Research Says Celebrate Invented Spelling in Beginning Readers

By J. Richard Gentry PhD, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Can you read this story written by an end-of-year kindergartner?



When I see a beginning writer’s story with invented spelling like this, I know it’s time to cheer. This child is well on the way to reading success. Research in a number of studies from Canadian cognitive psychologists Gene Ouellette and Monique Sénéchal has convincingly championed the positive outcomes of invented spelling showcasing the writing/reading connection. They undergird their research with two long-standing independent lines of research: 1) research in tracking developmental phases of word reading (Ehri, 2000) and 2) research in developmental phases of spelling (Gentry, 2000). In a carefully crafted longitudinal study Ouellette and Sénéchal (2017) followed over 170 kindergarten writers from kindergarten to the end of first grade and found invented spelling to be “a unique predictor of growth in early reading skills.” Far from being nonacademic, harmful to traditional values, or a deterrent to conventional spelling they found use of invented spelling to be a boon to learning to read, phonemic awareness, and learning the alphabetic principle.

This study and others including neuro-imaging studies are helping map the beginning pathway to successful reading with a powerful observational tool called phase observation. It’s based on my many years of research on phases of developmental spelling which perfectly align with Linnea Ehri’s remarkable contribution in a separate line of research based on phases of word reading.

The Gentry phases and Ehri phases are essentially one and the same—or two sides of the same coin representing observable outcomes of the developing architecture of the reading brain’s word form area. Remarkably, neuro-scientific imaging demonstrates the development of this critical part of the proficient reader’s brain from non-existence in Phase 0 non-readers and writers to its presence in the brains of proficient end-of-first grade readers and writers (Gentry & Ouellette, in press).

Today, exemplary kindergarten teachers across the nation and cutting edge staff development resources such as the New York City Department of Education Framework for Early Literacy: Grades Pre-Kindergarten—2 (NYCDOE, 2018) tout phase observation and use of the Gentry developmental spelling phases and Ehri word reading phases as important for promoting early literacy development.

How Phase Observation Works

Here’s a Close Look Writing Assessment (adapted from Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017) of the “Earth Quakes” story. If we analyze each invented spelling we get a measure of what phase the kindergartener is in from this small sample.

You can analyze each invented spelling using this guide:

Mark each invented spelling as Phase 3 if it has a letter for each sound.
Mark each invented spelling as Phase 4 if it has logical phonics patterns consolidated into chunks. (There are no Phase 0-2 spellings.)

Invented Spelling


Phase Strategy

Rth (earth) Phase 3 r for the r-controlled vowel; he knows the digraph th.
qhaks (quakes) Phase 3 qh for /kw/, afor /ā/, k for /k/, and s for /s/
log (long) Phase 3 l for /l/, o for /ä/ and typical omission of a preconsonantal nasal before g
tim (time) Phase 3 t for /t/, i for /ī/, and m for /m/
mac (make) Phase 3 m for /m/, afor /ā/, and kfor /k/
kel (kill) Phase 3 k for /k/, i for /ě/, l for /l/
pepl (people) Phase 3 p for /p/, e for /ē/, p for /p/, and l for /l/
Sanfrinsiskou (San Francisco) Phase 4 syllablechunks for san-frin-sis-kou
hapin (happen) Phase 4 Syllable chunks for hap-in

There is a lot to celebrate here! What immediately jumps out is that this writer is advanced for kindergarten and making progress for becoming a proficient reader. He is likely moving from Phase 3 into Phase 4 as both a writer and a reader. While celebrating his meaning making and other strengths, this sample helps us target instruction for CVC short vowels, the long vowel CVCe pattern, digraphs qu and ng, and eventually r-controlled syllables and the idea that every syllable needs a vowel.

We can celebrate when science confirms discovery of best classroom practices for beginning reading teachers. Over three decades ago Marie Clay, the revered world-renowned, late, theorist and founder of Reading Recovery called for educators and scientists to capitalize on the early writing/reading connection. “It is probable,” she wrote, “that early writing serves to organize the visual analysis for print, and to strengthen important memoric strategies. The child’s written work also provides us with objective evidence of what the child has learned.” (Clay, 1982, p. 210) Today, Clay’s hopeful prognosis has revealed itself in phase observation. Let’s use invented spelling to set beginning readers on a pathway to conventional spelling and better end-of-first-grade reading scores. Science has spoken!


Clay, M. M. (1982). Observing young readers. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin.” Topics in Language Disorder, 20, 19-36.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I. & Gentry, R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J. R. (2000). A retrospective on invented spelling and a look forward, The Reading Teacher, 54(3), 318-332.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. (in press). Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ouelette, G. & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new Pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77– 88.

New York City Department of Education. (2018). Pre-K—2 Framework for early literacy. New York City: NYCDOE Publication.


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