Recently, a 3-year-old girl handed me a note as I was leaving her classroom. In the note, she wrote, "I luv u." Most of us have received similar notes from young children and have seen them pretending to write grocery lists, take telephone messages, and write memos to support their pretend play. Children use writing to communicate with their friends and teachers. Pretending to write is a powerful and important activity for young children. It demonstrates that they recognize writing as an activity worth learning, and that it can be used purposefully to communicate with others.

Historically, writing has received less attention from researchers than other aspects of early literacy. Fortunately, during recent years there has been an increasing interest in writing in early childhood. Much attention is now given to how beginning writers learn to master the functions of writing, its uses and purposes, the forms and features of written language, and the processes of writing. We know that children develop these skills in classroom environments that encourage early experimentation with writing materials. They are guided by knowledgeable teachers who serve as responsive listeners and readers, as models-and even as friendly editors!

Off to an Early Start

Children's early writing doesn't look much like writing at all. Beginning at about 18 months to 2 years, most children are able to hold a large pencil and, if offered paper, begin to scribble. Scribbling first appears to be random. Children love to explore the movement of pencils, crayons, and markers on paper. But as they get greater control and greater coordination, you start to see that recognizable shapes, lines, and patterns are revealed.

Even at these young ages, children often show us what they know about writing. They begin to use their writing in pretend play. They write orders and checks and make to-do lists-all to embellish their dramatic play. These early activities indicate that children are beginning to understand the functions and purposes of print. They are also beginning to recognize that writing is an activity worth knowing and can be manipulated to suit their needs. These early adventures with writing provide a powerful motivation for learning to write and communicate with others.

From Drawing to Writing-Making the Link

With many young children, you can see a close link between their drawing and writing. Sometimes they draw pictures, write random letters, and scribble-all on one page. As they do this, they are playfully manipulating and experimenting with different writing forms. Yet, at other times, they begin to combine drawing and writing to convey a message that can only be interpreted when they tell you about it. At this point, children do not recognize that writing stands on its own and can substitute for talking.

Writing Stage by Stage

Even in these early years, it's important not to be guided by strict developmental timetables. Although many children will begin to show an interest in writing at age 2, some will not. There is considerable variation in early writing development. It depends on children's exposure to print and on the opportunities they have to observe and engage in writing activities. You will see that a child's "writing" might vary in different situations. For example, when pretending to write a message in the dramatic-play area, a child may use scribble. At other times, the same child may write real letters when it suits her purpose, such as when writing a valentine. All of this variation implies that the course of writing development does not always follow a straight line and does not occur in fixed sequences. In fact, there are no reliable developmental milestones tied to specific ages and stages.

Moving From Scribbles to Print

Although learning to write is not the same for all children, it is not totally random. At about age 3, as children progress and are exposed to print, their more controlled scribbling begins to acquire some of the characteristics of print. Research tells us that at this age, children begin to notice the visual features of print. They notice its linearity, its horizontal orientation, and the arrangement of letter-like forms. For example, a child begins to recognize that letters consist of a limited number of shapes that can be put together in various ways. They see that the shapes can be used to generate letters and words. Sometimes this leads children to write "strings of letters." They write the same letters many different ways, in many different arrangements or positions. Or they reproduce letters in long strings, more or less in random order.

Hear, Say, and Write!

Between the ages of 4 and 7, children begin trying to translate the words they hear and can say into the letters that spell them. This is the beginning of the development of the alphabetic principle-the understanding of the match between letters and sounds. Not surprisingly, the first word most children learn to spell is their name. Learning how to spell their name puts them on the road to learning many different things about print. They learn:

  • about beginning sounds
  • that a name begins with a capital letter, followed by lowercase letters
  • that there is a set order to the letters in their name that never varies.

Exploring Invented Spelling

We know that the English language is not an easy one to master. Some letters make different sounds in different contexts, and some similar sounds are made with different letters. And sometimes letters are totally silent. As a result, children often invent their own ways of spelling. They will write the letters they hear, like T-L-V-N for television, or L-F-N-T for elephant, often leaving out vowels or hard-to-sound-out consonants. Sometimes one letter may represent an entire syllable. This "letter-naming" technique tells us that children are beginning to sound out. words, as they try to gradually represent more and more speech sounds in their spellings.

Tune in to Teachable Moments

As children see words in books, on posters, as labels, and so on, they begin to build a visual understanding of how these words should look. They learn that SN for sun doesn't look quite right, even though they may not understand rules about vowels or consonants. Sometimes they develop a growing self-consciousness about not spelling words correctly. They often ask adults, "Is this right?" Teachers used to be encouraged to say, "Just write it your own way." We now recognize that these questions are actually teaching opportunities. In response to a child's question, "Is this how to spell house?" (holding up a paper with the spelling H-W-S), you might say, "This is the way an adult spells house," showing the child the proper spelling of the word. "It's really hard to spell because ou makes an ow sound, and we aren't even able to hear a sound on the end for the letter e."

Children's invented spellings, or what we now call phonic spellings, are important because they help us understand how children are learning to segment words into phonemes. It also helps children write freely and think creatively. At the same time, we now know that invented spelling is useful for only so long. Pretty soon, after children begin to read words, they will need to develop an understanding of how words are spelled conventionally. Viewing misspellings again and again can actually interfere with a child's growing understanding of word formations. Therefore, it's important for you to give feedback, correctives, and positive reinforcement for correct spellings.

As children develop greater competence in writing, they come to expect more of their writing. They try to do more with it and learn more about what writing can accomplish for them.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart How Writing Develops - Age by Age (PDF)