As children interact with the world around them, their writing abilities develop along a continuum from emergent to more conventional writing. This pathway is not exactly the same for each child because children develop differently due to a variety of factors that will be discussed below. This was apparent in Mr. Jenbere’s and Ms. Daryl’s classroom with Arzu, who was scribbling, and Hasan, who was using his knowledge of letters and sounds to write. Both were 4-year-olds writing a thank you note. However, procedurally, they were at different places along the continuum in terms of the writing they produced.
Although children’s developmental pathways vary by individual child, understanding children’s writing progressions can help educators as they assess children’s writing abilities, plan instruction, and provide a variety of learning experiences. In this section, we use the framework from Virginia’s Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS): Birth-Five Learning Guidelines to frame our discussion (see Table 9.1). In this framework, emergent writing skills are organized into three categories: writing to communicate, developing writing habits and skills, and handling writing tools. In each of these categories, the development of specific skills is broadly organized by age ranges. These age ranges are intended to provide a general understanding of typical progressions and are not to suggest that there is a simple linear progression of writing abilities. In actuality, children’s writing progresses as they increase their use of more advanced writing strategies and decrease their use of less advanced writing skills (Rowe & Wilson, 2015). For example, as children begin to use conventional letters, they may continue to scribble and use letter-like forms. Over time, they will decrease their use of scribbles and letter-like forms and will increase their use of conventional letters. For this reason, it is important to keep in mind that, although writing is a sequenced progression, there will be variability among children, as well as within children, as they are progressing along the continuum (Rowe & Wilson, 2015).
9.3a Writing to Communicate
As was evident in Mr. Jenbere’s and Ms. Daryl’s classroom, young children begin to understand that writing is a means to communicate thoughts, stories, information, and opinions. At an early age, children realize they can create drawings and make scribbles that they can then read to others (Bruyere, 2020). They come to understand that writing is intentional and is used to convey meaning (Rowe & Wilson, 2015). As their writing becomes more intentional, they begin to write for a variety of purposes and audiences and become more aware of the need to write so others can read their writing (Bruyere, 2020; Rowe & Wilson, 2015). They also become more cognizant of how the content of their writing varies depending on social expectations (Rowe & Wilson, 2015). For example, they learn what to include when they write a birthday card for a classmate or a story about a walk their family took in the park. Young children also develop a sense of ownership over their writing and begin to develop their identity as a writer (Bruyere, 2020; Kissel & Miller, 2015; Rowe, 2018).
Emergent Writing Development: Writing to Communicate
The development of writing to communicate is detailed in the Massachusetts Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers The guidelines state that “The infant develops emergent writing skills” (see page 34) and “The toddler develops emergent writing skills” (see page 117).
These guidelines include Indicators and Suggested Supportive Learning Experiences as well.
Further, the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences outline the standards for preschoolers regarding writing to communicate. The guidelines state that children at this age and stage of development ”Use a combination of dictating and drawing to tell a story“ (see page 57). This guideline is a sample of several guidelines for writing to communicate.
These guidelines include Possible Learning Activities, Evidence of Learning, and Supportive Practices.
Young children’s journey as writers begins at an early age when they move from making accidental markings with little to no motor control to moving their forearm to make large intentional scribbles (Rowe & Wilson, 2015). As children’s fine motor skills develop, they use their hand and wrist movements to make more refined scribbles (see Figure 9.2). These scribbles initially represent objects and then begin to represent ideas, words, and phrases. As children’s writing progresses, they scribble in a more linear manner using spaces between their scribbles, up-and-down looping motions, circles, waves, swoops, and zig zags. Over time, they add letters, which may be written backwards or upside down, to their scribbles and letter-like forms. Scribbles are eventually replaced with conventional capital and lower-case letters; however, there is no correspondence between letters and sounds (Rowe & Wilson, 2015).
Pause and Reflect: Scribbles, Letter-Like Symbols, and Letter Formations
In Figure 9.2, there are three preschool writing samples. Use the writing continuum above to analyze the children’s writing. Consider the following questions:
- What do you notice about these writing samples?
- What aspects of the descriptions about scribbling and letters do you see in these samples?
- What do you notice about the drawings?
- What does their writing show about what they know?
Figure 9.2 Scribbles, Letter-Like Symbols, and Letter Formations
Moving Toward Using Letter
Children also start to write their name and other words or phrases they have memorized (Rowe & Wilson, 2015). They learn to write their full name in English, for example, using capital and lowercase letters written from left to right. They also recognize their name as separate from their writing and that their name indicates ownership of what they produced. In addition, they begin to use conventional letters to write words and phrases they have memorized, like family members’ names, and phrases, such as, “I like cake.” They also begin to copy numbers, letters, and words from the environment into their writing.
Eventually, children start to write letters and groups of specific letters to represent their ideas as they use their growing knowledge of letters and sounds to write words, phrases, and sentences (Rowe & Wilson, 2015). This practice is often referred to as invented spelling. Initially, children tend to represent words using the initial letter sound (see Figure 9.3). For example, they might use “k” to represent “car” or “b” to represent “ball.” As children progress, they may write the initial and the final sounds (e.g., bk for bike) and eventually add middle consonant sounds (e.g, ktn for kitten). They add vowels (e.g., babe for baby) and begin to use correct spelling of some words (e.g., sat) as they move toward more conventional spelling.
Children are also developing understanding about directionality as their writing progresses (Rowe & Wilson, 2015). During the early years, children are learning how print is positioned on a page and the direction that print is written and read. For example, in English, children learn to write from left to right, move to the next line, and begin on the left again. Initially, children may place marks and scribbles anywhere on the paper. As they start to develop an understanding that writing is presented in a linear format, they may write from right to left horizontally or from top to bottom vertically. As children gain writing experience, they will begin to show more conventional directional patterns as they write.
Pause and Reflect: Letter-Sound Correspondence
In Figure 9.3, there are three prekindergarten writing samples. Use the writing continuum above to analyze the children’s writing. Consider the following questions:
- What do you notice about these writing samples?
- What aspects of the descriptions about letters and words do you see in these samples?
- What do you notice about the drawings?
- What does their writing show about what they know?
Figure 9.3 Letter-Sound Correspondence
9.3b Developing Writing Habits and Skills
As children develop their ability to communicate through writing, they also develop writing habits and skills. These writing habits and skills initially include showing interest in writing and experimenting with writing tools, such as crayons, markers, and touchscreen tablets. In addition, children begin to share drawings and writings with others as they become more aware of their audience and begin to see writing as a socially negotiated act between the writer and the audience (Kissel, 2018). They also develop their identity and voice as writers and gain greater insights into the power of writing (Kissel & Miller, 2015). Initially, they may orally label or explain the objects they draw. Over time, they begin to use their writing to represent and communicate ideas, stories, information, and opinions.
As children represent their ideas in writing, they develop an understanding of writing as a process (Kissel et al., 2011). They become aware that they can plan, draft, revise, edit, and share their writing (Kidd et al., 2014). They learn that planning involves selecting a topic and generating ideas. As children talk, listen, and observe, they gather topics and ideas for writing. Children also plan what they want to write through their drawings. As children draw and add details to their drawings, they generate ideas that they can convey orally as well as through scribbles, letter-like forms, letters, words, phrases, and sentences.
Young children gather ideas for their drawings and writing from their own lives. They draw and write about their everyday and special activities, family and friends, stories that have been read to them and/or that they have seen on media, and content they are learning at home and in school (e.g., plants, weather, recycling, etc.). They are also influenced by the thoughts and interests of their peers. As they see their friends draw and write about trucks, they, too, might become interested in drawing and writing about trucks. In addition, adults may have an effect on what children draw and write. For example, children whose family members write letters or emails to friends might decide to write their own letter or email. Likewise, children whose teachers model writing about the plants growing in the classroom might develop an interest in writing about the plants.
As they write and share, interactions with their peers may prompt children to revise their plans. For example, one day, Richelle decided she was going to write about swimming and had started to draw a picture of a swimming pool. As she drew, she noticed Arzu was busy writing invitations to a party. This new idea intrigued her. After a brief conversation with Arzu, Richelle decided to revise her writing plans to include writing an invitation for Arzu to go swimming with her.
Young children also revise and edit as they write (Kidd et al., 2014). Revisions can occur while writing or can be details that are added, deleted, or changed at a later time. For example, a child might add more details to a story as he looks at his picture and realizes there is more to say or might decide to take his sister out of the story because he remembered he was mad at her. A child could also change her mind and decide that the ball is blue rather than red or that there are two balls rather than one. Children’s revisions are often influenced by their peers and adults as they interact with the writing. For example, once Richelle decided to write an invitation, she added Arzu to the picture of the pool. Using letter-like forms and some letters, she wrote, “Will you go with me?” After looking at her picture, she added additional writing to include “to the pool.” As she read her invitation aloud, Hasan interjected that he wanted to go, too. He then said that she needed to say which day or they would not know when to go. Richelle added “on Saturday” to her writing and added a picture of Hasan in the pool with them. After she shared the invitation, Ms. Daryl mentioned that an invitation usually includes what time she wants her friends to meet her. Richelle added a time to her invitation. Through these interactions, Richelle gained important insights into revising her writing.
Young children also learn about editing as they write and interact with others. Edits occur as children make corrections to their writing. This might happen when a child notices that he drew two cars and then adds an s to the label “car” to convey that there is more than one car. Editing also occurs when a child, like Arzu, remembers that her name begins with a capital letter and changes the lowercase a to a capital A. Interactions with peers and adults can also prompt children to edit their writing. For example, a child who is applying his knowledge of letter-sound relationships to sound out words might notice one of the words in his writing is posted on the wall. When he realizes that he is missing a letter in one of his words, he might add the missing letter to the word or may cross out or erase the word and copy the correct spelling. As children make edits to their writing, they gain understanding about the conventions of writing as well as come to understand editing as an important process in writing.
9.3c Handling Writing Tools
As young children interact with their literate world, they begin to explore a variety of writing tools, including paper, crayons, markers, pens, and digital writing tools such as phones and touchscreen tablets (Rowe, 2018). Their handling of writing tools becomes more proficient as their fine motor skills develop. Initially, young children have limited motor strength and control and, therefore, tend to grasp writing tools with their whole hand to make marks . As their motor skills develop, they may use their whole arm in an effort to control and direct their markings, scribbles, and drawings. Eventually, they use their fingertips to grasp the writing tool but their grip may be too high or too low. Likewise, it might be too loose or too tight. As they show increased fine motor strength and control, they are able to use three fingers to grip their writing tools to produce letters, words with invented spelling, and memorized words.
Similarly, many children are able to point and use their forefingers to make marks, draw, and scribble when using a touchscreen tablet (Crescenzi et al., 2014). As their fine motor skills develop, children use their fingers or a stylus on a touchscreen tablet to write letters, words with invented spelling, and words that are memorized (Rowe & Miller, 2015). Young children also learn to produce typewritten text, including their names, repeated letters, and words with invented spelling (Rowe & Miller, 2015). Digital tools also allow children to draw, use photographs and imagery, and record oral stories as they write (Eutsler et al., 2020).
As children experiment with and use a variety of writing tools and engage in daily opportunities to write and interact with peers and adults, they gain valuable insights into writing as a way to communicate ideas, stories, information, and opinions. At the same time, they develop important writing skills as they progress from making marks to using invented spelling and memorized or copied words to writing words, phrases, and sentences. As can be seen by the children in Mr. Jenbere’s and Ms. Daryl’s classroom, development along the continuum is individual. Accordingly, educators play an essential role in shaping an environment that promotes young children’s writing.
9.3d Factors that Influence Writing Development
Although developmental trajectories like those presented in the three tables representing the continuum of emergent writing development (Tables 9.1, 9.2, and 9.3) help educators understand how children develop their writing knowledge and skills, there are a number of factors that influence a child’s specific developmental pathway that must also be considered. As noted in previous chapters, children’s literacy development is shaped by (a) their home, community, and school environments; (b) the experiences children have with oral and written language within these contexts, including the languages they hear and speak; and (c) individual differences influenced by their unique abilities, developmental delays, and disabilities. The multiple influences on children’s development, including their literacy development, are important to keep in mind when examining individual children’s writing development and planning for appropriate assessment and instruction.
Similar to previous discussions about children’s language and emergent reading development, children’s prior knowledge, experiences, and interests contribute to variances in children’s writing development (Burns & Kidd, 2016). Children learn a lot about how print works as they interact with their world. Therefore, children’s experiences at home, in the community, and at school influence their writing knowledge and skills. Children interacting with a language- and print-rich environment will have different experiences with print than children who have limited access to print in their everyday lives. For example, children immersed in an environment with rich traditions of oral storytelling and/or daily storybook reading may have well-developed vocabularies in one or more languages and valuable understanding of story structures that they can apply to their own writing. Likewise, children who observe and take part in written communications at home, in their community, and at school develop insights into the functions of writing that help them understand that there are different purposes and types of writing as well as different audiences for their writing. In addition, children who are provided opportunities to explore writing tools and are encouraged to integrate writing into their play may develop an interest in writing and may be motivated to use writing throughout their day.
Children’s writing development is also influenced by the language or languages used in their home, community, and school. Children who are monolingual and those who are acquiring two or more languages may progress in different ways (Soltero-González & Butvilofsky, 2020). Young children who are acquiring two or more languages develop understanding about how print works as they encounter print in more than one language. For example, children who are simultaneous bilinguals are acquiring two languages at the same time and are learning about print in both languages. As their understanding of print emerges, they use what they know about print in one language to inform their understanding of print in the other language. This means that, when they begin to write, their understanding of print across both languages inform their writing in both languages (Soltero-González & Butvilofsky, 2020). Because patterns of development may differ by language or languages spoken, it is important to recognize there may be differences in writing trajectories among children who are monolingual, bilingual, and multilingual. Differences among languages and children who speak one, two, or more languages are especially important for educators to recognize when children begin to use their vocabularies and knowledge of letters and sounds to write.
Educators must also be aware of the effect that children’s abilities, developmental delays, and disabilities may have on children’s emergent writing development. Differences in how young children interact with and explore the world can affect the experiences they have to develop writing knowledge and skills. For example, young children with developmental delays and disabilities often have numerous doctors’ visits, therapy appointments, and other routines that take the family’s time and energy. The challenges and stress families may face as they navigate their child’s care and appointments may affect the opportunities children have to engage in literacy experiences (Hanser, 2010). Similarly, the nature of the developmental delay or disability may have an effect on how the child is able to engage in literacy-rich opportunities. For example, children who are sensitive to touch may not want to experiment with writing tools or children with short attention spans may not sit long during storybook reading (Hanser, 2010). In addition, children who use a wheelchair might be limited by what is in their line of sight and might not see environmental print that others might see (Hanser, 2010). Likewise, children with visual impairments can also be affected by how easy or challenging it is for them to access print in the environment (Guerette, 2014).
The type of developmental delay or disability may also have an impact on children’s emergent writing development. Children with specific language impairments, developmental delays, learning disabilities, or high-functioning autism might develop writing skills at a different pace (Burns et al., 2010). Children who are deaf and hard-of-hearing often begin school with less fully developed emergent writing skills than children who are hearing (Werfel, 2017). In addition, children with specific writing disorders might have challenges performing the motor activities required to hold a writing tool and write (Burns et al., 2010).
Because young children come to school with varied backgrounds and experiences, it is important for educators to recognize the writing knowledge and skills children bring with them to school. They must understand that children’s experiences with oral and written print differ from child to child. Many children come to school with rich experiences that foster their emergent writing knowledge and skills. Other children may come to school having had limited opportunities to hear stories, observe writing, and explore writing in their daily lives. In addition, children might have developmental delays and disabilities that influence their access to oral and print language or affect the pace at which they develop and learn. Recognizing the differing experiences and abilities children bring to the classroom allows educators to build on existing knowledge and skills to promote positive writing outcomes.
- bird icon © Lucy La Croix is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
- Figure 9.2a © Julie Kidd is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Figure 9.2b © Julie Kidd is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Fig 9.2c © Julie Kidd is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Fig 9.3a © Julie Kidd is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Fig 9.3b © Julie Kidd is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Fig 9.3c © Julie Kidd is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Writing tools © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Whole Hand Writing © Himama is licensed under a All Rights Reserved license