Monday, September 15, 2008

When do children start writing?

How soon can children start writing? Traditionally, educators and teachers once assumed that children could only learn to write once they had foundations in listening, speaking and reading, pretty much in this order. Was this correct? Well not really. In terms of proficiency there are some good grounds for supporting the traditional order, but it is rather simplistic to assume that it is such a lock-step process. As well, this strict developmental orthodoxy has a tendency to delay attention being given to writing. It is true that children's aural vocabulary is typically in advance of their spoken vocabulary well into early childhood. As well, children seem to develop an ability to read words before they can write them, and to read books before they can write extended and orthodox language. But in amongst these generally accepted general tendencies there is some fuzziness and variation. As a result, I want to argue for much more stimulation of children's early writing.

There are good reasons (and evidence) to support a desire to give more emphasis to early writing. For example, while once educators, psychologists and paediatricians assumed that there is little communicative intent with a newborn baby, they now know that almost from the first day of life, babies begin to respond to their world and that many of their very early vocalisations, eye movements, gazes, facial movements and body movements are attempts to communicate. Dr Kim Oates gave a wonderful lecture on this topic at New College in 2006 as part of the New College Lecture series (you can download an MP3 of the talks here). So while speaking follows well after the ability to hear and respond to sound, attempts to communication commence almost immediately. As well, we know (it has always been evident) that children begin attempting to place their mark on the world as soon as they can grab a pencil, crayon or texta. It's as they want to be able to say, "Look, I did this. This is my mark." And of course, if you ask them what it says, they will often say, "It means me and daddy", "It's just a word", and of course, "It's just a scribble" or a "pattern" or a "colour" or a "drawing".

What do we know about early scribble and drawing?

We now know that even children's earliest scribbles very quickly have some mean associated with them. While at first children are as much interested in the gross motor movement (the rhythmic drawing of circular patterns, fast scribble to fill a page etc), they soon begin to attempt more and in a sense try to communicate or create meaning through their scribbles, patterns and drawing.

Above: Sample from the "Young in Art" site showing intent in the drawing of a young child

There have been many studies of children's early art and many that have examined early literacy, but few have looked at the relationship between the two. A colleague of mine from Indiana University, Professor Jerome Harste conducted significant research in late 1970s and early 1980s that did just this and is seen as seminal work. With his colleagues Professors Virginia Woodward and Carolyn Burke and many graduate students, they studied the early writing of children aged 3, 4, 5 & 6 years. They concluded from their studies that the process of scribbling "bears sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic similarity" to the processes we observe in reading and writing [See Harste, Woodward & Burke (1983), Language Stories and Literacy Lessons.] Harste, Woodward and Burke concluded that most children know the difference between reading and writing by age 3, and that by this time they are developing an understanding of written language, demonstrated in their scribbles and attempts to write and draw, and that these parallel those of older proficient language users. They put to one side traditional developmental notions and suggested that children, at least from age 3, begin to demonstrate elements of authoring; they called this the "authoring cycle". For example they identified in the early scribble and 'writing' of very young children:
  • Organization (evidence of conventions and the genesis of cognitive processes similar to adults)
  • Intentionality (evidence that the children know that their marks signify something)
  • "Generativeness" (an attempt to generate or make meaning)
  • Risk-taking (trying things they haven't before)
  • An understanding that language has social function
  • Awareness that context matters in language (the situation is related to what you and write and how you use it)
  • That one's scribbles and later words form a text or unit of meaning (they realise that the sum of the elements collectively mean something)
For example, picking up on just one the above elements of authoring, Harste, Woodward and Burke observed in the scribbles of children from families who had a first language other than English some interesting differences. The writing below shows just how different scribble can be for four-year-old children living in homes that speak different languages; in this case, English, Arabic and Hebrew. They concluded that evidence like this demonstrates that at age four, even before these children are writing words, that there scribble demonstrates organization, and that this is similar to the processes used by proficient writers.

Above: Harste, Burke & Woodward (1984), p. 82

What does this mean for early writing?

I might do a series of posts on early writing later if readers of this blog are interested, but for starters I'd just make the following brief comments for parents and Preschool teachers:

  • Take children's early drawing and scribble seriously - look at it, enjoy it, discuss it with your children (e.g. "What's this?" "What does this mean?" etc).
  • Encourage children to write - give them blank paper and tell them to "write"!
  • Let them see you writing and talk about your writing.
  • Look for patterns in children's early drawing and scribble and expect to learn things about your child from it.
  • In short, encourage writing just as much as you encourage reading and celebrate their drawing and 'writing' - put it on the wall, date it and keep it, make up a folder etc.
I have also written about this topic at length in other publications such as "Pathways to Literacy", Cassell: London, 1995.

38 comments:

Prue said...

We are trying to encourage our four year old to prefer writing to typing at the moment - he likes to do what he calls letter practising - where he picks out letters on the keyboard to type words, based on working out the sounds in the words (which I help him with). But he's never been much of a drawer, or scribbler, though he is slightly more interested these days. He actually wrote his name for the first time last week - on my shopping list - which will be preserved for posterity!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Prue, thanks for the comment.Your son will join the next generation of digital literates! There are many similar things going on here, but his efforts will currently be concentrated at the letter and word level. What research like that of Harste and others shows (in a different age) is that there is much early learning well beyond the word and letter. Question is, how is this also stimulated if the keyboard totally replaces the pencil, crayon paper etc. I think there are some digital ways that this can happen but I'd still encourage work on paper, black boards etc as well (especially under the age of three). Electronic tablets and boards will also achieve some similar things to pencils and paper. More on this later.

Sandhya said...

Our son is 2 years 9 months. The teacher at his pre-school started him off with tracing dotted lines around 3 months back and is now starting with tracing alphabets. Though our son loves to scribble and can draw free hand circle - like squiggles (calling it an 'O'), he doesn't seem ready for structured work just yet. He likes to use paint and tells us he is drawing a rocket or the sun or himself. Though it doesn't look like what he says it is, it becomes clearer once he tells us what it is. I've collected and filed all his 'work' (might seem like scribbling to others but makes sense to us). I was just wondering if I need to put a little pressure on structured writing since they are doing it in his pre-school. He doesn't like to do it then or at home and I find that he does it only when he feels the need. I do not want to force him at this age. But he might lag behind at the end of the year even though his cognition is above average for his age and he can recognize most of the alphabets and their sounds (English is NOT our mother tongue).

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Sandhya, Thanks for your comments. It sounds like you have a very special little boy who is developing good understanding of concepts of print. I wouldn't worry about doing anything structured yet. As your little boy gets older you can encourage him to copy words and form letters, but don't rush him. You'll find that he'll begin to want to write words. Keep reading to him and and flood his world with print (label things, write words that he dictates, point to words, give him some plastic letters to form words etc). Gently encourage him to write words, but frankly you can hold off on most of this for at least a year. Best wishes, Trevor

nidhi said...

my son is going to be 3 yr old, he only scribbles on the paper, as we force him to write any alphabate he runs away from the room, he only likes to jump here and there, should i force him to write or i should leave him with paper and pencil tell me what to do

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Nidhi,

Thank you for your comment. I would encourage you NOT to try to force your child to write the alphabet at the age of three. Try to encourage him to experiment with writing and drawing. Allow him time to become comfortable with crayons and pencils before you encourage him to do to much writing. Concentrate on simply reading to him and point out how print works (as appropriate).

Best wishes,

Trevor

mukesh said...

My Daughter is two and half year old. She can read all the capital letters, lower case letters, recognise numbers from 1 to 100. She also can write all the numbers from 1 t0 10 and probably many more because she reads numbers as five two fifty two etc. but I never asked her to write numbers greater than 10.
She can write most of the capital alphabets except few like S and W. Interestingly, she can read all Hindi alphabets including most of the Matras. She has a lot of interest in reading, writing and painting.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Mukesh,

Your daughter is doing VERY well.

Trevor

Sally said...

This is a very interesting article. My son had extensive speech delays due to hearing issues whilst very little, now, after extensive speech therapy and a lot of work, he is fine in that department, but we are finding he is rather late in other areas, possible because they weren't high on the list of importance. He turns 4 next week and has only just learnt to write his name (albeit rather poorly), and his drawing skills are pretty poor as well. I can barely recognise a stick figure. Now I am worried about him starting school and being behind all the other children. Parenthood is exhausting!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Sally,

Nice to hear from you. I agree that parenthood is exhausting, but try not to stress your self and your son. He is not behind if he can already write his name and is beginning to try to draw people.

What he is doing is about par for 4 year-olds. I have no doubt that he'll be ready for school. Keep reading to him, teach him some basic sounds as you look at words together, teach him some basic words by sight over the next year and encourage him to play with language in oral and written forms.

Best wishes,

Trevor

Teri said...

My child is just over 13 months old and started scribbling. She filched paper and a pen from my husband's briefcase when we had our backs turned for a minute and the next thing we knew, she was scribbling on the paper. How she knows to scribble on paper (as opposed to, say, her toys or the wall) is beyond us; all we'd done up till now was hold the pen and let her guide it to scribble a little on greeting cards for her grandmothers. The scribbles are lines, "v" shapes, "m" and "w" shapes (although with more "humps" than m and w), and some curves, a few "u" shapes and a loop or two.

I'm astonished to see how little information there is out there on young children and drawing and writing. It seems the focus is mainly on reading. Is it typical for a 13-month-old to scribble like this?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Teri,

Lovely to hear from you and thanks for sharing your own observations. No, it isn't that common for children to draw/write scribble that closely approximates actual letters. It's more common between 2 and 3 and most are doing it by age 4 years. You're also right that few spend much time think about the relationship between writing and drawing. Cheers, Trevor

Anonymous said...

I started writing letters at the age one 1,5, and at the age of three I was able to write small stories (though I sometimes spelled the words wrong).

Nadira said...

My son is 4 and a half. He can write most letters but not very neatly. Sometimes the letters are perfect but sometimes they get squiggly (and then he excuses himself by saying "oh that one's doing a hula dance") But I do really worry sometimes because there are kids in his class who write beautifully. Should I worry or is it normal that he isn't constant with his writing?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Nadira, nice to hear from you. If your son is writing most letters as a four year old he has made a good start with writing. His reluctance to try to be neater is very normal. Give him time to experiment with writing and to learn how to write letters and words before worrying too much about neatness, that can come later. Best wishes, Trevor
P.S. His explanation for the letter formation is quite creative.

Nadira said...

Thanks for the reply to my post, Trevor. At the risk of sounding like a "Tiger mom" I want to know if it's also normal that my 4.5 year old writes a mixture of capital and simple letters. For example when he writes his name some letters will be capital and some simple.. Size varies too if writing on unruled pages... This is all quite normal, isn't it??

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Nadira, Yes it's normal for children to mix capital and lower case letters together even when five years old let alone four. Likewise the varied size of letters, spaces between letters and spaces between words are concepts of print that take time for children. As well, the fine motor task of thinking of a letter (or even copying one) and writing it down is demanding. He'll get it in time with encouragement. Trevor

Nayan said...

Hi,
After reading all these posts here, i am feeling very guilty, for what i was doing for so long. My son is 3years and a month, and he goes to play school, always fond of trucks and cars, his teachers have started teaching writing, like standing lines and sleeping lines and few alphabets using the lines.
he does his work in the class, but when time comes to complete his homework, he refuses and shows laziness. he shows no interest at all, though he knows to recognize all the alphabets and reads them, he also know how they sound, also forms words on computer, but refuses to write. I thought he is doing out of laziness and forced him to write the alphabets, he gets upset, and says i don't want to write. Should i wait for some more time, yes i think.
But when i get to know about other kids i feel he is lagging behind.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Nayan,

Thanks for your comment. Don't feel guilty, but I would encourage you to back off. You are pushing your child too hard. At three years of age he is already doing things well beyond the average 3 year old. Provide opportunities for him to 'play' with words and write and draw when he wants to. Encourage him by all means, but homework is not needed for a 3 year old. At this stage stress language enrichment, literature, firsthand experiences, creative activities, structured and unstructured play etc.

All the best with your bright little boy. Be careful not to frustrate him and turn him off writing.

Trevor

Anonymous said...

My son will be 4 next month. He can write English and our native language. He can write both capital and small letters in English. He's doing good in our native language too. I'm wondering if it's helpful for him to know his native language in future. I'm teaching him both languages so he can read/write his native language in future.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Anonymous. If your son can do these things at 4 years he is doing very well. The short answer is yes it will be very helpful for him to know his native language as well as English. While his priority will become English when he goes to school (because that will be the language of instruction), I would encourage you to support him at home in both languages. Learning to speak and write two languages will have no negative effects if handled well and has many other benefits. Best wishes with this.

Anonymous said...

Some of you people on this site are real stress merchants. Honestly! Ok, my son is almost four, he cannot write his name let along draw a letter on his own without following the dots. He cannot count up to 20 and not totally clear on his alphabet. But, he will get it when he is ready. He loves playing with his cars, loves sport and loves playing with his friends. Every child learns/develops at their own rate. The most important thing is that they are loved and given opportunities to explore and express themselves. The learning will all fall into place. Too many parents put too much pressure on their children and therefore set unrealistic standanrds for others.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

My daughter is 3yr 4 months old. She goes to a daycare that is teaching them how to write their names by tracing over letters, or following the dotted lines. I asked my daughter to free hand the first letter of her name, that is an 'S'. When she did it, it was backwards - looked like a 2 instead. I asked her to do it again and sure enough it was a 2, not an S. Is this an early sign that she may have dyslexia? Mirroring the letters is one of the signs of this disorder, right?

Please let me know if this is something to be concerned about.

Trevor Cairney said...

Short answer is no! Many children as old as 5 years reverse letters when they are beginning to learn to how to write. The reversal of letters like 's', 'd', 'b' etc is very common in the early stages of writing.

Anonymous said...

Hi,

My son is exactly 3 and a half and is going to a school. He has learnt to identify all alphabets (both capital and small) and also objects around him. He is a very jolly and playful kid. But he seems to have very little interest in writing. Once he feels interested, he can write but we are at a loss to understand how to invoke that interest in him.

Is this natural at this age or do I need to be concerned about this ?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Anonymous,

I assume that you mean preschool rather than school. If your child can already identify letters then he is doing well at 3.5 years (most 5 year olds struggle to recognise all of them). Keep reading to him, encouraging drawing and free writing in association with drawings etc and in time he will begin. His early writing will be like scribble, but encourage him to try to represent the letters and some simple words as he shows interest. At such a young age I wouldn't be concerned.

Trevor

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your advice.

Devoted parents said...

My child could recognize all of the letters in the alphabet when she was 13 months old. She could read one sentence a page books at 17 months. She could read level 1 children's books all by herself at 22 months. She now can read almost any children's book. She was able to write her name at three years and one month old. She is now 3 years and 4 months old and can write all of the letters in the alphabet. She can write in sentences if you help her with the spelling.

Anonymous said...

Hi, i have a set of twins,a boy n' a girl. They r 2yrs,6month. My girl seems to be so interested in writing and reading. She can count 1-10 and can write some numbers and alphabeths buh my son hasn't picked interest in any, he only scribbles, all he likes to do is play. I have been finding this difficult cause i compare them, he also scribbles with his left hand, How can i help my son?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Anonymous,
The first thing you can do is relax! He's just two and a half years old. Your daughter is showing exceptional early progress at her age, but don't push her too hard. Your son is doing what most kids do at his age, he's exploring his world, and this is good. He'll become more interesting in counting and writing letters when he's ready. Most children don't begin to do this until after they are four. It is also very common for children to use different hands at this early age. It takes a while for some children to settle on handedness. About 90% will choose the right hand, but don't force the issue there are many 'messed up' kids who had parents who forced them to use their left hands.
Good luck, and relax.
Trevor

Shawn Scharlemann said...

Hi, I have bilingual children (English/German). My daughter has been writing her name since she was 3 1/2, and she wanted to learn how to do it. She has also taught herself how to write the numbers 0-10 now that she is 4 1/2. She cannot recognize all the letters of the alphabet, though, capital or lower-case. She goes to pre-school here in Austria, where we live. But here the cultures are different. In America, as I imagine as well in other English speaking countries, the emphasis in pre-school seems to be on early childhood education. In Austria, the emphasis is on learning through play. They receive no formal education (reading/Writing) until the students go to school at age 6. When I compare my daughter to American counterparts, she seems just on track or even behind what other 4 year olds do. When I compare her to other Austrian children, who at age 4 or 5 cannot write their names, I see that she is ahead in some things. I seem to be caught in a cultural divide and I think bilingual children also develop a bit differently than their monolingual counterparts. Any thoughts from your side? Thanks!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Shawn,

Thank you for your comment. There is no doubt that there are differences in educational and cultural practices across nations and language groups. I wouldn't try to make comparisons across cultural and national boundaries. There is no doubt that there are varied ways to help children's intellectual development in the early years, but play and language stimulation are critical parts of it in any culture. One thing that you can be sure of is that your daughter will have an advantage in bilingual language learning by starting early. This we do know. Children in monocultural communities will find it harder to acquire 2nd let alone 3rd and 4th languages as is common in Europe.

Thanks for 'dropping in' to my blog.

Trevor

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just found your article while searching to get an idea of the average age a child begins to write letters and words. My daughter is 3. Most children i know love to color, draw and scribble. She does not care much for coloring and drawing. She learns very quickly though. She knows and recognizes the entire alphabet, as well as able to sound out words. She has been able to spell and type her name for a while now, so I decided to try and teach her to write it. She didnt seem very interested in writing her name but took the pen and wrote "DAD" and said, "there, i wrote daddy's name, but not yours. Can I go play now?" As if she knew exactly what to do! It took me by surprise because it was the first time I had tried to get her to write. She is with me all day so I know she has not been taught elsewhere. Should i be concerned that she doesnt want to take the time yet, or amazed that she wrote a word other than what I was teaching her and she knew what she was writing?

Trevor Cairney said...

I'd be thankful that you have a bright little girl. Just continue to stimulate her. It sounds like she will use writing for real purposes when she needs to. At three years of age most children aren't typically able to write words. Continue to provide opportunities and encouragement for her to read and write words. Perhaps you could encourage her to write cards, letters or messages for friends and family members. Find authentic opportunities for her to use written language to communicate with others, or just to have fun herself with words. Thanks for sharing this. Trevor

Anonymous said...

Hi Trevor,
My almost 5 year old son finds it difficult to join the phonics sound and form 3 letter words.though he knows the sound of most letters . His teacher says he is lagging behind and many times reprimanded him infront of others and now am really worried as he is sensitive child . I want him to catch up with others and don't want to be hard on him .Please advise.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment and questions. It's difficult to make comment on such a situation without more knowledge, but I'd suggest that you need to have a frank but patient and gracious conversation with the teacher. It isn't appropriate for a teacher to 'reprimand' a child for not being able to do something in front of other children. Of course, it depends what we mean by 'reprimands'. Correcting a child in front of others is difficult to avoid in a classroom, but ridicule would obviously be inappropriate. You need to talk to the teacher about your child's exact needs and areas of weakness and also the way that she/he corrects your child. A lot of care is needed with this. Trevor

Anonymous said...

Hi

My daughter is 4 years 2 months old. she recognises capital letters & number 1-10. However, not intersted in writing at all. can't draw standing/sleepign lines properly.
She was relatively late in her speech & other developments.
Please advise how to expedite the development of her wrtiing skills.

Trevor Cairney said...

Anonymous, your child is within the normal range. It is not uncommon for 4 year-olds not to show much interest in writing letters and words. I would encourage you to keep reading to them, get them to look at print in their worlds (signs, TV, books etc), give them paper and varied writing implements and let them 'play' with writing for now. Continue to explore rhyming, sound and letters when you can. But don't fret, your child is acting like many 4 year-olds.Trevor