How Children Learn to Spell and Write: Assessing Writing & Spelling Skills in 1st Grade

Invented Spelling

Don’t worry if a first grade student writes you a note telling you that you are a "grat techer." They are showing signs of good developmental spelling! When students are learning to use letters to make words, they go through several predictable stages of development. As children learn to spell, they make increasingly more accurate approximations of words based on the letter/sound knowledge they have at the time. The process is called invented spelling, because students "invent" their own ways to spell words. Invented spelling allows students to use more specific vocabulary in their writing, even though they may not be conventional spellers yet.

Sight Words

In addition to using invented spelling, students should develop a vocabulary of words that they know automatically. A large sight word vocabulary will help students to be successful readers and writers. Sight words are words that a child knows on sight and does not need to decode. There are several lists of these high frequency words like the Dolch list and Fry’s Instant word list. After teaching and practicing the words with students, teachers display the words in alphabetized lists on classroom walls called word walls. The display can be used as a reference for students as they write and can also help to increase their reading vocabulary. Students may use their own personalized word wall at their desk for easier access.


Handwriting is best assessed in an authentic situation. Although students need direct instruction and practice to learn correct letter formation, the most accurate assessment is looking at a student’s handwriting in a real-life situation. Students begin to learn capital and lowercase letters in pre-school and kindergarten. Children need hands on experiences forming letters and saying letter sounds aloud. As children learn to form letters, they sometimes reverse similar letters, writing d for b or m for w. Parents are often concerned that something may be wrong with their child if they exhibit this behavior, but it is actually quite common. To correct this behavior, children need more experience making the letters correctly and using them in writing to make meaning. Students who continue to reverse letters and numbers after third grade may need additional interventions.

Around third grade, cursive writing is taught. It is best to teach cursive systematically, focusing on only one objective at a time. Teach letter formation first, then size, and finally the correct slant. Practice is important. When practicing handwriting, students should copy correct handwriting, not create it, so they can focus on letter formation and not the content of the message.