For many children, the beginnings of literacy appear in activities such as pretend play, drawing, conversations about signs in their environment, and writing. They frequently mix writing and drawing (sometimes we call it anting), creating a "mixed medium" that combines graphic forms, letters, and words. These earliest attempts at writing are especially delightful and visible to the eye because they involve making something-usually marks on paper.
In these early experiments, children begin to realize that writing can be useful in their social relationships. They can use writing to make requests, to define and label their world, to express feelings of friendship and anger, and to get attention. Children will create signs, as exemplified by 4-year-old Catherine who writes on her door "Don't Boter Me" to assert her feelings toward a sibling and show her frustration. When children like Catherine play with the activity of writing and the role of writer, they begin to learn how to form letters and write words, often inventing their own spellings along the way.
How It Happens
It turns out that there are developmental patterns in children's early mastery of writing, although there is considerable individual variation among children. Although there are no reliable developmental milestones tied to age, as there are with physical development, you can expect children to begin to master writing through several phases. For example, at around 18 months, children become fascinated with pencils and paper and will begin to scribble. Early scribbles often look rather disorganized. However, children are actually exploring the sheer effort it takes to control and coordinate these wonderful writing implements. As they gain better control of their fine motor coordination, you'll begin to see recognizable shapes and patterns-lines, dots, circles-as drawings and writings begin to emerge. From these scribbles, children begin to incorporate features of writing. They'll notice the visual features of letters, and soon they will generate a variety of letters. Marie clay, a pioneer in studying children's early writing, called this point in children's development me sign concept. Children may understand that marks on paper have some kind of meaning without necessarily understanding what that meaning is. For example, 4-year-old Nathan might show you many, many letters, and then ask, "What did I write?"
Between the ages of 4 and 7, children may become more and more intrigued with the idea of communicating through writing. They'll begin to "invent" spellings of words, like elpt for elephant, or tkt for ticket. Sometimes, they'll even write a phrase, such as I lv u (I love you). With these efforts to communicate, children will construct their own spelling rules. As they write their own stories, children may be trying to recreate the kind of imaginative experience they know from pretend play and from being read to. This is one reason why they become so attracted to writing-to enter the world of play and communicate with friends and loved ones in this exciting new form.
What You Can Do
There are many ways children's writing can be supported in the classroom and at home. Here are a few suggestions: Help children start by learning the first letter of their name and go from there. Not surprisingly, the first word many children want to write and spell correcdy is their own name. Since they're likely to encounter their name again and again at school, this is a good place to begin introducing a more formalized writing process. I recommend using all capital letters, since this is a bit easier for children's fine motor coordination. Support children's writing by encouraging parents to write to them. Children's writing will develop more quickly if they are given many opportunities to practice. Suggest that parents have paper, pencils, large markers, and large crayons on their trips to the doctor's office or other appointments. It will make the time go faster and give them lots of fun moments to share in writing to one another. Also suggest that they model some of the common purposes for writing. For example, we all make lists for shopping at the grocery store and take telephone messages when someone's away from home. Helping children understand the purposes of writing-what writing can do and, in particular, what they can do with writing-will help them understand its function as a part of other activities in their lives, such as speaking, drawing, and playing. By encouraging children to experiment with writing materials, they'll begin to master each of these demonstrations of writing long before they're able to produce messages that are generally readable and interpretable by others. These informal lessons will ensure that children enjoy writing and see it as an important form of communication.