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

Turning one year old marks major changes in children's physical and cognitive development. One-year-old children are just learning to walk, to talk, to initiate activities they enjoy, and are continually developing interest in their surroundings. Writing at this age is not producing letters, but developing an interest in print activities, including an interest in books, drawing, and using writing tools to make marks. Children like to imitate their parents and their siblings. Exposing toddlers to print materials is as important at one year of age as it is when they are in school. Even if they do not seem interested in writing activities, young toddlers are already developing important skills that lay the foundation for later writing and spelling abilities.

Motor Development and Pre-Writing Skills

As 1- to 2-year-old children explore their environment, they are developing important fine motor skills that will assist them in learning to draw, to write, and to read as they become older. Coordinating eye-hand movements forms the basis for pre-writing skills. At 13 months of age, toddlers have already learned to grasp objects, to hold their bottle or spill-proof cup, to hug their favorite teddy bear, and probably how to push the buttons on the television remote control. These are milestones that children have most likely mastered by their first birthday that will lead to developing the skills necessary to hold a marker or crayon and learn to make their own markings on a writing surface.

It is no small feat for a 13-month-old child to grasp a small object, such as a crayon or marker. Typically, 9- to 12-month-old infants will grasp an object with their palms facing downward (Connolly & Dalgleish, 1989). Such a grasp makes it difficult to hold a writing instrument at the necessary angle to make marks. At 9- to 12-months of age, infants are able to use their thumb in opposition to their fingers, but their fingers act in unison. Around 1 year of age toddlers are developing the ability to use their thumb in opposition to their forefinger, thus allowing them to grasp very small objects, such as a writing instrument. McCarty, Clifton, and Collard (2001) reported that around 14 months of age toddlers demonstrated effective grasp of a tool such as a spoon, a hairbrush, a hammer, or a magnet. Children between 14 and 24 months of age most often used a radial grip to grasp a tool, that is, they hold the handle of the tool with the thumb directed toward the head of the tool. Using the tool directed toward self was easier than directed toward an object, as is required when writing or drawing. The ability to effectively hold and use a writing instrument emerges in the latter half of a child's second year of life and does not resemble an adult's grasp until close to 4 years of age (Greer & Lockman (1998).

Researchers often use measures of very young children's motor coordination as predictors of later cognitive functioning. Siegel (1992) investigated the reliability of the Bayley Mental Development Index (MDI) (Bayley, 1969) in predicting cognitive development at 6 and 8 years of age. Of particular interest in developing literacy skills, Siegel reported that very young children's' performance on a subscale of the MDI that measures eye-hand coordination, for example, reaching for an object or putting cubes in a cup, at 8, 12, 18, and 24 months predicted IQ and reading scores at 6 and 8 years of age. Similarly, a child's ability to imitate, for example, imitating crayon strokes, at 8, 12, 18, and 24 months predicted IQ and reading ability at 8 years of age. Siegel also suggested that the development of the nervous system in a child's second year of life may be related to later language functions in childhood.

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

One of the major cognitive developments for young toddlers is the emergence of the ability to use symbols, that is, to allow one thing to stand for something else. This symbolic representation is an important pre-cursor to developing the ability to write. Children learn symbolic representation through play, through interaction with parents, caregivers, siblings, and peers. Symbolic representation is the cornerstone of literacy as the marks on a page stand for ideas, for words, and for objects in their environment. Even the act of intentionally using a writing tool to make marks on a writing surface demonstrates symbolic representation because such an act involves relating one object to another and requires advanced planning with the goal of using the crayon or pencil for a specific purpose (McCarty et al., 2001).

Karmiloff-Smith's (1990) model of children's cognitive development explains the development of implicit to explicit knowledge. She highlights the importance of how mental representation (i.e., knowledge) changes over time and with experience. Initially, infants and toddlers learn about print in an implicit way. Their knowledge representations mimic what they see in their environment. They do not intentionally or consciously "read" a book or "write" on a paper. However, they are learning about print and what it is used for. They will pick up a crayon and attempt to scribble, as they see others writing. As parents and caregivers read to infants and toddlers, they will learn to identify the difference between pictures and print, between drawing and writing. It is important to provide children with positive and many experiences with books, crayons, water-colours, and markers. With exposure and constant interaction their understanding of print will become increasingly more complex and flexible, thus paving the way for the development of implicit to explicit knowledge of writing.

The happy realization that marks leave a visible trace is an exciting discovery for the 13- to 24-month-old child. Once young toddlers discover this, they will want to make marks on many writing surfaces, as this is a time of discovery and exploration, of trial-and-error learning that leads to understanding cause-and-effect relationships. Flavell, Miller, and Miller (2002) suggested that this active exploration and learning about cause-and-effect relationships coincides with children's acquisition of simple tool-use, such as a writing instrument. It is important to provide young toddlers with the tools and materials they can use in a way that is fun and not restrictive, keeping in mind that children of this age have a short attention span and may not have the dexterity to hold a pencil or crayon properly. Nonetheless, active trial-and-error enables infants and young toddlers to accomplish new behaviours that lead to purposeful writing in the following months.

Steffler, D. & Critten, S. (2008). Research Review: 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 - 3. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development