Unscrambling the scribbles

Understanding the six stages of learning to write


Paige Hobey


Yu hsud wodr yorr floorss.” On first read, this sentence may appear nonsensical, but it’s actually an impressive piece of early writing.

Chicago first-grader Morgan Baird composed it recently, spelling each word by sounding it out. And, as Morgan explained to her mom Shelly, it clearly reads, “You should water your flowers.”  

Although individual timing varies, children generally follow six developmental stages on their paths to mature writing, according to Barbara Bowman, chief officer of the Chicago Public Schools Office of Early Childhood Education and professor at the Erikson Institute:

Drawing. Don’t underestimate your preschooler’s forays into abstract art. These representations are not stylized, but they are developmentally significant. Your child is learning to control a crayon or pencil—not an easy task in itself— and communicate a mental image on paper. 

Meaningful scribbling. Next, children begin to understand that those printed symbols in books have meaning, and they attempt to replicate words. This early “writing” initially resembles wave-like squiggles, eventually evolving into letter-like shapes much closer to the real thing.

Random letters. When children first develop the fine motor skills to form letters, they combine them in random ways, seemingly oblivious to the requirements of spelling. Expect pages full of favorite consonants or repeated strings of recently learned vowels.

The name game. Most children subsequently learn to recognize and even “write” a loose version of their names. They’ve essentially memorized the gestalt, or whole configuration, without actually understanding the interplay of letters. Similarly, they may recognize the titles of favorite books or common street signs long before they can read.

Invented spelling. Next, children grasp the idea that every letter has a unique sound, and these sounds can be combined to make words. At this stage, children spell phonetically, often with humorous results. One letter may be used for an entire syllable or word and vowels may be omitted (I lk sumr). And don’t be surprised if your daughter suddenly starts writing in circles or forms certain letters backwards. These are common mistakes as children experiment and practice.

Accurate spelling. Typically, between first and second grade, children begin to write using more conventional spelling, spacing, punctuation and capitalization, though phonetic spelling still pops up occasionally. Encouraging your early writer To help your child’s learning process, try these tips from Bowman, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the International Reading Association:

For all parents: n Focus on confidence-building over correction. Now you know what to expect from your early writer; no need to call the learning specialist in alarm when she breaks out the crazy spelling or circular words. Be your child’s cheerleader through each developmental stage and offer patience as she progresses.

n Incorporate reading into your child’s daily life. Exposure to books and early writing are closely related, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading to children daily. Repeat stories often to provide a feeling of mastery and reinforce the sounds and syntax. Start with simple board books and, by first grade, work up to beginner readers like the “Now I’m Reading” series.

For parents of toddlers:  n Point out common symbols. Many toddlers know the golden arches mean McDonald’s before they can say their full names. (Scary, yes, but true.) This early interest in symbols is a precursor to letter recognition; encourage it by pointing out road signs, logos, even American flags.

For parents of preschoolers: n Discuss drawings and scribbles. While these early creations may appear random, use them to engage your child in a dialogue and always ask what they represent. 

n Make letter and word recognition fun. Introduce alphabet puzzles, books and magnets. Sing the ABCs together in goofy voices. Point out words on signs, food containers and the mail. Let your child “sign” her name on cards even before it’s legible. Tape labels on household objects so she starts to recognize words such as bed, table and door. 

n Create story-time dialogues. Ask your child to summarize the action or describe relationships between characters in her books. This type of higher-level thinking is an important step in her evolving literacy.

For parents of kindergartners and up: n Encourage experimentation. Offer positive reinforcement as your child obsessively creates pages full of loopy Ps and Bs. Provide lots of writing utensils, paper in various sizes and a chalkboard, which allows for practice and easy changes. During the phonetic writing stage, build enthusiasm by complimenting even the wackiest writing attempts. The goal during this phase is experimentation over accuracy. 

n Make writing a family affair. Invite your child to help create grocery lists, send weekly e-mails to grandparents, compose thank you notes or write “stories” about her drawings. 

Before you know it, your child’s “floorss” will bloom into flowers, and you’ll be nostalgic for those enthusiastic scribbles. 

Paige Hobey is a writer living in Chicago and the mother of an infant and a preschooler who is lurng to rit.


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