Stages of Learning to Spell in Children

Children learn to spell in the 5 identifiable stages of spelling development. First is emergent spelling, at the ages of 2-5, where children may recognize the alphabet and may start writing individual letters, and towards the end have some letter-sound matching. In the letter-name spelling stage (ages 5-7), children begin to write most sounds correctly, including complex letter patterns and constant combinations, will attempt to spell simpler words with a variable success rate. The within-word stage (ages 7-9) children begin to recognize patterns within the words, do well with beginning sounds, and learn more long-vowel words and sounds as well as common suffixes. In the syllables and affixes stage (ages 9-14), there is an understanding of most words and learn to understand how to put endings and extra syllables into worlds including consonant doubling, e-dropping, and long-vowel patterns. Finally, in the derivational relations stage (middle school and later), students can use the meaning of words to aid in spelling, do well with common Latin suffixes and prefixes, but may struggle with advanced spelling or foreign-originating words (Tompkins, 2016).

Teacher’s most often determine a student’s level of spelling development by analyzing errors and misspellings. As mentioned, each stage has particular elements where a student may struggle and types of words and elements (i.e., long vowel words, complex constant combinations) that they will continuously get wrong and right. By identifying the errors, it can be easier to place a student in the specific stage of spelling development, as at each stage there are spelling skills that should be learning in the beginning and in the end of the stage before moving on to the next one (Tompkins, 2016).

Students begin to learn spelling by first spelling the phonetic elements of English, gradually increasing in sophistication. However, since only about half of the language is phonetic-based, the rest is learned through phoneme-grapheme correspondence. With time, the knowledge of spelling is enhanced and refined through a combination of reading, instruction, and writing itself. The primary goal of teaching spelling is to develop spelling conscience, the need to spell words conventionally, not just phonetically. Students, at their respective developmental levels, should understand that spelling is a courtesy to themselves and others, as they exchange information via writing or are reading anything. The key to teaching spelling is to create phonemic awareness which is then developed into more complex understanding of encoding sounds and morphological units into letters. Sound-symbol correspondence starts with simple letters, but then essentially expands to include variations and pairings of sounds to create words. That is why dividing words into syllables can aid in identifying spelling patterns at the morphological level. Such awareness is achieved through integration of both spoken and written language, text-level learning, and reading and writing skills that are practical (University of Michigan, n.d.).

Research has shown that weekly spelling tests are significantly less impactful on students’ ability to learn spelling. Learning conventional spelling goes beyond dry memorization of thousands of words, it is best attained by pragmatic activities such as reading and recognizing the words, as well as writing them oneself. To make spelling tests more effective, teachers can use a comprehensive strategy to practice and learn the words. This may include learning the definitions, using words in sentences or a story, practicing writing the words through games with whiteboards. While some aspects of memorization are still present, the student is both more likely to remember and use the word later after that week’s spelling test is done if they understand the meaning of the word and have seen it used in various ways in practical applications such as reading and daily speech (Putman, 2017).


Putman, R. (2017). Using research to make informed decisions about the spelling curriculum. Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 5(1), 24-32. Web.

Tompkins, G.E. (2016). Language arts: Patterns of practice (9th ed.). Pearson.

University of Michigan. (n.d.). How should spelling be taught. Web.

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ChalkyPapers. "Stages of Learning to Spell in Children." September 27, 2023.