When students spell based on their current letter/sound knowledge and what they are able to hear when thinking about the word, they are using invented spelling. Though the word may not be spelled in the conventional way, it is far from invented. This type of spelling encourages students to think about and apply their current knowledge of how our language works and provides opportunities for teachers to nudge them toward conventional spelling. So, why is invented spelling so misunderstood?
The main reason is that most adults were not taught using this technique. Additionally, most adults were told that when things were misspelled they were wrong--all wrong. Approximations in spelling that can highlight the letter/sound understandings students have mastered were never acknowledged, celebrated, or considered. An "all or nothing" approach implies that one knows nothing until they have mastered everything. Our ultimate goal, of course, is convetional spelling. But, hopefully teachers want students to understand how our language works and that is where invented spelling becomes more powerful than demanding correct spelling of everything written.
Gene Ouellete and collegues published a study in 2013 entitled Guiding Children's Invented Spellings: A Gateway Into Literacy Learning. The study found that the group of students and teachers using invented spelling not only made similar gains in alphabetic knoweldge and phonological awareness to the group receiving only phonological awareness instruction, but they also outperformed in invented spelling sophistication and word reading. If you think about it, it makes sense. If a child has to internalize a concept and then apply it independently, she understands it at a deeper level. Deeper understanding is required to apply skills to new challenges, such as reading a new word. And because the students develop the letter/sound relationship through invented spelling (encoding), they can use that knwoledge to read (decode) new words.
Thus, invented spelling is not only a powerful teaching strategy for learning to write, it is powerful for learning to read. We want students to see the reciprocal processes of reading and writing in a very natural, very real way. Building on what students already know and can apply is how invented spelling can do this. Encouraging invented spelling and then using the clues that come out in our students' spelling to nudge them forward will help students develop as writers and readers.
Gene Ouellette, Monique Sénéchal & Allyson Haley (2013) Guiding children's invented spellings: A gateway Into literacy learning, The Journal of Experimental Education, 81:2, 261-279.