One child scribbles on a piece of paper and proudly announces, “This is my name!” Another preschooler writes a string of random letters and asks his mother what it says. Still another child draws a picture of a cat and labels it with a wobbly C. Which one of these children is writing?
They all are.
Just as children advance through different stages on the road to conventional reading and spelling, they also move through different stages of writing development. What are those stages, and what does that mean for you as the parent or teacher? You’ll find the answers in this post, Lesson Two of my 10-week Preschool & Kindergarten Writing Series with This Reading Mama.
What are the stages of writing development?
I’ve labeled these stages according to what you see in your child’s writing, and not by the technical names. I hope that makes this post easy for you to follow!
1. Scribbling just to scribble
You might call this a pre-pre-writing stage. This is where my Two (27 months) is at. He loves to take caps off markers and scribble away. Is he trying to tell me something? Probably not. He’s just enjoying marking up a page. But that doesn’t mean I can’t encourage him to make those scribbles say something.
a. Set up a regular time to scribble. Give your child a piece of unlined paper and fun markers or crayons. Expect this to last about 5-10 minutes.
b. Call it writing. “Let’s do some writing today!”
c. As your child scribbles, talk about things that are meaningful to him. As my Two was scribbling the other day we heard a siren. “Si-uh-ren!” he announced. “Can you write about a siren?” I asked. He scribbled on his paper. “What does that say?” I prompted. “Vat’s a si-uh-ren!” I wrote the word alongside his picture.
2. Scribbling as pretend writing (often next to a drawing)
If you send a thank you note to someone and your child wants to add his name – and does so with a scribble – he’s writing. If he draws a giant mess on a piece of paper and brings it to you proudly, “That says my name!” he’s writing. What makes it writing is not what it looks like. It’s the child’s intent. Some children in this stage will draw both a picture and a line of scribbles. It’s clear that they understand that pictures and print are different.
Kids who scribble and pretend to write need lots of opportunities to see real letters and words in print.
a. Write a morning message to your child each day. Repeat each word as you write it.
b. After a fun day or event, sit down to write about it. Write sentences that your child dictates. Read back, pointing to each word, moving left to right on the page. Invite your child to read along with you on subsequent readings. Your child may want to illustrate the page and read it to others.
c. Create a patterned language chart. On a chalkboard or large sheet of chart paper, start sentences the same way and have your child finish them. “I like to eat…” or “My toy is a ….” or “At the park I see the…” Afterward, read the sentences together using a pointer. You may want to draw picture clues next to each sentence.
d. Take your child’s scribbles seriously. If he says it’s a grocery list, take it to the store. If he says it’s a letter to Grandma, mail it.
e. Provide writing materials to use during pretend play. Play grocery store, and encourage your child to write a shopping list. Play school, and have your child write a class list. Play house, and encourage your child to write a to-do list. These writings may all be “just scribbles.” Eventually your child will put spaces between the scribbles, and you’ll start to see forms that resemble letters.
3. Writing pretend letters or strings of letters
As your child learns more about print by watching you write and by listening to books, he will try to write letters himself. Some of these may be “mock” letters – intended to look like the real thing, but not actual letters of the alphabet. Your child may write the letters he knows in random order. You will probably notice letters from his name.
Teaching tips :
a. Set up a writing center and provide many opportunities for your child to use it. Include all sorts of fun materials like colored pencils, glitter crayons, fat and skinny markers, envelopes, junk mail, blank pages stapled together magnetic letters, alphabet stamps, a dry erase board and markers, glue, tape, and scissors.
b. Model authentic writing by letting your child see you pencil events onto a calendar, write a shopping list, fill out forms, and compose thank you notes.
c. Continue the morning message, sentence dictation, and patterned language charts from the previous stage.
4. Attempting to spell using letter/sound knowledge
At this stage, children know most of their alphabet and many letter sounds. They are able to write their names and may label a picture with the first letter. Eventually they will be able to hear the final sound as well. Finally, middle sounds will be present. This doesn’t mean that spelling will be correct. The word spaghetti might first appear as “S”, then as “SE,” then as “SGE.”
a. As tempting as it may be, do not spell every word for your child. When they have to write their own spellings children must think about letter- sound relationships. (And reading their writing back actually helps them with reading!)
b. Provide a simple alphabet chart with pictures so your child has a reference for spelling sounds.
c. Teach your child to streeeetch out the words when spelling them so that he writes each sound that he hears.
d. Aim for writing time at least three times a week. If you’ve got a bunch of fun materials and you keep the time enjoyable, your child will probably look forward to it. At this stage, 5-10 minutes of daily writing time is a fabulous goal. You know how the more a kid reads, the better a reader he is? The same is true of writing.
5. Writing with many correct spellings in simple sentences
The above sample represents a child at the beginning of this stage. Many children will not get here until first grade. However, if you make explicit phonics instruction a priority in your home, your child may surprise you by what he can do in kindergarten or even late preschool. When children can spell many simple words correctly, approximate harder words by streeetching them out, and compose a a sentence or more in one sitting, they’ve reached this stage.
Teaching tips :
a. Teach your child how to choose topics for journal writing.
b. Help your child write for different purposes – letters, charts, notes, etc.
c. Show your child how to use word charts, simple spelling dictionaries, and other tools to help with spelling.
d. Teach conventions of writing (punctuation, capital letters, etc.) as your child is ready.
Stay tuned for more writing lessons. Click on the image below to see what’s coming next!
Hello ,this article is really helpful . My son is having high myopia which we discovered when he was 4.5 but because which he was just scribbling. Post spectacles within 2 months he can trace letters with lot of effort and has improved colouring. He has tripod grip too but he doesn’t do any free writing and scribbling. Even if he does while pretending ..he just makes standing sleeping lines. I m unable to understand his writing stage .He is 4.9 years old now and behind his peers. His teacher sent him to write letters without dots as he turning 5. How do I help him ?
These are great questions, Bhumlka! I’m going to send you to my friend Heather, because she has experience as an occupational therapist assistant. I know she can give you great info! Please email her here, and tell her that Anna at The Measured Mom sent you. If you don’t hear back within a week, please send me an email or comment here, and I’ll follow up! Her address is: heather(at)growinghandsonkids(dot)com
I am so enjoying reading through this series. I know it’s a bit old at this point, but hopefully you’ll see this and be able to offer some advice. My 5 year old and I seem to be stuck on Stage 4. We are finishing up her Kindergarten curriculum, and she is reading well for her age, knows all her letters and sounds. Has learned short vowels, but hasn’t learned any long vowels or really any blends or digraphs yet. She knows about 25 sight words, and has decent handwriting. She has no difficulty coming up with things to say or writing ideas. She draws amazing detailed pictures.
BUT when I try to get her to write her own sentences it ends in tears EVERY. TIME. As long as they are words she knows she’s fine writing them, but as soon as she gets to a word she doesn’t know, she wants me to tell her how to spell it, and if I won’t, a melt down ensues. We’ve worked on stretching words (she’s pretty good at it), and we’ve talked about how mistakes are part of learning, etc. and encouraged her to use her “letter smarts” and make a best try, and so on, but it does not seem to be helping.
For context, she has been diagnosed with anxiety and has some definite perfectionist tendencies. In many areas, if she feels like she can’t do something perfectly, she will decide she can’t do it at all and just not try – it’s not just writing. Although, we seem to have been more successful in other areas at coaxing her into trying at least. I’ve even at times said she didn’t have to write words at all – just leave it at the picture if it was stressful for her. Then she cries more because she wants to write her story.
So I don’t know whether to persevere, and continue pushing her to figure out spelling for her writing even though she knows she will make mistakes and it makes her cry… or back off and just let her dictate to me – or do kind of shared writing where she writes the words she knows and I write the other words.
Any input you have would be appreciated!!
I’m sorry for how long this took to reply to, Jessica! I sent you an email with a reply. 🙂
Really great article and a wonderful angel at children development
I enjoyed reading your post. Do you have a pdf of it so I could share it with other parents?
No, but at the very bottom if you click on the green button (“print friendly”) it will let you choose what to print. 🙂
I like the suggestion of adult modeling, i.e., writing a shopping list or writing events on the calendar. Having children scribble or draw are first steps to putting their thoughts on paper.
I love the suggestions listed.
Andrea E Herrera
Blessings to you and your beautiful big family. I would love to have 6 (I have 4) but I”m scared of having them now that I”m 36. I homeschool and taught as well. If you have any info or links to stuff you have written about how to teach 7th, 6th, and 2nd at the same time, so you can group some subjects, it would help greatly.
Hi Andrea! I know it’s a little scary to have kids after a certain age. I was 34, 36, and 38 when we had our last three. I actually do not homeschool past preschool, so I don’t have real life tips for teaching different learners at the same time. While I don’t necessarily agree with her teaching style or curriculum choices, I think a good blog to visit for tips on management is Confessions of a Homeschooler. She seems to have a good system for teaching all four of her kids.
Po Tim King
Thanks for this wonderful article. I’m struggling to encourage my 5-year-old to write more often. I guess I didn’t make it that fun like you. In the same, I don’t want to push her as well. I will try your suggestion and see if anything will improve. Thanks again.
Hi, Po! Kids love to write when we are supportive and encouraging. Be sure to check out this post if you’d like to purchase a book about how to teach your 5-year-old to write. There are many great options!
Lovely description of these stages and great suggestions. Do you have references? I’m looking for resources to support a series of writing workshops I give to local preschools. Do you also provide other fine motor and visual-motor practice to help with muscle development and coordination? I know it would be a lot to put all in one article! Thank you?
Hello! I don’t have online references for this article, as it mainly came out of what I already know about early childhood writing development. One book I really like is Words Their Way, which begins with this early stage of writing and moves into later spelling stages. Yes, we do a fine motor activities at home – often in the context of writing letters (see this page https://www.themeasuredmom.com/fine-motor/). Beyond that, I collect ideas from other bloggers and do those. 🙂 You can see my Pinterest board here: https://www.pinterest.com/themeasuredmom/fine-motor/
From a 3’s ELC teacher:
Just curious-this year I again have journals for my 3’s.
However this group (12 students) in general would scribble in the whole notebook if I left them out. I have a few who are a bit older age wise and maturity that could handle it.
I am wondering if I have a center devoted to it and teach them to choose their own book (name) and draw on 2 pages. Then bring it to teacher to talk about it. Is this age appropriate? I still worry that I will have a book full of “scribbles”. This would be fine at home but I paid for the 12 and do not want to buy more for the last few months of school. Dilemma!
I think it’s worth a try, Candy! At age 3 I think it could work with a lot of training and patience. Maybe they get a single sticker to put on the page they’re going to write on… and only on that page. It might be best to keep it to a single page rather than two. If they are supervised at first I think they could learn this and stick to it, but from my own experience with my kids you’ll have to stay on top of it or you’ll soon have a book full of scribbles!
This has been very helpful, but I do have a question. I was taught that reading and writing should develop together, buy my 3 year old (38 months) is starting to read, but seems to still be in the first writing stage. Is that a problem? or will the writing just catch up when he’s good and ready? Will the stages look different? Thanks for your expertise!
Sorry I’m a little late in replying to you, Shanna! You asked about your son’s reading being ahead of his writing. In my experience at home and in the classroom, this is completely normal and expected! It’s why many children early readers still aren’t spelling well yet. Sometimes when children write, it actually supports their reading because they have to read back what they write. I would keep giving him opportunities to do both, and they eventually (maybe not for years!) they will be about the same.
Shared today on FB! Thanks again!
Thank you so much for sharing it, Sue!
Dianna @ The Kennedy Adventures
Wonderful tips and advice here, Anna!
So glad you linked up to the Thoughtful Spot!
Thanks so much for this post Anna! I’m really looking forward to reading your next “lessons!” Before my son was born (he’s 2.5), I taught for 10 years, but was always in Junior division (grades 4-8) and this is a great reminder of things I can do with my little guy! I love making books with my guy too, and you gave me some ideas for ways I can make this a richer experience for him. We made a fun book recently called “Humpty Dumpty Rhymes” where my son helped complete some unique rhymes starring Humpty Dumpty. I wrote a post about it. I’d LOVE your feedback if you have time to check it out! http://onetimethrough.com/2014/04/18/child-created-humpty-dumpty-rhyming-book/ Thanks!
I think it’s fabulous, Sue! I tried to leave a comment, but I’m not sure it got through. (I always have trouble when it requires a WordPress login for some reason.) I love how you’ve got rhyming, generating rhymes, creating a book, teaching concepts of print, reading aloud — all in one! I’m sure kids would love to have their own name substituted too. I’ll be pinning it to my Writing board.
Thanks so much for checking it out Anna! Ooh – I love the idea of having the kids substitute their own name – going to do that with my son as a Part II! Thanks for pinning! I’m just a newbie blogger, so I’ll have to look into my comment settings to make them easier. Glad I came back here to see your reply!
I shall definitely try this out!! Thx for the awesome tips and ideas 🙂
You’re welcome, Diyanti!
You have given me a lot to think about. I will definitely be adding writing to my centers. I am so excited for the rest of this series!
So glad you’re following, Danielle! You’re doing some great stuff over on your blog! Am really enjoying following your site.
This is absolutely perfect! Thanks for the great tips and ideas.
You’re welcome, Fabiola! Thanks so much for reading.
I love this! I’m going to do more “writing!” with my kids.
Can’t wait to hear how it goes, Shonda!
This is a great article with lots of valuable information. Thanks for posting it!
You’re welcome, Heidi — these kinds of posts get a lot of interest, which is great. Too bad they take so long to think through and compose!