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Crawl, Walk, and then Run: The Developmental Stages of Spelling


Research and experience both tell us that children move through definite stages when learning to read and spell.

Research and experience both tell us that children move through definite stages when learning to read and spell.

Moving children through the stages too quickly can cause frustration and discouragement. On the other hand, moving too slowly may produce a child who is bored and disengaged.

Most parents are aware that children differ in reading readiness and make adjustments accordingly. Difficulty often arises because a child’s spelling skills are expected to match their reading skills. Usually students learn to sound out and read words (decode) before they are able to write spoken words correctly (encode). The following information about spelling stages is designed to help you decide which level of spelling instruction is most appropriate for your student.



Preliterate (pre-reading) Stage

Children at this stage are just learning that written words represent sounds and have meaning. Students at this stage of spelling readiness:

• learn to turn pages in a story book from front to back
• become aware that English words are written from left to right and flow from the top to the bottom of the page
• pretend to write with scribbles that may begin to include some recognizable letters
• are beginning to learn to write their own names

Phonetic Stage

This is the stage at which children learn to associate sounds of speech with specific letters and begin to read simple words. In the phonetic stage, children develop the ability to:

• distinguish basic sounds of the consonants and the long and short vowels
• read and spell simple short-vowel words
• distinguish blends, such as cl in clap or tr in trip
• spell words with simple digraphs, such as th, ch, and sh
• spell many words according to sound rather than with conventional English spelling (ex., KAT for cat)

Skill Development Stage

At this stage, reading skills often rapidly outpace spelling skills. Many common spelling patterns that are easy to recognize in the context of a story are much more difficult to recall accurately when it is time to write the words. Students usually stay in the skill development stage for several years as they master an increasing vocabulary of commonly-used English words. Students in this stage:

• consistently apply the basic phonics learned in the last stage of spelling
• are aware that the same sound may be spelled differently in different words
• can identify when a familiar word “looks right” by using long-term visual memory
• recognize familiar spelling patterns in new vocabulary

Word Extension Stage

Students who practice reading, writing, and spelling skills over a period of several years develop a strong visual memory for everyday words. This prepares them for the word extension stage of spelling, where they will learn the mechanics of word endings and prefixes in more detail. Students in this stage:

• can confidently spell most everyday words
• may be uncertain how to drop or change letters when forming plurals and verb tenses or adding other endings
• are ready to study how prefixes and suffixes are used to build familiar base words into new words

Derivational Constancy Stage

Students often arrive at this stage about the same time that they are presented with challenging new vocabulary in subjects such as science and literature. Many of these new words have roots that come from Greek or Latin words. This is an ideal time to study these roots, as they provide helpful clues for spelling, meaning, and pronunciation. Students in this stage:

• are confident spellers
• are curious about words and how our language developed
• are ready for independent study and exploration

Learn more about Spelling You See here.



About Miriam Homer

Miriam's first love is teaching. She taught several grade levels and used Math-U-See in one of its earliest editions. She has retired from working at Demme Learning, where she served for several years in a variety of roles including customer service, writing, and editing. She is thrilled that her two grandsons are beginning their homeschool experience with Math-U-See.


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