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Early Writing: Why Squiggles Are Important

Little boy writing with squiggles on chalkboard.Much earlier than the time when we actually think of children as writers or readers, we must begin to provide opportunities that encourage writing. There are a number of ways to do this. Having conversations with children; answering those why questions; talking about what you see as you drive to various places; sharing stories and storybooks are just a few of the ways that our young children can be engaged in conversations. Even though we are talking about early writing, early literacy is really a more correct statement, as the experiences that relate to early reading go hand in hand with those that encourage early writing.

Getting Started

When we speak of early writing, we are not referring to children producing letters of the alphabet. Producing letters of the alphabet comes much later than the real beginning stages of writing. One of the important connections that come with beginning writing is helping children become aware that what we say are words, and these words can be written down, e.g., the wonderful aha! when the child realizes that writing is talk that is written down.

Most of us who have children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews have had our walls decorated with scribbles. Today we have the advantage of having washable crayons, along with crayons that only scribble on special paper. These are the beginnings, the first stages are the lines and lines of wavy lines. Sometimes a drawing is produced that goes with the scribbles. Of course, some of us have been corrected by our children, because we were not easily able to discern the difference between the drawing and the writing.

Developing Writing Awareness

Adults need to take many opportunities to model all the different times that we must write: grocery lists, letters, notes, and reports. We need to have a place in our homes where children are encouraged to use writing materials. If possible, having a painting easel available provides an opportunity for both drawing and writing.

In early writing, three- and four-year-olds, may not persist for too long a time, as the activity matches the attention span. First we see the rows and rows and favorite varieties of scribbles. Then they notice concrete writing, which means that if the story were about a little cat, the scribble is little, while if the big cat were large the same scribble would be written bigger. Then as children begin rhyming and hearing syllables in words, you see the syllabic strategy. This strategy uses as many marks or scribbles as you hear syllables in the word. For example, if the child draws an alligator, four marks are made to count out the syllables in the word. At this stage, there still is no relationship between the marks and the sounds of those syllables. Marks are used as counters. In preschool classes, as children clap their names or clap a phrase of a finger play or book, the syllabic strategy is reinforced. Then as children see their names in writing, and start asking you to write words for them, they begin to have their favorite letters. They may produce rows and rows of A’s or C’s. Encouraging their curiosity is important. They often will want you to write, and they want to copy it. Helping them hear the sound that a letter produces, so that they can link the sound to a letter is very helpful in our phonetic language, according to Gillet and Temple in Understanding Reading Problems Assessment and Instruction.

Early Spelling

The beginning of actual spelling is seen, as children begin to figure out the letter that represents the beginning sound of each word. Then most children will progress through stages of invented spelling. Of course, the goal must be correct spelling, as the published product must have words spelled correctly.

Marie Clay in her book What Did I Write? states that the creative urge of the child to write down his own ideas was considered by teachers to be the important thing to be fostered in written language. She goes on to suggest the appropriate activities include young children drawing pictures with the teacher or parent writing the dictated captions; tracing over the script of the adult; copying captions; copying words from around the room. They start to remember word beginnings and use an invented spelling.

Reading or telling stories, which re-enforces children’s development of the sense of the order of happenings in a story, is helpful also. They start to learn the components of a story: characters, setting, problem, and ending. Even though this is experiential learning, they begin to realize that stories have a beginning, middle, and an end.

Children need to see adults writing. They need to have books around and to have books read to them on a regular basis. Materials need to be available that would encourage children to want to write.

The Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts provides the following Stages of Writing Development:

  • Drawing
  • Scribbling
    • During the scribbling stage, children learn to distinguish writing from drawing
    • Children try to reproduce letters and words through scribbles
  • Producing letter-like forms
  • Writing letter sequences or strings
  • Spelling phonetically
  • Spelling conventionally

Why should we let children scribble or pretend to write?

Children can discover the graphic principles that relate to writing as a whole before they master the individual letters. By letting young children practice or play around with letters early, they will develop an interest in letters. Scribbling and mock writing are useful early practices that lay a foundation for learning to form and recognize letters.