Kid-Code: Developmentally Appropriate Spelling

Carefully balanced, developmentally appropriate spelling lessons and expectations can keep young writers focused!

By Christen Amico


No one can deny the craziness of the English language. Derived from a plethora of cultural origins, even basic words break conventional spelling patterns. There is no easy way to explain to a five-year-old why white is spelled with ite and night is spelled ight. In my classroom, they are simply called "rule-breakers" and are sent to spelling jail! With each passing week, a new spelling pattern (and its rule-breakers) are explicitly taught. But until then, my students are expected to kid-code their writing. Kid-code is a kid-friendly term that simply describes the process in which children write down the sounds they hear in a word that they are trying to spell. It is crucial that this type of writing is encouraged, and that any written representation of a word (no matter how incorrectly spelled) is praised by an adult. Children who dislike writing often have a strong fear of misspelling words. Kid-code is a teaching strategy that will alleviate some of the pressure children feel and build stronger writers by helping students stay focused on getting their ideas on paper in the best possible manner.

The One Who Does the Work...Does the Learning!

Ample research has shown that although students can easily memorize words for a weekly spelling test, more often than not, those same words are misspelled when used in written assignments. Therefore, one can argue, that spelling is not a subject that can be equated to mere memorization. The conceptual understanding that letters (and groups of letters) form sounds is more complex than some teachers and parents realize. As children progress through school, the difficulty level of words increases and they begin to include prefixes, suffixes, and a variety of tenses. Teaching word origins, root words, and even other languages will help children to truly understand why certain words are spelled the way they are. For young writers to truly internalize these spelling practices, they must first learn to invent their own spelling by dictating the sounds they hear.

As primary students learn to sound out words and write the sounds they hear in the correct order, the notion of spelling will develop naturally. They will begin to notice patterns in their writing (cat, sat, bat) and see similarities (walk, walked, walking) which will become a large part of their spelling development. As pupils are using their kid-code, it is vital that all spellings are accepted by the teacher. Children cannot fear that their writing will be hindered by lack of conventional spelling. Sadly, many children stray from using more detailed and descriptive vocabulary in their writing because of an inability to spell their preferred words correctly.

Direct, Explicit Instruction

Similar to any math concept, or phonic pattern, kid-code (invented spelling) must be explicitly taught. Teacher modeling is key to helping children to understand the validity of sounding out words independently. The teacher must also be consistent in his/her response to the inevitable questions on how to spell certain words. Responses such as, "How do you think it is spelled?" will help learners stay focused on using kid-code. Teacher modeling and acceptance of labeling sounds will help foster a habit of sounding out words rather than asking an adult for the correct spelling. Here are some writing assignments that will allow teachers to incorporate kid-code into the daily routine:

  • Daily message
  • Friendly letters
  • Journal
  • Response to literature
  • Labeling drawings
  • Writer's Workshop

A Balanced Approach

Of course, the teaching of specific spelling patterns is a crucial aspect of one's education and must also be explicitly taught. Many teachers and writing programs opt for teaching spelling in sets of phonic, or word families. Children learn to see that words that have similar sounds also have similar spelling patterns! A great spelling rule that often (but not always works) is "If I can spell__, I can spell ___ and ___. For example, if you can spell cat, you can spell hat and bat. Once a spelling pattern has been taught and practiced, it should no longer be kid-coded in the child's writing. Meaning, that once a spelling pattern has been given, then it is expected that it will be used correctly and applied in daily writing assignments. Spelling certainly has a important role in a primary classroom, but sometimes the content of a particular writing piece is more important than the correct spelling or grammar!

More Great Spelling Resources: 

Individualized Spelling Lists

Children in all grades can benefit from individualized spelling lists, assignments, and assessments. Although this teaching strategy requires significant time and management, it is well worth the effort. The words are meaningful, because they are self-selected from the child's own writing, and are at the developmental level. This is a terrific resource which includes strategies for all grades, PDF printables, and actual student photos.

Spelling Rules Power Point

This is a great PowerPoint Presentation giving detailed spelling rules (rule-breakers). This is a very informational presentation geared toward older students or adults who are unsure of all the rules in English.

Spelling Success

Here is a great mini-packet of beginning spelling activities for young learners. This is a sample for a complete comprehensive series aimed at developing independent spellers.

Spelling Number Words

Use this basic worksheet for first or second graders who need additional practice spelling number words. Number words are often misspelled and need extra practice for mastery!