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Mom, How Do I Spell…?

Your little writer in the making

Helping your little writer in the making

Nothing is more exciting than watching our children learn to read and write. The good news is if they’ve heard hundreds of stories, have books to interact with, have access to writing materials and see you model reading and writing in everyday life, they’re just chomping at the bit to learn to read and write, themselves.

It’s a Challenge

Learning to write with conventional spelling is no easy feat. Imagine starting over again in a new language in which there are twenty-six times two symbols, dozens of sounds made by said symbols and a list of rules as long as your arm, all with exceptions. You might just pass on that bit of learning.

But your child can’t pass. Reading and writing are the doorways to learning. They need those skills and will use them for the rest of their lives. And, let’s face it; kids have the capacity to persevere where we adults might be prone to giving up.

Reading and Writing = Literacy

You can’t talk about writing without including reading skills. Emergent literacy is the term we use when children gain knowledge, bit by bit, gradually gaining understanding of the way the English alphabet works.

Young children, even babies and toddlers are in the process of becoming readers and writers. As we adults expose them to books and provide a rich learning environment, children make their way through a series of lessons toward conventional reading and writing proficiency.

From Squiggles to Words

Here are the stages children move through as they become more and more skilled in writing.

1. Drawing and Scribbling

At an early age children begin to understand that messages are conveyed with pencil and paper. They see words in books, they see letters and words in their home and in public places, they see their parents reading the mail and reading books. They want to do that, too. So they begin by making marks on paper. Even toddlers enjoy scribbling and later drawing. They may tell you their marks are pictures of a family member or pet, or they may convey the message they have in their head, “This says I love you, Dad.”

Parents can: encourage every effort at written communication and suggest more writing projects. This is not the time to “correct mistakes.” Their efforts are not mistakes, they are developmental strides toward real words and sentences.

2. Letter and Letter-like Forms

Children are learning the alphabet via books, songs, labels, and written messages in their environment. Not that they are trying to reproduce those letters. They may try a circle shape for the round letters and straight lines or block shapes for others. They begin to understand that letters are strung together and move from left to right.

Parents can: model writing real words such as family names, posting labels for common items around the house, and continue to provide any writing information the child asks for.

3. Beginning and Ending Sounds

As they learn the sounds that each letter says, they’ll try to string them together into words. They understand that they must use certain letters in a certain order and add spaces in between. Each word carries meaning. They’ll hear the beginning sound of words first, thus a letter c or k may mean cat. Later they’ll include the ending sounds (ct) and some children notice dominant sounds in the middle of words such as bbl for bubble.

Parents can: begin to print out three and four letter words for their children. Help them notice that each sound works together to make the word. Write their name and let them copy it. Encourage any independent writing and champion their efforts.

4. Invented Spellings

Now our little writer is cruising. The vowel sounds which are so tricky and unpredictable may be wrong, but the writing is now both legible and understandable. “I rod mi bik.” Since the words approximate the correct spellings, they get their message across to readers.

Parents can: provide lots of opportunities for the child to respond in writing. Work on vowel sounds, both long and short during short lessons, but allow the invented spellings in their writing efforts.

5. Conventional Spellings

Through much trial and error, study, and the reading of many books, children finally arrive at conventional spellings of our English language. Even adult writers continue to misspell many words since English has so many similar sounds and so many exceptions to our rules.

READ MORE: Squiggles to Words: The Emergent Writer

Your Role

You, the fortunate parents, have the joy and privilege of directing your little writers toward success. Your child will move through the various stages at his or her own pace—sometimes hovering between two levels for a time before moving on. There is no rush. The focus should be on writing as a tool of communication and it should be enjoyable.

As much as possible, encourage writing growth through authentic writing tasks. Let’s say you want to learn French. Which would you rather do, trace five words in that language beginning with a certain letter, or try to write a short letter to your friend? Fill in the blanks on the names for food items or make a real grocery list or order from a lovely French restaurant menu?

Children tire of rote memory work. Sometimes it is necessary, but usually there is a better, more authentic option. Have them write to a pen pal, tell the story of their pet’s life, write an invitation to a friend for a sleepover—you get the picture. Give them a real reason to practice and then the “work” is also fun.

Reading and writing are essential tools for learning. They open the door to knowledge about anything at all in this great big world. You can help your child master reading and writing at the earliest age possible by providing a positive learning environment in your home from day one.

Read books, engage in conversations, make books and writing materials available, and give lots of praise for any and all reading and writing efforts. You’ll be amazed when your child asks, “Mom, How do I spell (you add the big word.)”

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and reading specialist. She is the author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun: Unplugged. Find Jan at

For Further Information

How Do I Write…? Scaffolding Preschoolers’ Early Writing Skills by Cabell, Totorelli and Gerde

Letter Perfect: Helping Kids Learn to Write by Megan Othersen Gorman

Understanding Beginning Writing Skills in Preschoolers by Kristin Stanberry

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