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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Ways to Develop Oral Language in Prekindergarten and Kindergarten Classrooms

By Kathy Ha

“Language is a child’s most powerful learning tool”
–    Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

•    Talk with children throughout the whole day.
•    Really listen to what children say and respond to the message they are sending to you.
•    Expand on the child’s language in a natural way.
– If the child said, “I goed to see my grammy yesterday.”  You might respond by saying, “You went to see your grammy yesterday.  What did you do together?”
•    Read aloud to children throughout the whole day.
•    Encourage ‘turn and talk,’ a time when students talk with a partner about a relevant topic.  While reading One, Two, Three to the Zoo one might say, “Turn and talk to your partner about a time you went to go see animals.”
•    Sing songs with children.
•    Use every opportunity to talk with children about what you are doing.  While passing out snack you might say, “I am counting out how many cups I need.  One, two, three…now I need to get the napkins out….”
•    Provide opportunities for children to play.  They will take part in self-talk, talk with peers, and talk with the adult who is facilitating high quality play.
•    Engage in imaginative talk.
•    Ask open-ended questions, those that ask the child to respond with more than just one word.
•    Value the child’s home language(s).  The experience with a home language builds the foundation for developing academic English at school.

The Book Nook

By Kathy Ha

Reading independently, in pairs, or in small groups in a book nook supports young children’s literacy development in significant ways.”
V. Susan Bennett-Armistead, Nell K. Duke & Annie M. Moses

A book nook is a place within your classroom where students can sit comfortably and experience lots of different kinds of books.  The books might change as students become curious about new topics or as projects within the class change.

A book nook includes:
•    Lots and lots of books organized in baskets or on shelves where children can see the covers.
•    Comfortable seating – rug squares, rug, pillows, soft chairs

A book nook provides opportunities for:
•    students to build knowledge about books
•    students to retell stories they have read together in class
•    teachers to have some time working with individuals or small groups to think and talk about books together
•    building vocabulary and concepts about print

“The amount of time children spent in the book nook was directly and positively affected by changes to the curriculum, such as:
•    reading daily to children,
•    encouraging reading,
•    talking about books that had been read,
•    inviting guest writers,
•    giving children the opportunity to create their own books,
•    using puppet shows, prop stories, and other creative storytelling methods”
(Bennett-Amistead, V.S., Duke, N.K. & Moses, A.M. 2005.  Literacy and the Youngest Learner: Best Practices for Educators of Children from Birth to 5.  New York: Scholastic.  p. 124.)