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

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Pre-Writing and Pre-Spelling Development (37-48 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

Children start to write from about the age of 24 months. Their first writing is often unintentional as they may have very little awareness or conscious understanding of conventional writing. The more your child practices and the more he or she experiences print in the surrounding world, in books, newspapers, and on road signs and billboards, the more he or she will understand about writing and how to use it to convey meaning. From the age of 37 months onwards, young preschoolers start to form their own ideas about how writing "works" based on common words and word sources they use and see frequently, for example, their name and the names of close family members, favourite books, grocery lists, and so on.

Emergence of Conscious Knowledge about Writing (37-48 months)

Between 3 and 4 years of age children are more than sponges, passively absorbing information from their surroundings. They are now starting to form their own ideas about what writing is and what it can be used for. They are starting to recognize the conventions of writing and that writing is connected to spoken language.

Developing Writing Constraints

By the time children reach 3 years of age, their writing starts to become noticeably different from their drawings. In fact at the age of 37 months, Michael could recognize whether markings were writing as opposed to drawing using three important pieces of information he had acquired: 1. Michael knew that writing tends to consist of straight lines laid out from left to right, 2. Michael knew that words consist of different letters, rather than just the same letter repeated over and over again, 3. Michael knew that words tend to consist of more than one letter. These understandings are known as "constraints" or "conventions" that make writing different from other markings. Michael had made really important progress in beginning to recognize these constraints. This was an exciting time for Michael and his parents and caregivers as they began to explore what he could write on paper.

Children can recognize what writing is before they actually put it into practice themselves, for example they recognize that words should consist of more than one type of letter before they produce words that consist of more than one type of letter. In fact, preschoolers have to take in and understand so much information that sometimes it may appear that your child can do something one week and then have trouble doing the same thing a month later. For example, as three-year-old Trinity tried to adjust to using a regular sized pencil and improve the way in which she held it, her writing was not as neat as it was a few months earlier. Similarly, although she recognized that writing should be laid out in lines from left to right, when she produced new letters she did not always take care to lay them out in that way. Forming the new letters was more difficult than the wavy lines she used to make when she was 33-months-old and imitated Mom's grocery list. The need to concentrate on forming her letters distracted her from the convention to write in a linear fashion from left to right. As a result it may have seemed to Trinity's parents that she had regressed in writing skill but she was actually progressing and making necessary steps in her writing development as she coped with all the new information. You may see similar inconsistencies in your child's development as he or she learns to combine new skills with old ones.

When Trinity first began to say that she was "writing", she made wavy lines in a left to right orderly way, but her letters were not recognizable to her parents. The example below, shows how when Trinity started attempting to make all the letters in her name, she was not as concerned about putting them in a left to right order. She added letters as she thought of them and in a space where they fit on the paper. For example, she started writing her name in the middle of the page with the letter "T". She added the letter "R", which looked more like an "F", because it was difficult for her to manage the circular half of the letter. She made a series of straight lines, one as an "I" and a "Y", and used what she had constructed to make another "T" from the upper left part of the letter "Y". She remembered the "n" but had no room so added it on the left side of her paper. This writing is typical of 37-48 month old children

39-month-old Trinity writes her name


Parents and caregivers can support children through this period of exploration and discovery. Remember that saying that your child's writing is not as good or as neat as it was before may make him or her anxious and possibly reluctant to continue trying to write. Gentle reminders of writing conventions can be provided by laying out magnetic letters from left to right, tracking print in story books with your fingers or by letting your child copy what you have written. Once preschoolers have incorporated the new information their writing will improve again.

Up until 48 months of age the quality of children's writing varies as this uneven type of development continues. The quality of a preschooler's writing may vary dramatically even on the same day! Below is an example of a grocery list made by Trinity on the same day that she wrote the earlier example of her first name. With the grocery list she demonstrated knowledge of left to right linear writing, but did not write recognizable letters as she did when writing her own name.

39-month-old Trinity writes a grocery list


Try not to be concerned if your child shows similar inconsistency. Consider it a sign that your child is working to put together everything he or she knows about writing. Although there may seem to be uneven performance very important learning is occurring necessary for your child's progression towards conventional writing. Olivia's parents have seen this in their daughter's development. At 37 months, there was not a great deal of difference between her single word writing and her long sentence writing. All her markings looked the same to her Dad but when asked what they said Olivia sometimes replied with a single word: "dog" or sometimes a sentence: "We took the dog to the park to play". Olivia also tended to produce similar markings whether Mommy asked her to write a grocery list or a thank you note to Auntie Helen for giving her a birthday present. Olivia did, however, follow the convention of writing her markings from left to right. However at the age of 42 months she became so intent upon writing letters correctly that she sometimes forgot to write left to right. By 48 months, Olivia had worked through this seemingly "messy" stage to produce much more conventional-looking pieces of writing. She wrote from left to right in single straight lines forming symbols that were very like actual letters. Her "letters" were of different heights in the way we would expect if you put a "g" next to an "l" for example, and she also indicated knowledge of words by separating units of her "letters" with spaces. Olivia's "words" tended to consist of three letters and she does not put identical marks next to each other. What a great deal of knowledge she had mastered!

Preschoolers do tend to solve their writing problems in creative ways! For example, Mya's mother asked her to write her name and she proudly produced an "M" on her paper. Her mother coached her by reminding her she had three letters in her name. Mya then produced the second letter of her name, "Y", on another sheet of paper, and then took a third sheet of paper and completed her writing with an "A". At 44 months, Mya knows how to write her full name but was restricted by the size of the paper in actually writing it all on one sheet of paper.

44-month-old Mya writes her name


Below is an example of Trinity writing the word "orange." She knew it began with the letter "O", but her "word" didn't look large enough to represent a word as long as orange. She looked at what she had written and after she had finished she added a dot in the middle of the "O", and said, "It has a spot in the middle so you know it's an orange". She was using a form of combined print and drawing to make her "writing" clearer to herself and to her Mommy. But she seemed to know she needed to explain why she did this because the letter "O" doesn't usually have a spot in the middle.

39-month-old Trinity writes the word "orange"


Young preschoolers do not write the way they do by chance. They have absorbed information about the conventions of the English writing system from the world around them and are already using that knowledge in their early writing. Pretty impressive really! Again this highlights how invaluable it is for children to be exposed to books from an early age, as they are learning many things they will need to know without even being aware of it!

Connecting Oral and Written Language

Probably the single, most important piece of knowledge that enables children to learn how to write is the connection between spoken and written language, that is, what we say and hear corresponds directly to something written on the page. Around 37 months children start this gradual but amazing process of understanding. This understanding is based on children's phonological awareness - that is simply the awareness of speech sounds in words - which also develops during the preschool years. Preschoolers move from awareness of syllables or beats in words (e.g., ba-na-na has 3 syllables), to awareness of common sound units in words like rhyming patterns (e.g., cat and hat share the -at pattern), and finally to awareness of specific sounds in words. For more information on the development of phonological awareness, see (Language Caregiver 37-60 months).

Michael's development as a young preschooler gives us a window into the process of connecting spoken and written language. He started to read by following the line of print in his storybook using his finger and stopping his finger at the same time he finished "reading" aloud. Michael was trying to make a connection between what he was saying and the marks laid out in the story. Later he came to realise that these connections were not random; specific parts of the print related back to specific words that were said, for example "Once upon a time" relates to the first four units of text. This understanding transferred to his writing. Before she started to understand the connections between how words sounded and how they were printed, Michael represented large objects with long strings of letters, for example car was given a longer letter string than cat because it was a bigger object. However at 46 months he used a longer letter string for a word that sounded longer regardless of the object's size, for example alligator was now given a longer letter string than lion. Michael was starting to realize that he could use writing to communicate meaning and was attempting to show the differences among spoken words in his writing.

In other example, 44-month-old Mya demonstrated her growing understanding that what she heard was connected to print in the example below. When her mother asked her what she wrote in this sample, Mya exclaimed, "That is music", and then began singing what she had written, pointing to the higher points in her string of writing with a higher pitch in her voice and the lower points in her writing with a lower pitch in her voice. Towards the end of her string of writing she hummed a more consistent tune, as is evident in the consistent height of her writing. This example shows how important it is for parents and caregivers to not only look at their child's finished product, but also to ask the child what he or she has written. Asking questions will help you understand what your child understands about writing.

44-month-old Mya writes music


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. Children at 37-48 months tend to be at the second stage of learning to spell, called variously by different researchers, the early letter name, semiphonetic or early phonemic stage of spelling development. Early letter name reflects the fact that children are now not only forming recognizable letters but they will use more than one letter to represent a word, tend not to repeat identical letters one after another and tend to use three or four letters per word.

By 48 months Olivia was writing a variety of letters when forming her words tending to favour the letters most familiar to her, such as those in her name. She knew that writing is used to convey meaning, for example she might use her line of writing to communicate how she took her dog to the park. She also knew that each letter has a meaning and sometimes used the letters of her own name (plus others familiar to her) to form other words, so "words" in her sentences might look like this: Olv, Oisl, Oal and so on. Parents and caregivers can support children's growing understanding of what letters go together in the English writing system by exposing them to as much print as possible, especially in story books. When writing, young preschoolers can now be encouraged to use regular sized pencils as their fine motor skills have improved and to start to use the curves, lines and circles they have been practising to form actual letters. Try using the child's name as a base and forming other words that use some of the same letters. Play "Spot the Letter" with your children when looking at books, so they can quickly recognize the letters they are practising. Young preschoolers will also be able to start copying writing now, so if parents and caregivers form simple words in large letters, their children can attempt to copy these underneath.

The terms semiphonetic and early phonemic are used to convey the fact that children are now starting to make connections between speech sounds (phonemes) and print. From 37 months Michael followed print with his finger as he attempted to read his storybook and when writing, used spaces between each series of letters to indicate separate words. By 48 months Michael started to use the letter that sounds like the initial letter of a word to represent that word, for example O for orange and F for phone.

Parents and caregivers play an important role in helping young children to take these early important steps of connecting speech sounds to print. For tips on helping your preschooler learn about the connections between spoken language and print, see (Helping Preschoolers Learn Connections between Speech and Print).

Steffler, D. & Critten, S. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Pre-Writing And Pre-Spelling Development (37-48 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