From Scribbles to Signatures: History and Stages of Emergent Writing
Definition and History
Emergent writing stages can be defined as a theory of literacy development. It refers to the dynamic and overlapping stages of early writing ability that all children pass through, leading up to conventional writing. The theory evolved from the concept of "reading readiness" or the notion that before children can learn to read, they must possess a certain mental maturity. Maturationists such as G. Stanley Hall and Arnold Gesell influenced early theories of literacy development and educational practices until the mid 20th century.
Attitudes toward literacy development began to shift when critics of reading readiness such as famed teacher Pukulski began to point out the theory's conceptional and functional flaws. Specifically, educators began to realize that literacy is not a static ability that develops at one distinct point in a child's education, but rather an ongoing evolution of abilities and attitudes. This conceptualization of literacy as an emergent, or developing, skill led parents and teachers to rethink their approach to teaching children how to read and write.
Long before children learn to write, they use writing tools like markers and crayons to draw pictures. Drawing is the earliest stage in the emergent writing process. At this point in their development, children create pictures which represent things, not words. They can use writing utensils to create shapes on the page, but in the child's mind the shapes are representations of the world around them rather than symbols representing the names of those things. In other words, they are just pictures.
As children continue to develop and become familiar with the concepts of reading and writing, their intentions and abilities when drawing will change. Drawing continues but begins to contain scribbles of "mock handwriting" and can be horizontally oriented, like the words in a book. Most importantly, the child intends the scribbles as actual words and may even assign meaning to their work, such as "This says 'good morning'!" for a row of loopy squiggles.
A crucial point in a child's literacy development is the realization that words are groups of individual letters. At this point scribbles begin to take shape and letter-like patterns begin appearing in the child's drawings. Although they are still unable to write the letters of the alphabet, children's scribbles have gone from squiggles and loops to alphabetical representations that resemble real letters.
Letters and Letter Strings
As the child continues to experience the printed word in their daily life, their scribbles and mock letters will morph into actual letters with which the child is familiar. Children may not even be aware that they are drawing actual letters. Often, letters appear within drawings in a row as "letter strings." The first letters children write are often those in their own name or the names of family members.
This is one of the most pivotal stages of emergent writing. Children at this stage use letters to create words, but know little about conventional spelling or phonetics. As a result, they "invent" words by clustering letters together and assigning meaning to them. Children in this stage may ask "What did I write?" signalling that while they are comfortable writing letters in groups they still cannot "write" conventional words.
At this stage, children have begun to form mental associations between letters and sounds and are starting to create words using that knowledge. These early phonetic words are sometimes written in all capitals or mixed-case letters and often include more consonants than vowels. Also, children at this stage tend to focus on the beginning and ending sounds in words before they grasp the middle sounds.
Eventually, the child's approximated spelling turns into conventionally spelled words. At this stage, children are learning and remembering new words at rapid rates. The first words to appear during this stage are often the child's name, followed by words such as "mom", "dad", "cat" or "dog". As the child's written vocabulary grows and they move through emergent writing stages their knowledge and grasp of conventional spelling improves.
Education Resources Information Center: A Review of the Research and Literature on Emergent Literacy
Western Illinois University: Stages of Children's Writing (PDF document)