What is emergent writing?
Children often display a natural inclination to communicate in writing. Observing attempts at mark-making, drawing, mock writing, and actual writing supplies evidence of children’s early understandings about literacy.
Emergent writing refers to the phase in which children begin sharing ideas on paper. It occurs concurrently with building early understandings about reading.
The developmental stages of early writing
Children tend to move through consistent stages of mark-making and early writing. (Developmental rates vary; ages listed are approximate, and stages often overlap.)
Scribbling (1.5-2.5 years): Children in this phase make big lines and circles and usually hold a writing implement with a fist grip. Scribbling is more about experimentation and motor activity than meaningful representation of ideas.
Pre-Writing: Mark-Making with Meaning (2.5-3.5 years): Children in this phase make more intentional scribbles and shapes and say aloud what they represent. They do not distinguish between writing and drawing.
Pre-Writing: Letter-like Forms and Strings of Letters (3.5-5 years): Children may “write” lines, curves and dots that resemble letters, or write actual letters in random sequences. They often “read” what they have “written.” These efforts signify the early understanding that writing conveys meaning.
Invented Spelling (5-7 years): Children attempt writing words by recording letters for the sounds they hear. See more information on invented spelling below.
Conventional Spelling (6+ years): As children both become more accurate in their representation of spoken sounds in words (e.g., a child hears and correctly records all four phonemes to spell “tent”), they learn the correct spellings of high-frequency words and other familiar words, and they build knowledge of common spelling patterns, the readability of their writing increases.
Benefits of invented spelling
Some might worry that encouraging “incorrect” invented spelling hampers literacy growth or encourages poor habits. Invented spelling is demonstrated by research to support learning to read. While teaching conventional spelling is eventually essential, encouraging invented spelling for early writers and readers has many benefits. For example:
- By saying words slowly and listening to the sounds, children build phonemic awareness — the ability to hear and work with individual sounds in spoken language.
- By attaching letters to the sounds they hear, children practice phonics skills useful for reading; invented spelling creates an authentic context for this practice; children are motivated to accurately convey their messages on signs and in notes, stories, lists, etc.
Invented spelling empowers children to write without adult assistance. For this reason, it is helpful if adults accept and celebrate early invented spelling as valid efforts, rather than correcting it as “wrong.” As phonics instruction progresses, conventional spelling can be gradually and systematically taught.
Children’s spelling attempts and their error patterns in the invented spelling and conventional spelling stages are a helpful window into children’s phonological awareness and phonics knowledge. Children’s spelling in these stages tends to progress predictably, as described in Spelling Stages.
Activities by stage:
- Scribbling: Tape large paper to a flat surface or easel and provide chunky, easy-to-grip writing tools. Or, give children small pieces of broken crayon or chalk to encourage development of a pincer grasp.
- Pre-Writing: Encourage experimentation with mock writing and letter strings by giving children a variety of writing materials. For instance, sticky notes, notecards, notepads, and paper and tape for signs. Celebrate any “child writing” the child attempts and offer to add “grown-up writing” translating their messages.
- Invented Spelling: Tape or glue an interesting photo, page from magazine, or recycled calendar image to larger blank paper. Encourage children to use the blank space label details from the picture using invented spelling. Context will help adults read children’s attempts, which is empowering for children and encourages more writing!
- Conventional Spelling: Create a personalized dictionary or word list with a child to serve as a reference during writing activities. Add words the child uses frequently, such as those related to a favorite activity.