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Spelling Stages

My spelling is wobbly. It’s good spelling, but it wobbles and the letters get in the wrong places. A.A. Milne

Although we have often taught spelling as a subject, separate from reading and writing, research conducted over the last decade, or more, has redefined the way we think about how students learn to spell. 

The research has helped us understand that: 

  • purposeful writing experiences combined with instruction are the keys to cognitive growth in spelling. 
  • early emphasis on mechanical correctness of spelling inhibits developmental growth
  • spelling is not a matter of simple memorization
  • children advance through identifiable stages that build on one another in their growth as spellers
  • change from one stage to the next is a gradual one
  • spellers need to develop and apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships (phonetics), letter combinations (visual), and word meaning (morphemic) strategies 
  • a student’s spelling stage can serve as a guide for instruction
  • teachers can help students develop strategies for transferring their knowledge to authentic writing situations.

Spelling Stages

Level of Development Descriptors Strategies to Support Spelling


(typically 3+ years to 
5+ years)

There is little or no evidence of alphabetic knowledge or letter-sound relationships.

Writing resembles random strings of letter-like forms and numerals.

Upper-case letters or letter-like symbols predominate.

May lack understanding of left-to-right directionality.

  • Incorporate writing into play areas e.g. write a shopping list, take a phone message.
  • Encourage students to draw and ’write’ in their journals.
  • Ask children to tell you about their drawings and write their words.
  • Model writing through such activities as Morning Message, Language Experience, etc.
  • Call attention to the words you are writing down.
  • Draw attention to letter names. Point out letters the children might be familiar with in signs, posters, names, etc., and introduce unknown letters. Have students go on a letter hunt at home for specific letters.
stage (typically 4+ years to 6+ years),
Understands that the sounds in spoken words can be represented by letters.

Beginning to understand the concept of a word.

Words, sounds and synonyms may be represented with one or two letters, e.g. U for you, BKS for because.

Some letter-sound correspondence is evident.

The main sounds in words are used.

Begins to use some common letter patterns.

Consonants are used more often than vowels.

A few sight words are spelled correctly, e.g. I, me, mummy.

Knowledge of the alphabet is evident.
  • Provide risk-free opportunites for purposeful writing.
  • Encourage students to have-a-go at spelling by sounding our words in journals and other daily writing.
  • Show them how to stretch out the words they are trying to write. 
  • Read rhyming and repetitive picture books and nursery rhymes. Ask the students if they can come up with any other words that sound the same. 
  • Use word study and word games that promote letter-sound correspondence, such as sorting words with simple letter patterns.
Phonetic (typically 5+ years to 7+ years)

Letters are chosen on the basis of sound.

A letter or group of letters is used to represent all major speech sounds heard in a word e.g. BCOZ, LIVD.

Unconventional or invented spellings make sense and are easily understood, e.g. KOM for come, STOPT for stopped.

Letter names are used in spelling, e.g. GAV for gave, AWA for away.

A growing number of known sight words are used correctly.

(It is important to note that although this is a very normal stage of development for younger children, older students who struggle with spelling may not have progressed through or beyond this stage and will need help to develop visual and meaning-based spelling strategies.) 

  • Provide many opportunities for writing.
  • Encourage students to have-a-go at spelling by sounding out the words they want to write. 
  • Call attention to visual patterns of words in print, e.g. during read alouds, Morning Message, etc.
  • Use word play or word study activities where students are focusing on visual patterns.
  • Teach more complex letter sequences, such as, tch, tion, etc.
  • Continue the development of a bank of known words e.g. high frequency, themes
  • Introduce simple proof reading strategies, such as rereading. 
  • Talk about the importance of correct spelling in our lives.
  • Provide opportunities to publish for real audiences. 




Transitional (typically 6+ 
years to 11+ years)

Most basic conventions of English spelling are understood, e.g. places vowels in every syllable, such a HOLADAY.

Most common words are known.

Is able to recognize when a common word is misspelled.

There is less dependence on sound for representing spelling and a greater reliance on visual patterns and an understanding of the structure of words.

Is beginning to use word meaning to help with spelling. 

Common English letter patterns are evident, but may not always be used correctly, e.g. EIGHTEE for eighty, STRAIT for straight)

Extended knowledge of the structure of words is shown. E.g. prefixes, suffixes, contractions, double letters, are evident.

Resources such as dictionaries, word lists are used to check own spelling.
  • Provide many opportunities writing for a variety of purposes.
  • Provide opportunities to develop familiarity with many common spelling patterns through purposeful writing and specific spelling activities.
  • In word study, focus on groups of words rather than words in isolation.
  • Help students make generalizations about word patterns and formulate rules e.g. for plurals and syllabification.
  • Begin to focus on word meaning and derivations, e.g. sign- signature.
  • Teach proof-reading strategies such as trying to spell a word more than one way in order to select the one that looks right.
  • Provide opportunities to publish for real audiences. 
Correct (typically from 10–11+ years)
The English spelling system and its basic rules are well understood and used.

Prefixes and suffixes, silent consonants, alternative spellings, and irregular spellings do not cause problems.

Applies knowledge about spelling to unknown words, e.g. rules for adding suffixes, word origins.

Uses context to distinquish between homonymns, e.g. to, two and too.

Proof-reading strategies and skills are used with increasing proficiency.

Has a large bank of words that can be spelled automatically, including complex and sophisticated words.

A variety of tools and strategies are used to make sure spelling is accurate.

  • Provide many opportunities for writing for a variety of purposes.
  • Put more of a focus on meaning and the derivation of words as a guide to correct spelling.
  • Consolidate proof-reading skills.
  • Emphasize the social importance of spelling
  • Provide opportunities to publish for real audiences. 


In this video clip, a grade one teacher demonstrates the importance of invented or temporary spelling in the development of early writers.

It is important to remember that spelling and opportunities for purposeful writing go hand in hand. Spelling has no purpose outside of writing. Please refer back to the Development of Writing section of the website for additional information.

Adapted from First Steps Literacy and the work of Richard Gentry.

Additional Resources

Gentry, J. Richard. The Science of Spelling: the Explicit Specifics that Make Great Readers, and Writers (and Spellers!). Heinnemann, 2004. This article is available online and has numerous ideas of quality-based spelling instruction.

For more information about the research behind developmental spelling, check out the following sources. 

Gentry, J. Richard. "An Analysis of Developmental Spelling in GNYS AT WRK." THE READING TEACHER 36 (1982).

Hodges, Richard E. LEARNING TO SPELL. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers of English, 1981. ED 202 016.

Read, Charles. CHILDREN’S CATEGORIZATION OF SPEECH SOUNDS IN ENGLISH. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers of English; Arlington, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, 1975. ED 112 426.

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