This article explores some of the implications inherent in the pedagogical strategy of encouraging students to 'try' or 'have a go', particularly within the context of early writing and spelling. Pedagogical approaches built on the assumption that the learner will need to try in order to learn are construed here as emanating from and contributing to the construction of identities of 'precompetence' for students in the first years of school. The discussion of precompetence is contextualized within early literacy curriculum documents and practices in Australia and further examined through a functional linguistic analysis of two students' talk about spelling strategies. The students' explanations are marked by differences in the identity each learner constructs for herself and by differences in metalinguistic knowledge, suggesting possible links between the two. A rationale for the prevalence of encouraging students to try to spell is offered and supplementary approaches, based on the explicit teaching of spelling knowledge, are recommended.