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When my niece was six years old, she spent a week with me. Her favorite game was to write random letters in a line, push them in front of me, and ask, “What does this say, Aunt Shelle?” I would string the sounds together into a nonsense word that would send her into fits of laughter. For Kylee, this was an indication of an important developmental step: she was a writer. She understood that the symbols she was writing on paper had meaning and could be interpreted and read by another person.
A lot of learning and development comes together to help young children reach this stage in their literacy development. Writing calls for physical control and coordination as well as a foundational understanding of the interconnection of speech and writing. Both of these develop as children interact with writing tools and have opportunities to explore writing.
Before children can write anything, they must be able to grasp a writing tool and hold it firmly while controlling its movement. When you watch toddlers first use crayons or markers, you might notice them making large loops or scribbles by moving their whole arms. As preschoolers, those toddlers will develop more fine muscle control and these movements become more controlled and intentional.
Children strengthen their fine muscles when they squeeze playdough and join in fingerplays. They learn to control and coordinate their movements as they paint at an easel and pour water from one cup into another. All of these seemingly innocent childhood pastimes help your child develop the physical skills needed for writing.
In a previous post about reading, I discussed the importance of symbolism, which is the idea that one object can stand for another. This understanding is an important factor in both reading and writing. As children develop this understanding, they move from the idea that the spoken word “ball” stands for that round object we can play with to the idea that a picture they draw of a ball can also stand for the object in question. Finally, they arrive at the realization that the letters “b-a-l-l” also represent this idea. When your child draws pictures to tell stories or communicate ideas, it is an important precursor to the understanding needed for writing.
As they mature in their understanding, young children begin to differentiate between drawing and writing. When they first start to write, it often looks like a squiggly line along the page. With support, practice, and exposure to print, these early attempts evolve into individual squiggles that look more letter-like. As children learn about the letters, they begin to mix in actual letters with the squiggles. Finally, children begin to write in only letters, although the letters might not be the correct ones or may be backwards. Giving children opportunities to experiment with writing and letting them see writing in action helps them move through these stages.
As for my niece, five years later, Kylee continues to be a writer, although now she combines that basic understanding with the ability to connect the symbols she writes with the sounds they represent. She writes answers on tests, papers to show understanding, texts to touch base with friends, and online postings to connect with others near and far (including me). She has reached the goal that we would like for most children: to use writing as a means of communicating her thoughts, opinions, and ideas to a world eager to read them.
In my next posting, we will look at what families can do to support young children in becoming strong readers and writers.