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)
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.