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Phonetic spelling is an essential developmental milestone for any child learning the English language. Often adults overcorrect children’s “misspellings” without understanding the role that phonetic spelling plays.

This post includes a parent letter freebie for you to share with families, in order for them to understand how vital it is for children to use phonetic spelling when they're first learning to write. See if you can easily read it, since in true teacher fashion, I wrote it all phonetically.

what is phonetic spelling

What is Phonetic Spelling?

I’ve commonly called phonetic spelling, “kid spelling” in the classroom. Put in terms children understand, phonetic spelling is spelling words by sounding them out. 

Sometimes phonetic spelling is referred to as inventive spelling, because children are creating spellings as they go - instead of spelling by memory. 

When children are in pre-k and kindergarten, our focus is to teach them the letters and sounds of the alphabet. Each letter has a sound (or two). Children must master these sounds as the first step on their journey to becoming independent readers and writers. 

Instead of classifying phonetic spelling as incorrect, I explain there are two kinds of spelling. One is adult spelling, and the other is kindergarten or kid spelling. 

Guess what? Both are right. I've ruffled a few feathers on the internet by saying that, but if you keep reading, you’ll understand why. 

Is English a phonetic language?

When you see the following sentence written by a kindergartener, you’ll notice the words are all spelled incorrectly. Yet, if you read the phonetically spelled “words” out loud, you’ll be able to make sense of what was written.

example of what is phonetic spelling
Example of phonetic spelling

"The flower is in my pocket." Well written, for a child or someone learning English for the first time! So you may have concluded by now that nope, English is not a phonetic language, unlike Spanish, German, and Polish. 

The English language has many words that don’t sound as they are spelled: though, knife, far, raspberry, eight, to name a few. 

Additionally, English contains many digraphs (ie. sh, ph, wh, ch). That combined with totally silent letters makes it a challenging language to learn. 

Don’t even get me started about sight words like do, is, you. And then come the vowels with many different rules, like i before e, vowel teams, silent e, etc.

There are so many rules, that even I, someone who teaches phonics all day, don’t know them all! 

Why shouldn’t adults correct phonetic spelling? 

note written with inventive spelling
Phonetically spelled note: Mrs. Claus, I made you a necklace. Love.

As a parent you might be thinking, “If I don’t correct this spelling, my child will learn how to spell everything incorrectly.” 

I understand why people think that! But imagine this: you’re a young child who has no concept of reading and has just learned your alphabet. 

After using the alphabet sounds you have been mastering over the last year (20% of your life!) you manage to sound out the word BOT (boat) only to be corrected and told it is in fact, BOAT. 

What? This doesn’t make sense! 

When we correct children’s spelling of words they have never been taught to spell, they may become discouraged and feel as if they’re not good at writing. After all, they learned their letters, and now the letters are not all they need!  

When we encourage them to use phonetic spelling, we are reinforcing all that letter/sound knowledge. Additionally we are opening the doors for them to write without the help of an adult. This is going to create many opportunities for practice and feelings of ownership over their own writing. 

I’d much rather that students spell things incorrectly and feel good about the task of writing than shut down and fear writing because they want to make sure everything is spelled like an adult.

So should you always let kids spell things wrong? A popular question!

Well, no. That doesn’t make sense either. 

The spelling you should correct:

  1. Sight words, words children should know on sight/memorization
  2. Names - their own or ones they’ll be writing often, like a sibling 
  3. Words that have a spelling rule they have been already taught (ie. if they have learned about silent e, you can remind them that “mak” needs a silent “e” to be correct.)

If your kid doesn’t know that a silent e makes the vowel “say it’s name,” then you wouldn’t need to tell them that they need an “e” at the end of “make.”

If your child has learned “is” and “of” as their sight words-which are memorized, then they should be spelling them correctly.

So when they learn a new spelling pattern or rule, those are now words that we can encourage them to spell with adult/standardized spelling.

For the rest of the words, encourage and praise phonetic spelling! 

This way, we are reinforcing the alphabetic principle, that letters represent spoken sounds. This is also why in kindergarten, focus on teaching phonetically spelled CVC words: cup, kit, mat, bug, etc. These words make sense to children, and they’ll have more success when spelling them. 

why we should encourage children to write freely

What should I do if my kid asks me how to spell something?

Children often ask how to spell words they want to write.

Instead of telling them what letters to write, try asking the following questions:

  1. What sound do you hear at the beginning of the word? 
  2. What letter makes that sound?
  3. Now what do you hear next? (You can help by stretching out the word auditorily for them.)
  4. Do you hear anything else? 
  5. What sound do you hear at the end of the word?

By encouraging children to listen for the sounds in the words, we as teachers, are building their phonemic awareness- a major reading and writing set of skills, kids will need to succeed in school. 

When they ask you if their spelling is right, you can say yes. Remember, adult spelling is different from kid/kindergarten spelling. Both can be right. 

At the end of kindergarten, teachers expect children to be able to write short words with at least a beginning, middle, and ending sound, but longer words take time and practice to learn the adult spelling. 

How do we explain to parents and other adults not to correct spelling?

Here is a letter for you to pass out to parents. You may notice, I wrote the letter using phonetic spelling. 

Challenge yourself or if you're a teacher, the parents in your class, to read this letter. The letter explains what phonetic spelling is and why it’s such a developmentally important step in becoming a reader and writer. 

Click the picture to download your own copy or pin it, to save for later!

letter to parenting about kids writing

Do you encourage phonetic spelling with your students?

Rainbow writing is a fun way to make spelling practice more engaging for children.

The idea of rainbows has always been a source of fascination and joy for kids, which makes it a great way to get them excited about practicing their words. They will be eager to color their word over and over again until they have formed their own rainbow!

sample of rainbow writing

What is rainbow writing?

Rainbow writing is a simple, do anywhere, writing practice strategy where children either trace or write the words in rainbow colors. You can use colored pencils and crayons to create your rainbow words or try markers when doing the more independent version below.

The benefits:

How do you implement rainbow writing?

These differentiated versions are both wonderful ways to use rainbow writing with your kids or students. And of course, it doesn't have to be just so.

What to practice:

You can give rainbow writing your own flair by choosing other colors, using different materials, or writing the words in different styles and shapes.

Rainbow writing with tracing:

This is the simpler version of rainbow writing, since the children are not writing words on their own unlike the next version.

tracing version of rainbow writing

On a piece of paper, write the words you want your child to trace. Make sure to write them big enough so your child can easily trace them. The smaller the words, the more difficult they are to trace.

Next have your students or your child pick out their favorite colors to trace the word with. I know my daughter will always do things in rainbow order: ROYGBIG (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) but there is no one way to rainbow write.

Have your child or students trace the word 3 or more times. For younger children, especially preschoolers, I would say 3 times is plenty of practice.

rainbow name writing 3 years old

Rainbow writing independently

For this version, I recommend using the rainbow colors in order. Children will copy the word instead of trace it, writing it multiple times until they've created a rainbow of that word. Use markers, colored pencils, crayons, or even paint, if you're feeling it!

rainbow writing for independent writers

Where can you find resources to help with spelling and writing skills?

My favorite handwriting curriculum is called Learning Without Tears. They have an emphasis on learning to write in ways that are fun and developmentally appropriate.

They have a wonderful handwriting chart that shows proper letter formation, which is actually really helpful as an adult. I never knew I was doing my lowercase f's backwards.

Download the Learning Without Tears letter and number formation charts HERE! -Thanks to Learning Without Tears for making these available for FREE!

I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the exact formation if they letter looks correct when your child is writing, but when YOU write out the words, check to make sure your letters are looking like these so children learn the proper way to write!

What are your favorite resources for handwriting and spelling? Leave me a comment below!

I'm so over using worksheets for writing numbers. I've never seen a child have an "aha moment" after doing a worksheet.

As a mom and a kindergarten teacher, I love to cater to active learners who learn best with hands-on learning, aka learning by doing. With this number writing activity kids are practicing writing numbers while also searching, imagining, discovering, and playing.

*As an Amazon affiliate, I may get a small commission for purchases made through links in this post.

Setting up for Writing Numbers Excavation:

Supplies you'll need:

The play set-up:

  1. On one piece of paper, write the numbers you'd like your child to practice writing randomly and spread out on the page.
  2. Place that piece of paper on the baking tray then cover with the sensory filler.
  3. Have a blank piece of paper with your child's preferred writing utensil nearby, as well as a paint brush.
Child writing numbers on right side. Left side is a baking tray with beans on it, hiding numbers underneath

Writing Numbers Excavation Set Up

Time for writing numbers! Invite your child to play:

To start, ask your child what they know about excavation. When have they seen it, and what kinds of jobs do it. We came up with paleontologists and archaeologists.

Child digging for numbers through beans

Writing Numbers Activity

Excavating means to remove dirt carefully to find what's buried underneath. Both paleontologists and archaeologists use special tools to carefully remove the dirt in order not to harm the buried items: dinosaur bones or human artifacts!

Invite your child to play archaeologist using their paintbrush to gently brush away the sensory beads, beans, kernels, etc. to uncover the mysterious numbers beneath.

Adding the element of imaginative play always brings up the engagement level of an activity. Bonus: being an archaeologist who gently brushes the sensory items back and forth is my way of getting my kids to keep the sensory items on the actual tray and avoid the mess.

A good archaeologist always keeps track of their findings by writing them down. As your child uncovers each number, their job is to write the number on their blank paper.

Just like that writing numbers becomes a game, a mystery, and imaginative play.

You can toss that number writing worksheet now!

Writing doesn't have to be hard!

If writing is not your child's preferred task, it can be a battle to get them to write, even if they love reading and know their letters. This could be a sign that writing is difficult for them due to poor fine motor skills.

If your child's handwriting with a pencil is shaky, weak, or very very light, it means they need to work on their fine motor skills!

Fine motor muscles are the small muscles in the hands and wrists that little ones need to develop before being able to pick up a pencil. Pencils aren't even the best writing utensil to start with!

To develop proper pencil form, give your child small broken crayon pieces. They'll need to push down (just like with pencils) to be able to write and since the pieces are broken, it'll force their small hands to hold the crayon with a better grasp.

For more ways to build your child's fine motor skills which will make writing numbers (and writing altogether) check out my 9 favorite activities for fine motor development!

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