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

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Pre-Writing and Pre-Spelling Development (25-36 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

Most children do not try to write before the age of 25 months. When children do start to write, they do it unintentionally or implicitly. This means that your child may try to imitate Mommy in writing a letter or grocery list, or copy something he or she has seen in the surrounding world, such as in books, newspapers, and on road signs and billboards. Copying is an early writing and spelling activity. It is not until children have had more experience with words and go to school that they will start to produce conventional writing. However, the journey to beginning writing and spelling begins much earlier than school age. It is important for parents and caregivers to realize that even toddlers' markings with pencils and crayons are the beginning of learning how to write and spell.

Early Awareness of Writing (26-36 Months)

Children's minds are like sponges. They notice everything! Just as your child will pick up how to use the T.V. remote control, he or she will also imitate Mommy, Daddy, caregivers, and other children in drawing and writing and using a pencil. Between 25 and 36 months of age, children begin to notice that writing is a bit different from drawing pictures, and they will try to write and spell for the first time. In fact, one of the first things they often attempt to write is their own name.

How Children's Writing Differs From Drawing

Toddlers find it really fun to make marks on many different surfaces, even the places parents rather they did not! Olivia, at 30 months, will use a marker pen, crayon, or even mum's lipstick to mark paper, walls, windows and bathtubs, thoroughly enjoying what she has done. These markings that toddlers make are important steps in learning to write. One of their important discoveries is that writing leaves a "permanent" trace. Unlike playing or talking, writing is something they can do that does not vanish as soon as it is finished. This is an exciting discovery! At the beginning, what young children produce is not intentional, but none-the-less tremendously important in helping them to learn about writing and develop a positive attitude toward writing.

At 36 months, Michael can now tell the difference between a drawing of something versus scribbles, numbers or letters. Also if you ask him to write or pretend to write, a word, such as car, what he writes will look very different from his drawings. Olivia's attempts at writing show she is trying to imitate print, as she will produce strings of wavy lines or circles and sticks. Olivia was supported in developing these skills, as her parents encouraged her to practice making shapes commonly used in letters such as straight lines, curves and circles. Even when Olivia was as young as 25 months, her mother provided lots of writing tools that were easy for her to grasp such as thick, stubby pens and pencils and normal pencils wrapped in rubber bands that prevented Olivia from losing her grip. Washable markers also eliminated the need to worry about Olivia making a mess! Mom provided large pieces of paper and show-cased her work on the refrigerator and the family bulletin board so Olivia felt good about her abilities. Even though Olivia says she does not know how to write, she is making important first steps.

Olivia also shows different hand and arm movements depending on whether she is drawing or writing. When drawing she tends to make big, wide circular movements with her pen or pencil across the paper. She also may not be intending to draw anything in particular and will only tell you it is a man, a sun or tree when she has finished and has had a chance to look at it properly! If you watch her, it is almost as though she has surprised herself by what she has created. When writing, Olivia tends to do everything a bit more deliberately than when she is drawing. So her use of the pencil becomes less free and easy, she is more likely to lift the pencil off the page and do this more often than when she is drawing. Olivia also shows quite a lot of concentration when writing, keeping her head close to the page and grasping her pencil tightly. Another clue that she is writing is the absence of colour pens and pencils, she tends to only use these when drawing. Therefore, although it may not be obvious whether your child produced a drawing or a piece of writing there are clues to look for that suggest your child has begun to understand that there is a difference between drawing and writing.

Parents and caregivers can encourage children to practice their writing once they begin to show an interest. Always listen and praise children when they say they have written something. Ask them to tell you what they have written. Do not tell them they have done it wrong or that you cannot "read" it. Confidence and enthusiasm is so important when encouraging children's early writing.

Invented Writing

We often assume that when we write it must mean something. However, 25- to 36-month-old children may not realize that writing is meant for communication. They will often use drawings instead for this purpose. Their writing is referred to as undifferentiated writing as they may attempt to write but not yet understand that it has meaning. So, if they use drawings, it does not mean that these older toddlers are not trying to figure out what writing is for and how they can use it.

As Michael reaches 36 months he begins to realize that writing follows certain patterns. It looks a certain way, although his own markings do not refer to specific objects such as a person or a toy. Michael tries to imitate what he sees other people doing when they write. He starts making lines from left to right and there are spaces between "blocks" of writing. Michael is displaying invented writing as the way he uses lines and lays them out on the page mimics the actual appearance of writing.

At this age Michael is also attempting to write individual letters. Interestingly, he will not try to invent letters and therefore although his attempts may not be accurate, the shapes resemble those of actual letters he has seen in the world around him. This resemblance means that the more time children can spend looking at print; either on signs, in books and comics, or other places, the more they will learn without even realizing it. Children love to imitate Mommy and Daddy. Michael will say that he is writing a grocery list or a telephone message using a series of wavy lines or letters laid out across a page. If he is writing about larger objects, for example an elephant, he will tend to use a longer wavy line or a larger scribble because elephants are really big, compared to a smaller animal, like a cat.

These early forms of writing where Michael is unconsciously copying things he has seen in the world around him are a very important part of learning to write. Michael's scribbles and markings, his invented writing over time will become recognizable writing where he will try to communicate meaning.

Writing Their Own Name

There is something special about a child's name. Indeed, the first word that Trinity, 33 months of age, attempted to write is her own name, especially the first letter. Trinity refers to T as her very "own" letter and T is the first letter she produces that her parents are able to recognize. Because Trinity is so naturally focused on learning to write the letter T she will also find it easier to write letters with straight lines such as N and Y than letters with curved lines such as C, O, and P. Michael also finds it is easier to write letters with straight lines because the letter M is made of straight lines rather than curves. Olivia will have a preference for and find it easier to make the letter O and letters with curved lines such as C and P.

Children's names are a great place to begin teaching them to write, as it is a word that interests them and they are motivated to want to know how to write it. The skills they develop in doing this will then help them to write other letters.

33-month-old Trinity writes her name

Writing Individual Words: Stages of Developmental Spelling

Researchers will often use stages to describe how children learn to write or "spell" single words. Many children will actually show signs of the first two or three stages of beginning spelling before they go into Grade 1 and before they are formally taught to spell. Even though 25- to 36-month-old children are not actually writing whole words they are at the first stage of learning how to spell.

Different researchers tend to use different names to identify their own theory of how spelling develops. The names spelling researchers use for this first stage are the precommunicative, prephonemic or emergent stage of spelling. The terms precommunicative and emergent are used because older toddlers do not necessarily attach specific meanings to the marks they are putting on paper, even though they have an idea of what writing should look like. Prephonemic, or "before sound", is used because children around the age of 25-36 months are not really thinking about how words sound in relation to what they are "writing", but rather simply imitating what they see others do.

Between 30-36 months Olivia started writing actual letters that her parents could recognise and identify correctly. She also tended to use one letter to reflect one word, for example she wrote her name as "O". She preferred to use capital letters such as "T" compared to small letters such as "t" because she found them easier to write. To avoid confusion it is better to explain to your child one form of a letter (either uppercase like T or lowercase like t) rather than both forms at the same time. Olivia also preferred to use letters that she saw often. Her Mom's name is Carol, so Olivia liked to write "C" calling it "Mommy's letter" and her Dad's name is Sam so she liked to write "S" calling it "Daddy's letter". Olivia was also able to write from left to right across a piece of paper.

Although Michael, who is three months older than Olivia, is not yet able at this stage to make connections between individual sounds and their letters, for example the "mmm" sound for the "M" at the start of his name, he is able to produce forms that his parents and caregivers recognise as his attempts at words. For example, he uses spaces between his "words" whether that consists of a single letter or wavy lines. He is therefore beginning to make a connection between the spoken word and what is written which is a tremendously important concept for children to grasp as they begin the journey towards spelling as we know it.

Stages can be useful in identifying milestones as children learn to write and spell words. Keep in mind, however, that each child is an individual and unique so your child may not go through the stages in the same way and at the same time as another child. By knowing where your child is at, you can help him or her progress to the next level.

It is important that children have many opportunities to practice their writing. Two-year-olds cannot be expected to have the fine-motor skills to hold a normal pencil. Provide them with larger easily held ones and erasable markers and large writing surfaces. Toddlers may not enjoy sitting at a table for any length of time. They may not even show an interest in writing. They should still be encouraged. Because children love to imitate, have them beside you when you are writing a letter or making a grocery list. Give them a pencil and paper to write their own grocery list while you are preparing yours.

Parents and caregivers can also encourage their children to form letters using pastry, play dough, and sand. For example, when baking you can use pastry to form letter shapes, or when playing in the sand use your fingers to make letters in the sand. Practice with the first letter of their name, parents' and siblings' names. Later, you can introduce writing on paper. Make learning fun and children will not even realise they are learning!

Steffler, D. & Critten, S. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Pre-writing and Pre-spelling Development 25 - 36 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 3. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development