of my corrections and no longer commit the same spelling mistakes in future activities, but it takes a while for most of the students. Is this practice acceptable?

  16. Lindsay says:

    I am a product of “Whole Language” which included inventive spelling. Although I love to read and write, spelling is still a struggle for me and I’m an English teacher! I think there needs to be a healthy balance between inventive spelling and correcting spelling mistakes.

    • I agree, Lindsay. In this post, I’m trying to emphasize the timing of the corrections, rather than pushing the idea that they aren’t important. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  17. Danna says:

    Inventive spelling eventually becomes a problem. When my stepdaughter’s 11th grade English teacher told us that she allowed “inventive spelling” on final papers, it was a problem. As a long term HR Dir. I can tell you inventive spelling gets your resume thrown away. So, please ensure that this stops long before the high school years.

  18. Aroha says:

    As a new entrant teacher with 20 years experience, I have seen children begin school with a range of abilities . Some are able to write a variety of words and others are unable to hold a pencil, have no alphabet or phonemic knowledge and are not able to recognise let alone write their own name.

    When teaching new entrant children to write, I encourage them to use inventive spelling with their emerging phonemic knowledge as it also gives them a feeling of success. As their writing knowledge and confidence develops I insist they spell the Essential Spelling list 1 words/high frequency words correctly.

    This practise continues through to year 3. By year 4 we expect children to spell the Essential Spelling lists 1-8 correctly, which is taught by not only using the look, cover, say, write, use in authentic sentence strategies but also by
    Phonological, Visual, Morphemic, and Etymological.

    Because we insist on spelling those high frequency words correctly children aren’t training their brains to spell these words incorrectly. Words they use inventive spelling for are words like Clidesdale (Clydesdale) hoorses (horses) etc.

    I was surprised to read Miss Emma’s comments calling this is an outdated practise.

    As far as I have seen, it has been successful and matches the stages of a child’s writing development.

    I particularly liked your quote – ‘Single instruments first, then the whole orchestra’, it sums up what I’m saying.

    Thanks for a great read.

  19. Katy says:

    I’m curious what would be said of misspellings on a science assignment. One sentence answers full of misspellings? Is that ok? In a writing assignment, I see the value. In filling out every day paperwork or other assignments, not so much. I happen to be a band director.

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hi Katy! This is Debbie, a Customer Experience Manager with CoP. This is a great question. Here’s my thinking … kids, regardless of the content area in which they’re writing about, should always be thoughtful and purposeful with their communication. That includes spelling. It should be an expectation that kids apply previously taught word study strategies to words they don’t know. But spelling shouldn’t hold them back from writing what they want to say. What we don’t want to happen is have kids limit their voice based on limited spelling abilities. If spelling interferes with the reader’s ability to understand what the writer is even talking about, then of course that’s a problem. The teacher may need to work with that student individually. Otherwise, if misspellings don’t interfere with readability, then after checking the work for content understanding, the teacher can have kids go back to fix up words they actually knew or use resources such as a classroom “Words to Know” anchor chart to fix others. Bottom line: If it’s science or some other assignment, then first assess that. Work with spelling afterwards.

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