Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Pre-Writing and Pre-Spelling Development (13-24 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Dorothy Steffler, Concordia University College of Alberta and Sarah Critten, University of Hertfordshire

Introduction to Pre-Writing and Pre-Spelling Development

Reaching the first birthday is a very exciting time in children’s development. Great changes are occurring both in their physical abilities and in the way they think about things. At this age, children are just learning to walk, to talk and to actively choose what activities they like to do, for example, playing with building blocks, stacking beakers and enjoying sensory experiences like water play. They have endless curiosity about the world around them and their increased mobility helps them to explore, sometimes in places you would rather they didn’t, like the kitchen cupboards! Although at this early age children are not writing, they are still interested in looking at books, drawing pictures and making marks on paper and other writing surfaces with crayons or markers. It is really important that children are experiencing print in books, comics, magazines, and road signs, long before they start school, as this helps to develop the necessary skills they will need later on for writing and spelling.

Motor Development and Pre-Writing Skills

Children aged 1-2 years old see the whole world as one big adventure of discovery and love to explore. At 14 months, Olivia’s parents can see that all of this exploring is helping her to use her fingers and hands effectively, or develop fine motor skills. Being able to co-ordinate eye-hand movements will help Olivia develop the necessary skills for drawing, writing and reading. Olivia is already showing pre-writing skills as she can grasp objects such as building blocks, hold her bottle or a spill-proof cup and hugs her favourite teddy bear. Unfortunately for her parents she is also now able to push little buttons such as those on the remote control, changing the TV channel! These grasping and pressing abilities will help Olivia a little later on to hold a marker or crayon and make her own marks on paper or other writing surfaces.

It is difficult for such young children to grasp small objects such as crayons or markers. Olivia at 9 months would reach out and grab her toys with her palm facing downwards. This is fine for large toys like her teddy or her stacking beakers but will not be any good if she wants to pick up a crayon and make a mark on paper with it. Olivia at 12 months could use her thumb in opposition to her fingers, for example when picking up teddy gripping him by his arm, her thumb under his arm and fingers on top of the arm. However this grip must be a little more sophisticated to hold smaller objects, such as a pencil or crayon. At 13 months, James can effectively pick up tools such as a spoon for his dinner, his hairbrush, and a magnet to put on the refrigerator. James holds these tools by directing his thumb towards the head of the object, for example the bristle part of the brush. This works well when he is using the object on himself, i.e. brushing his hair, However when James has to use the tool in relation to another object, for example to pick up a crayon and write on paper he finds it much more difficult. However, even at 13 months, James is able to hold a pen and make marks on a paper. The sample below shows us that James knows what to do with a pen and paper. Such early attempts at writing are important exercises for children to help develop their fine motor skills and to encourage an interest in writing. James will not fully develop the ability to hold and manipulate a marker or crayon until closer to 2 years of age and will not hold a pencil like his parents until he is closer to 4 years old.

13-month-old James already knows how to make markings with a pen

Researchers have shown that if young children develop effective eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills they are likely to develop good language and reading skills later on. Parents and caregivers can encourage their children to develop these skills by providing them with toys that encourage these grasping and eye-hand skills, for example building blocks, stacking beakers, large chunky jigsaws that have pieces with handles on for easy grasp, and games that involve pushing and pulling, for example pushing the clowns head down into the box and pulling it back up again. As fine motor skills develop you can encourage children to use tools such as hairbrushes, spoons, and cups with handles. When you are cooking give them a smaller mixing bowl and spoon! When ready for writing tools, use thick markers or crayons and short stubby pencils. You can wrap these in rubber bands if your child’s hand keeps slipping.

Cognitive Development and Pre-Writing Skills (13-24 months)

Another really important development that occurs in young toddlers is the ability to use symbols, that is, to allow something to represent or stand for something else, for example that a picture of a tree represents an actual tree in your garden. This is called symbolic representation and will help children develop the ability to write. Michael at 18 months has been learning about symbols from many different experiences. In play he may pretend that one thing is another, for example that a toy phone is a real phone. He may also pretend to be someone else when he is playing with his parents, sister and friends, for example a doctor or a teacher. The ability to use symbols and know about pretence are important pre-literacy skills as Michael will learn as he gets older that marks or print on a page are used to represent actual words, objects and ideas, for example when Michael is older he may write about going to the park with his sister and that written account will be a symbol or representation of the real event and his experience of it. The act of writing itself is also a form of symbolic representation because Michael will have to plan what he wants to say and relate one object to another to achieve this, that is, put crayon to paper and make markings.

As Michael’s understanding of symbols develops so does his knowledge about print. At this early age he is learning about print but he doesn’t know it! This unintentional or unconscious learning occurs when he experiences print in the world around him, on road and shop signs, on bulletin boards, on television and in books and comics. So although he is not intentionally “reading”, when he looks at print he is picking up important information that he will use later, for example about the spaces between words and the shapes of letters. Similarly when he scribbles on paper, trying to copy Mommy as she writes her grocery list, he is not intentionally writing but again is picking up useful knowledge for later like writing from left to right in a horizontal direction. Michael also starts to realise that there is a difference between picture and print and later on, drawing and writing from looking at storybooks with his parents, particularly when Daddy points at the words as he is reading and discusses the pictures with him.

Below are 20 month-old, Rylin’s examples of writing versus drawing. The top image, is a sample of what Rylin did when his mother asked him to write something. The bottom image, Rylin’s mother asked him to draw an airplane. You will note that his “writing” is slightly different from his “drawing”. His writing has more curved lines and the lines are thinner than in his drawing. Rylin’s drawing shows that he was attempting to fill in the lines of his picture by going over and over the lines with his marker. Even at this young age we see evidence that children understand the difference between writing and drawing. Again Rylin is demonstrating the symbolism of pictures, for example, the picture of the airplane represents a real airplane!

20-month-old Rylin writing for his Mom

20-month-old Rylin drawing an airplane

Rylin also makes an amazing discovery at this age: that he can have a lasting impact upon the world! He can make his mark for everyone to see, quite literally, by picking up a crayon, marker or paintbrush and making marks. This experience is so exciting that everything becomes a writing surface, paper, white boards and unfortunately for Rylin’s parents, his bedroom wall and the kitchen table! This leads Rylin to learn important lessons about cause and effect in relation to the world, for example when he picks up a crayon and draws on the wall (cause) this makes marks on the wall (effect) and his Mommy doesn’t look too impressed with him (another effect!).

Parents and caregivers can encourage children’s pre-writing abilities and understanding of symbols by giving children as many print experiences as possible and reading and looking at books. Children love to copy so encourage them to do some drawing or writing when you’re doing some writing. When children are intent on leaving markings everywhere create an environment where they are free to do this without being restricted, so buy washable markers, provide large pieces of paper and white boards that can be wiped down. Keep it fun and remember that children may have difficulty holding pencils and crayons at this young age and because of their short attention span may only want to look at a book or make marks on paper for a minute or two before losing interest. This is fine! All of this exploration will aid the development of writing skills, as your child grows older.

Steffler, D. & Critten, S. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Pre-Writing And Pre-Spelling Development (13 -24 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 – 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 5. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development