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What Your First Grader’s Writing Shows About Reading

Presence or absence of foundational skills are revealed in a child's writing.

Key points

  • All first graders should show development in two critical phases, Phases 3 and Phase 4, leading to automatic word reading and spelling.
  • In Phases 3 and 4 writing samples, you see evidence of the phonics and spelling skills that first-grade writers and readers are using.
  • A close look at a first grader’s writing samples often shows what the child knows and what needs to be taught.

In this second of a two-part post, I collaborate with co-author Dr. Molly Ness of Fordham University to show how analysis of writing in children as young as kindergarten shows evidence of foundational skill knowledge as outcomes of the child’s brain development and reading circuitry.

How many words should your first grader be able to retrieve automatically and spell correctly by the end of the year? One hundred, 200, 300-plus? It’s an important question because if the child can spell these words, s/he will be able to read them automatically—a critical marker for end-of-first-grade reading comprehension and proficiency. You’ll find the answer in this post along with an understanding of the phonics and spelling patterns that every first-grade teacher should be teaching.

Developmental cognitive science has contributed to our understanding of phase theory regarding how the brain learns to read (Ehri, 2014; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Ouellette, & Sénéchal, 2017; Shanahan, 2020). We introduced the first three of the five developmental word reading and developmental spelling phases in our kindergarten post (see link here). In this post, we dig deep into first-grade expectations, with a focus on Phases 3 and 4. Understanding these reading and spelling developments based on current theory and research in cognitive psychology and following our recommendations can help ensure that children exit first grade as proficient readers and developing writers on the path to literacy.

Understanding Phase 3: Full Alphabetic Spelling

Phase 3 opens great doors for advancing word-level reading and overall literacy growth. Phase 3 spelling typically unfolds in the first half of first grade, when instruction generally focuses on high-frequency spelling patterns. Importantly, Phase 3 is the first phase when children use letters to represent every sound in a word.

Look at this engaging sample written by Sarah, in the first half of first grade. Is your child writing like this? It’s easily readable, even though many of the spellings are incorrect; these invented spellings reveal positive outcomes of Sarah’s reading brain circuitry development. Sarah was already beginning to get control of a few short vowel patterns and high-frequency words. After hearing about the author’s cat Buzz, Sarah was eager to write a funny story about her dog, Chiquita, using a First-Then-Next-Last story frame.

J. Richard Gentry
Sarah's story
Source: J. Richard Gentry

In a 30-minute encounter, she planned and wrote the story with the intended message as follows: “Chiquita likes to sleep with me. One day my mom decided to give Chiquita a bath. I held Chiquita. Mom had to get a towel. I got the soap. She doesn’t like for me to take (give) her a bath. I let her go and she went under the covers.”

Her teacher transcribed Sarah’s story and then used the conventional copy for fluency practice; In subsequent days, Sarah did repeated readings of her story to integrate word-level reading, build automatic word recognition, and match speech-to-print with finger point reading. As explained by reading researcher Tim Shanahan (2020), this exercise builds oral reading fluency (sometimes called text level fluency) and requires the child “to integrate and consolidate their abilities to orchestrate several skills and abilities simultaneously.” (Page 1)

This is the kind of writing expected from all first graders in the first half of first grade—if not sooner. If your child is in Phase 3, s/he is likely using short-term memory to laboriously stretch through each sound and think about what letter represents the sound. Often you can hear the child sounding through the word out loud.

Children’s perceptions of speech sounds in Phase 3 are often based on the place of the tongue and lips, air flow, and articulation of sounds. Place of articulation influences several unexpected, invented spellings, such as the following:

  • Unexpected sound spellings of short vowels such as BAT for bet. Because /ě/ sounds more like the letter name A than E, children often confuse the two. Thus, short vowel instruction is essential in first half of first grade.
  • Unexpected spelling of long vowels such as the Letter-Name spellings RAN for rain and BOT for boat.
  • A few syllable spellings where the consonant carries the vowel sound such as the OPN for open, and BRD for bird. (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019)

When checking to see if the child is in Phase 3, the following behaviors/markers are key characteristics:

  • Full mapping of a letter to each sound.
  • Phonemes are usually represented with one letter.
  • Some conventionally spelled words.
  • Easily readable invented spellings in context.
  • Slow and laborious invented spelling production placing demands on the child’s memory; vocalizing of each sound in sequence as the child puts it down on paper.

Understanding Phase 4: Consolidated/Automatic Alphabetic Spelling

Movement to Phase 4 marks the end of slow and laborious letter-by-letter spelling/decoding that is so prominent at the start of first grade. Children now are ready to advance to Phase 4, where they begin to automatically recognize words and syllable patterns in consolidated chunks. They learn these patterns in phonics and spelling instruction. Automaticity with spelling, phonics, and word-level reading frees the reading brain to concentrate on linguistic knowledge, text-level processing, and comprehension. The following behaviors/markers are key characteristics of Phase 4:

  • Consistently readable invented spellings.
  • Many more words and high-frequency syllable chunks automatically remembered and spelled correctly.
  • Few labored attempts to match each sound to a letter.
  • Vowels included in every syllable.
  • Correct spelling of basic high-frequency single syllable CVC short vowel words.
  • Liberal use of vowel digraphs, such as -ay and -ee.
  • Overgeneralization of CVCe for long vowels (e.g., BOTE for boat).
  • Endings -ed, and -ing spelled correctly.

In Phase 4 the child is building a large corpus of brain words; we define brain words as words recalled from memory or automatically recognized for reading or spelling. By the end of first grade, the aim is for at least 300 automatic brain words, derived from the analysis, study, practice, and mastery of 10 words a week over 30 weeks such as in a research-based spelling book (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).

Look at Dan’s Phase 4 spelling collected at the end of his first-grade year.

J. Richard Gentry
Dan's story
Source: J. Richard Gentry

All the characteristic Phase 4 behaviors/markers are present; Dan spells many brain words correctly. In his 44-word composition, 37 words are spelled correctly; all of the invented spellings are logical, easy to read, and adhere to the Phase 4 markers listed above.

To ensure your first grader is on the path to literacy, do the following:

  • Compare his or her writing with the Phase 3 sample above for the first half of the year and with the Phase 4 sample above for the second half of the year.
  • Note that the studies in developmental psychology reported in this post support developmentally appropriate systematic and explicit study of handwriting, phonics, and spelling in kindergarten and first grade.

For more here’s a concise and readable overview of Ouelette & Sénéchal’s landmark 2017 study in developmental cognitive psychology that mapped the powerful beginning writing-reading connection and moved us closer to being successful teachers of reading in first grade.


Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:5–21. DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ouelette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77- 88.

Shanahan, T. (2020, June 23) First you have to teach them to be disfluent readers, Reading Rockets Blogs about Reading.…

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