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Is my Child Spelling and Writing at Grade Level?

Parents often wonder if their child is spelling and writing at grade level. While it is easier to compare a student's reading level to grade level norms, spelling and writing are not quite as clear. Let's dig deeper into the stages of efficient spelling and writing.

An efficient and effective method of teaching incorporates visual, auditory and kinesthetic modalities. That said, effective decoding (phonics for reading) instruction also incorporates encoding (spelling) instruction.

You may know your child’s reading level, but do not assume they are at the same spelling level. In general decoding (reading) is mastered before encoding (spelling). It is common for students to read words they can not spell.

SO, how do we assess spelling and create a learning plan to move learners forward?

You can follow a typical phonics scope and sequence to focus on spelling. You can also use a developmental approach.

Kathy Ganske, PhD is an expert in the developmental approach. She identifies four spelling development stages.

  1. Letter Name Stage

  2. Within Word Stage

  3. Syllable Juncture Stage

  4. Derivational Stage

Let’s learn more about each stage.

Developmental Spelling Stages:

Letter Name Stage

This is where we see alphabetic spellers. They are typically in kindergarten of first grade. They spell using the individual alphabetic sounds for letters. They are also learning to read and write short vowels, blends and digraphs.

Within Word Stage

This is where we see students that can correctly read one syllable words in context, but make errors when spelling those same words. Students are typically in late first grade to grade four. They have mastered reading and spelling short vowels, blends and digraphs, now they focus on the spelling patterns for long vowels, r influenced vowels diphthongs, and ambiguous vowels. Complex consonant patterns such as -dge, silent letters, plurals and the suffix -ed.

Syllable Juncture Stage

This is where we see students accurately spelling using solid long vowel patterns. Students are typically in grade 5-6. Students at this level are ready to learn at a deeper linguistic level and are required to juggle more variables. For example, double the final consonant when adding a suffix if it is a one syllable word, with one short vowel, and with one consonant after the short vowel. Rule for dropping a silent e when adding a vowel suffix are also learned at this stage.

Derivational Stage

This is where we see students accurately spelling using meaning. Students are typically in grades 6-12. “An important understanding children acquire in the “Meaning-Derivation” stage is that in written English, meaning is more important than sound. Words that are related in meaning or have a common root are usually spelled alike even if they are pronounced differently. For example, the silent c in muscle can be remembered if it is associated with muscular. Both words are related in meaning, and since meaning takes precedence over sound, the c in muscle remains even though it is silent. People who point to silent letters as evidence of the irrational nature of English spelling neglect the fact that by keeping muscle spelled this way rather than a phonetic rendition such as mussel or mussel, a reader can distinguish between the mollusk mussel and the organ muscle.” Spelling Instruction In The Middle Years Ruth McQuirter Scott

What Stage is my Learner At?

Now you know that students learning to spell generally follow this progression: They rely on sounds to spell. Then they rely on spelling patterns to spell. Finally, they rely on the meaning embedded words to spell accurately. It’s time find out your learners place on the continuum.

There are three popular options.

  1. Dr. Jan Hasbrouck’s Quick Phonics Screener Third Edition (2017) is the best one that coincides with a typical phonics-decoding scope and sequence. The test is easy to administer and interpret. You will know exactly what the student needs after one quick assessment. If you are familiar with direct and explicit phonics instruction, this assessment will match your needs. More information is here. Quick Phonics Screener :: Read Naturally, Inc.

  2. Kathy Ganske published Word Journeys. It provides detailed assessments with coding and scoring instructions to determine a spelling stage. This is a thorough and detailed assessment. I recommend a skilled practitioner administer this assessment. It is not meant for a novice.

  3. Words Their Way also identifies spelling deficits by stages or features. They have a primary spelling inventory and an elementary spelling inventory. This is assessment is a bit easier to score and interpret, but does take attention to detail on the part of the scorer. More information can be found here. Assessment Materials or here Getting Started: The Assessment of Orthographic Development


Efficient spelling lends itself to efficient writing. How do we know if the learner is writing at grade level? Just like reading and spelling, writing acquisition falls on a continuum.

Learners need fine motor skills, efficient spelling, and the ability to organize their thoughts and transfer them to paper. According to, learners tend to meet writing milestones by certain ages.

Here is what they share: Writing skills at different ages

Toddlers (ages 1–2 years)

  • Hold crayon in clenched fist

  • Understand that crayons are used for making scribbles

Preschoolers (ages 3–4 years)

  • Draw wavy lines across the page that look like lines of text from a book

  • Make distinct marks that look like letters and that are separated from each other

  • Write some actual letters, especially the letters in their name

  • May write their name

  • May try different kinds of writing, like writing a list or a card

  • May start to draw pictures and label them using letters or letter-like marks

Younger Grade-Schoolers (ages 5–7 years)

  • Hold pencil correctly and form letters accurately

  • Know the sounds letters make and spell words based on how they sound

  • Spell some common words that aren’t spelled the way they sound (often called sight words)

  • Use different endings for the same word, like walks, walking, and walked

  • In kindergarten, label pictures with a few words and begin to write simple sentences with correct grammar

  • By the end of first or second grade, write a page or more about personal experiences and what they’re learning in school

  • May start using different types of writing, like narratives and opinion papers (“Why I liked this book”)

Older Grade-Schoolers (ages 8–10 years)

  • Spell words using knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and root words, like helpful, helpless, and unhelpful

  • Write more complex sentences and use a variety of sentences to express ideas clearly

  • Use different structure and content for different kinds of papers (narrative, informative, and persuasive)

  • Understand the process of planning, drafting, and revising, and begin to use strategies for each of these steps

  • May start to use source materials to gather information for writing

  • May begin to type fairly quickly on a keyboard, if the school teaches this skill


  • Continue to develop typing skills, grammar knowledge, and vocabulary

  • Write more complex narratives that describe personal experiences

  • Cite sources in informative/research papers

  • Write argumentative papers that support claims with reasons and evidence and that consider opposing positions

  • Use strategies for planning and revising, including how to search for accurate information on the internet


  • Continue to develop typing skills, grammar knowledge, and vocabulary

  • Write longer and more complex papers on various subjects (science, social studies, literature)

  • Use planning strategies to search for and combine information from multiple sources

  • Continue to develop strategies for revising

Take a look at what your learner is writing. Do they fall in or around the guides above? If so, they are most likely within grade level. If not, there is work to be done. The message to ALWAYS remember is that with the proper instruction and support, everyone can become competent spellers and writers.

Command of English, spoken or written, ranks at the top in business. Our main product is words, so a knowledge of their meaning and spelling and pronunciation is imperative. If a man knows the language well, he can find out about all else.” -- William Feather

Does Your Child Need Support with

Reading, Writing, Or Math?

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We offer 1-1 instruction in - person in the Boulder and Denver, CO areas, the East SF Bay Area, and the Jackson, WY area. Students at all locations can access our services through virtual instruction.

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