Stages of Spelling Development

Spelling development occurs in stages over a long period of time.

What do you do

When your child asks “How do you spell apple?

Do you:

A) tell them the answer


B) Help them work on spelling at their independent level?

Knowing the stages of spelling development can help you better answer the age old question of “how do you spell such-and-such?”.

Spelling development is a process

Learning to spell correctly occurs over years and years of practice & repetition.

I am not talking about flashcards and spelling tests although those are helpful for some kids too.

Traditional “correct” spelling begins with phonics but WAY before phonics can happen the entire process of learning to spell begins much earlier with pre-spelling and writing practices like scribbles & symbols that represent written language and building fine motor skills with sensory play.

If your child asks “how do you spell apple” and you tell them then they are less likely to learn how to spell apple or any word independently.

The answer that I use is “Did you try by yourself?”

If they say yes (usually not the case unless you have already been answering them this way) then I ask them to show me what they have and tell my why they think it’s not correct.

If they say no I ask why not? (Usually kids who ask need more experience stretching their words and writing the sounds THEY hear. I put they in all caps because they have to produce the segmented sounds in the word AND tell you what letter(s) they think represents that sound.

No matter what stage kids are in they should be trying to answer that question by themselves first. This teaches independence and gives them problem solving practice.

Follow Up

Then my follow up question is based on what stage of spelling development they are in. After they’ve tried by themselves “Did you stretch it?” or tried with me guiding them “Let’s stretch it!” then we can talk more about the spelling pattern they are asking about. I’m not going to go into detail with a Kindergartener about the double p in /apple/. I will accept their /apl/ as correct if they are just starting out. Beginning in second grade after the review of the basic spelling patterns (CVC, long vowel spellings, blends & dipthongs) then I’ll go into double letters.

5 Stages of Spelling Development

  • pre-spelling Communicative Stage begins with scribbles, symbols or letters (at random) that represent letters & sounds to “spell” words but do not intentionally correlate to the sounds of letters in a spoken word.(PreK)
  • Pre-phonetic Stage represents the time period where children have knowledge of letter sounds and spell the sound they hear in the beginning of the word (to represent the whole word). It looks as though it is random letters or even a string of letters but represents what the child is trying to say. “T C” for example to label an illustration of the cat or “T C I B” (to represent “The cat is black”). This is a very delicate stage where effort should be graciously rewarded with verbal praise. (PreK- Grade 1)
  • Phonetic Stage is where the child represents all sounds they hear in a word with a letter or letters. This doesn’t mean every word is spelled correctly. Simple spelling patterns like cvc and cvce (long vowel, silent e patten) may often be correct but the more complicated spelling patterns are spelled entirely phonetic. Ex: u for a when read “I see u (uh)cat.” This is a delicate stage where effort should be graciously rewarded with verbal praise first and focused direct instruction (questions asked receive constructive answers & children spelling miscues (misspelled words) are nurtured through guided reading and writing practice. (Kindergarten through early Grade 2)
  • Transitional Stage represents the period in time where children are able to recognize that correct spelling follows patterns ex: -at word family all words end in -at. Children in this stage are learning that there are multiple ways to spell some of the same sounds (ex: ai, ay, a_consontat_ silent e) and that some spelling patterns do not follow the rules. OW spells two different sounds OW (rhymes with how) and OW (rhymes with low), etc. (Grade 2+)
  • Correct Spelling Stage represents the stage where children spell correctly more often than not. They understand the system of writing in English and it shows in their independent spelling of prefixes, suffixes, irregular spellings, silent letters, etc. They can recognize if a spelling doesn’t look or feel right and seek out the correct spelling sometimes independently.
letter cubes
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Fun Ways to nurture Spelling Development

  • Sensory spelling; use sand trays, playdough or finger paint to practice spelling pattern and sight words
  • GET OUTSIDE! Use Sidewalk chalk, hopscotch spelling, or incorporate into your favorite game
  • Play Spelling board Games
stages of spelling development

Spelling Word Lists

A good spelling list strategy for any grade is to focus on Sight words and spelling patterns for that grade level.

Kindergarten– Sight words, CVC (3 letter short vowel words like cat), CVCE (long vowel spellings with silent e like cane), other Long Vowel pattern Spellings, blends and dipthongs.

1St Grade– Review kindergarten words and patterns, First Grade sight words, and spelling patterns like /r/ controlled vowels, soft c, soft g, silent letters kn, wr,gn.

2nd Grade– Review K & 1st Grade spelling patterns, inflectional ending -ed (3 ways to spell), inflectional ending -ing, beginning prefixes re, un, compound words, homophones.

3rd Grade– Review Second Grade words and more prefixes, suffixes, more homophones, schwa (the vowel sound that makes short u but can be spelled with any vowel), plurals regular and irregular.

Stages of Spelling Development

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