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

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Pre-Writing and Pre-Spelling Development (49-60 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

Around their fourth birthdays children start producing what adults might consider conventional or recognizable writing. Between four and five years of age, your child will come to be more fully aware of how print "works". From their experiences with print, older preschoolers develop their own ideas of what writing looks like, for example, writing goes from right to left on the page, there are spaces between words, words tend to consist of at least three letters, and the same letters rarely occur next to each other in a word. They also start to understand that they can communicate meaning through writing, for example, a grocery list relates to the food that Mommy wants to buy at the store. Older preschoolers also begin to realise that what is written can be connected to what is spoken and therefore they start to make progress in understanding that each letter sound we hear can be written as one or more letters. This understanding that sounds can be represented with letters is called the alphabetic principle and it is a milestone for children learning how to read and write. Older preschoolers are just beginning to understand this sound-letter connection. Knowledge of the alphabetic principle becomes more and more refined when children go to school and receive formal instruction from their teachers.

Ongoing Development of Conscious Knowledge about Writing

Four- to five-year-old children are making great progress in figuring out how writing "works" and what it is used for. It is an exciting time for them as early writers because they are starting to see how they can use writing to convey meaning and attempt to connect what they have written to spoken language. They are not just imitating what they have seen in the world around them, they are starting to "own" and take control of their writing.

Older preschoolers make major steps in the way they view themselves and other people, gradually becoming more aware of other people's thoughts and feelings. For example, at 36 months, Olivia believed that other people thought and felt exactly the same way as she did. This led to tantrums as her older brother didn't always want to watch the same TV programme as she did! However, now that Olivia is four-and-a-half-years old she realizes that other people may think differently than she does about something, for example, she now understands that her brother does not always enjoy the same programmes she does! Olivia is beginning to understand the difference between her subjective perspective of the world (what she thinks and feels) and the objective perspective of the world (how other people might think and feel). This change in understanding that something outside them has a meaning that might be different than what they are thinking is an important developmental milestone because it helps older preschoolers understand that meaning in writing resides in the print, and not necessarily in their own heads.

Between four and five years of age children begin to understand that what is written possesses a meaning that can be communicated to anyone who can read it. When she was younger, Olivia thought what she had written could only ever mean something to her! Now, Olivia realizes that if Mommy and Daddy are to understand that she has written about different things, the pieces of writing must also look different. Olivia has started to show variety in her pieces of writing. Although she tends to use the letters most familiar to her from her name and the names of her Mommy and Daddy, she has started to put the letters in different orders to show her parents that while one piece of writing is about taking her dog to the park, another piece of writing is a grocery list. As she learns other letters, Olivia starts to include them in her writing.

Below is a sample of 49-month-old Faith's letter to her mother. Note that she has included many Fs in her writing, some As, a few Hs, a T, some Ds and Ms (probably for Daddy and Mommy), and some Bs, as there is a B in Faith's last name. At the top left of her writing you can decipher "I love (spelled with a heart) Mommy (spelled Ma)". Faith uses many familiar letters in her writing, mostly from her own name; she has multiple letters in each "word" and rarely puts two identical letters side-by-side.

49-month-old Faith writes a letter to her Mommy

Faith is making great progress in her understanding of how to write. She is forming many recognizable letters, understands that writing conveys meaning, demonstrates left to right directionality, and includes spaces indicating that she understands the concept of a word. It is important for parents and caregivers to support children in the journey of learning how to write. One way to do this is to avoid saying that two pieces of writing look the same if your children tell you they have written about different things - simply ask them to read both aloud for you!

Connecting Oral and Written Language

From the age of three, children start to realize that there is a link between writing and spoken language. They come to understand that anything that we say can be written. This oral to written language connection is a complicated concept for children to grasp and knowledge develops gradually. In the following sections, we will follow a young boy named Michael through his discovery of the connections between oral and written language.

Children's First Connections Between Speech and Print

At first, children begin to make general links between speech and print. At 46 months Michael began to follow the words in his storybook using his finger when he was attempting to "read" aloud. He was trying to connect what he was saying to the marks on the page. He made a major leap in understanding when he started to realize that each word he said linked directly to each separate word on the page. You may see signs of your child developing this type of understanding when he or she tries to touch a word on the page every time a word is read, perhaps becoming puzzled if he or she reaches the end of the written line but still has words to say! Other children may comment on the number of words they see on signs or labels.

Children's phonological awareness - that is, simply the awareness of speech sounds - typically begins to develop during the preschool years, Children 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. They typically develop an awareness of the beginning sounds of words before they are able to detect each individual sound in a word. For example, Michael knew that his name started with the letter 'M' and could say the 'm' sound well before he understood the sounds in his name as "M-i-k-l". Developing an awareness of the speech sounds in words is critical for learning to read, spell and write because this awareness helps children learn and master the connections between speech and print. For more information on the development of phonological awareness, see (Language Caregiver 37-60 months).

Letter-Sound Correspondence

Eventually children realize that not only are there links between spoken words and written words but there are also links between individual sounds and letters. At 48 months, Michael realized that the letter M at the start of his name sounds like "mmmm". He then started to try and include in his writing the sound differences he could hear in words. You may see similar signs of development in your child.

At this point, Michael's parents could see a major difference in his writing as he tried to connect sound to parts of words or individual letters. It is a complicated process to understand and Michael worked very hard in order to get there! By 54 months he had made important progress towards conventional spelling by learning all the letter names, not just those from his name and his parents' names. He then used the letter names to understand the sounds that link to them, for example, "sssss" and S, "fffff" and F. Michael found sound-letter connections easiest when the connections between the spoken word and the letters were quite obvious and his parents worked with him on making these connections. A good example of this is the word peas; as Michael readily knew that he needed a letter P to represent that word because he could hear the letter name "P" as part of the word. On the other hand, he had more difficulty understanding that he needed a letter P in the word pig, because he did not hear the letter name P in that word. Using letter names to understand the sounds that link to them is a common strategy among preschoolers. Watch and listen to your child as he or she begins to attempt to use letters to represent speech. Does he or she seem to be helped by using the names of the letters as clues to their sounds?

Michael's knowledge of how letters and sounds connect was seen by his parents in his spelling before his reading. He found it easier to use two letter spellings for words that sounded more like the actual word, for example, OT for "oat" therefore showing that his knowledge of letters and sounds was starting to help him with his spelling. This strategy was also apparent in the type of spelling errors that Michael made as they tended to make some kind of sense according to the sounds in the word, for example, the word sold was commonly written as sod or solld. Both errors are reasonable ways of spelling sold given how the word sounds. However, Michael did not make this type of error when reading showing that the sounds of letters were not as important yet for his reading as they were for his spelling. If reading the word sold, typical errors might be said or sand. Although both these words begin with S they do not really sound much like sold.

Below is an example of Michael's writing at 60 months. He is writing a story titled "By the Stream" inspired by a storybook his Daddy read to him about the characters "Kipper", "Wilf" and "Chip". At 60 months, he is already writing in a readable format with many correctly spelled words. He begins "Mum and Dad had a picknic". He then explains that "Kiper and Wilf went to find them". He completes his story with "Chip went to". Even Michael's spelling errors bear a close resemblance to the correct versions, for example, "to" and too, "picknic" and picnic indicating it is now becoming easier for him to link sounds to letters when spelling.

60-month-old Michael writes a story about a picnic by the stream

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. Different researchers tend to use different names to identify their own theory of how spelling develops. Most children aged 49-60 months are in the semiphonetic, early phonemic or early letter-name stage of spelling development. The terms semiphonetic and early phonemic are used as children are now starting to make connections between speech and print. You can use the following examples to help you estimate what stage of beginning spelling your child has achieved.

At 36 months, Olivia was writing letters that her parents could recognise and used one letter to represent a whole word, for example, O for Olivia. By 48 months she was now able to use more than one letter to form her "words' and she also employed a variety of different letters. However from 49 months she progressed into the semiphonetic, early phonemic or early letter-name stage of spelling development as she began to understand that letters are connected to sounds and we can use this link to spell words.

At 54 months Olivia was using sounds to write words and she tended to rely on these letters that made the most "noise", for example, M for the "mmmm" in Mommy. She also found it easier to consonants in the words before the vowels, so M came long before O in Mommy. In fact by the age of 60 months Olivia still included few vowels in her writing. Olivia also tended to be able to hear and therefore write the first and last sounds of a word first, for example, the S and T in soft before she was able to hear and write the O and F.

At 60 months Michael tries to spell words by working out what sounds he can hear in the word. If he has trouble doing this he tends to use how the sound "feels" in his mouth as he speaks the word. Therefore he tends to spell dry in words such as draw using the letter J as this comes from the same part of his mouth. He is making great progress as he also includes clear spaces between words as he writes because he realises that each spoken word is represented as a separate unit when he is writing it on the page. This is a sign that he will soon start to develop the ability to sound out the letters in the middle of words and not just those at the beginning and the end.

Stages can be useful in identifying milestones as children learn to write/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. For tips on helping your preschooler learn about the connections between spoken language and print, see (Helping Preschoolers Learn Connections between Speech and Print).

Gender Differences in Writing

It is often thought that girls tend to be better than boys at reading, writing and spelling and therefore many parents and caregivers are interested in finding out whether this is true. There is some evidence to suggest that girls score higher on reading and writing assessments but less is known about what may cause these differences.

When comparing Olivia and Michael aged 49 months some differences could be seen. Olivia was a little ahead of Michael in terms of the quality of her speech, her ability to recognise common words, and her early reading abilities. When talking, Olivia tended to provide more detail about what she did on the weekend, saying "We went to the park with Molly our dog and we played on the swings" compared to Michael who said "I played at the park". Olivia was also able to name more letters and sounds correctly. However, there were actually no differences between Olivia and Michael in their ability to write, their view of how good they were at writing or the strategies they used to read and write. It has therefore been suggested that if girls are sometimes slightly ahead of boys it is because they are more interested in reading and writing than boys are and not because they are actually "better". In fact, Olivia and her girl friends enjoy books, reading, writing and talking while Michael and his boy friends prefer more active play such as sports.

Children's views of reading and writing will come from their life experiences, both at home and at school. Some of these experiences may lead boys to think that reading, writing and spelling is more of a "girl thing". Children tend to imitate what their parent of the same sex does at home. Therefore as Michael's Mommy tends to read more than his Daddy, he associates the activity more with girls. Sometimes the characters in storybooks will influence what children think about reading and writing. Olivia reads a story about girls who go to a boarding school and who are very clever and is presented with role models of girls who read. Particular types of stories may influence girls and boys differently. If Michael and Olivia's teacher always uses stories that have quite female themes, e.g. princesses locked in towers and does not balance this with stories that have more traditional male themes, e.g. pirates, dragons, then Michael may start to think that reading and books are for girls. Similarly, Michael's teachers tend to be female so they have to take care to use stories that will interest boys like him.

You can do many things to help boys realize that reading is for everyone, not just girls. It is always important to remember that there are no real differences in ability it's just that girls tend to be naturally more interested in reading and writing. The key therefore is getting boys interested! A good place to start is to make sure that boys see Daddy and other male role models (brother, grandfathers, uncles, and so on) reading and writing and to actively encourage boys in their reading and writing development. Praise a boy for writing just as much as you would for scoring a goal in soccer! Boys should also be encouraged to do a wide range of activities so they don't just get stuck playing with cars, for example. The more things boys can try, cooking, drawing, gardening for example, the more likely they will be to try writing activities because they will not just see themselves as the one who plays with Lego but does not "do" reading/writing. Finally, many popular books for children, especially fairy tales, may interest girls more than boys. Therefore, it is really worthwhile to find books and comics, or create stories around subjects that will interest your son, for example, favourite sports team, or pirates and other adventure stories. There is no reason why boys should not love reading and writing just as much as girls, it just may take a little more searching for books and subjects that catch their imagination.

Steffler, D., & Critten, S. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Pre-Writing and Pre-Spelling Development (49 - 60 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