Babies have fun making noises. They experiment with the range of sounds they can produce, from coos and gurgles to snorts, blowing bubbles, and loud "raspberries." This kind of playful vocalization happens when babies are by themselves and when they interact with adults. As their babbling becomes more advanced, they use the sounds of the adult language that surrounds them, with the rhythms and intonations of the native language they are already beginning to acquire. Babies at this stage of language development sound as though they are really talking, even ending their "sentences" with pauses, and sounding conversational, though their babbles make no sense.

Babbling is more than just "play" for babies (Galinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2000). They must practice the sounds of their language in order to produce real words. Even deaf babies of deaf parents, whose first language is to sign, "babble" with their hands, making gestures that mimic sign language but are not actual signs and do not convey meaning.

Young children in literate cultures go through a scribble-writing stage as they acquire written language. Scribble writing in a sense is the "babbling stage" for literacy. We are so familiar with the scribble writing that children do, making marks on the page in a seemingly random and meaningless way, that we often ignore the importance of this stage. Like babbling, it is more than play. It is an important stage where young children make marks on the page that look like written language, though these marks do not yet represent any meaning. The markings children make during the scribble writing stage reflect the kinds of symbol systems that are used in the written language of the culture that surrounds them.

The babbling and scribble stages are parallel tracks on a language acquisition continuum. The five basic categories along the continuum are ones that teachers and caregivers can easily recognize in the children they encounter. Recognizing what a child can do today helps us know what to be watching for and suggesting as "next steps" on the road to literacy.

Continuum for Language Development

Normal Oral Development

The Babbling Period

  • Produces vocalizations that sound like language
  • Practices sounds and intonations reflective of the language of the adults in the environment

Pointing and One-word Categorizing

  • Begins to use communication devices (vocalizes and points)
  • Attributes meaning to words or concepts
  • Produces single words to represent a word or concept

First Words and Growing Vocabulary

  • Uses social words and naming words
  • Able to form categories and use fast-mapping

Simple Sentences

  • Power of two-word utterances to represent complex thought
  • Telegraphic speech
  • Relies on context to communicate
  • Understands and uses syntax

Grammatical Capability

  • Understands sentence structure
  • Uses language to accomplish goals
  • Social conventions
  • Playfulness in language

Normal Written Development

Scribble Writing

  • Produces marks on a page that look like written language
  • Practices the markings that reflect the written language of the culture

Beginning Representation

  • Uses the page as a communication device
  • Produces first symbols on paper to represent meaning

Sound-Symbol Relationship

  • Creates words on the page using letters to represent sounds
  • Uses different social forms of writing

Beginning Narrative

  • Understands and uses sequence
  • Represents complex thought on the page
  • Relies on context to communicate

Using Writing to Get Things Done

  • Uses writing conventions
  • Uses genre conventions
  • Playfulness in writing
  • Uses writing to accomplish social and academic goals
Research Base
  • Anne Haas Dyson
  • Harste, Woodward, & Burke
  • Donald Graves
  • Harste, Woodward,
    & Burke
  • Anne Haas Dyson
  • Glenda Bissex
  • Ruth Hubbard
  • Susan Bridge
  • Donald Graves
  • Lucy Calkins
  • Glenda Bissex
  • Ruth Hubbard/ Shagoury
  • Carol Chomsky
  • Sandra Wilde
  • Arthur Applebee
  • Anne Haas Dyson
  • Gordon Wells
  • Judy Hilliker
  • Shirley Brice Heath
  • Lucy Calkins
  • Katie Wood Ray
  • Anne Haas Dyson
  • Emilia Ferreiro &
    Ana Teberosky
  • Sandra Wilde