Young children’s first writing is scribbling. They scribble up and down and around with pencils, markers, chalk, paint brushes, and even their fingers. Most adults tend to disregard this early stage of writing, saying: “Oh, it’s only scribbling.” But scribbling is to writing what babbling is to speaking: an early stage of children’s development that should be encouraged. As they continue to scribble, children begin to notice what they are doing. As their hands and fingers become stronger and they are better able to control their scribbling implement, their scribbles begin to evolve into shapes: circles, ovals, squares, and crosses, among others, one on top of the other.

Soon they are making scribbles that cover the middle of their paper, adding another line of scribbles underneath. This is the beginning of their differentiation between picture scribbles and writing scribbles. Sometimes they will pretend to read this pretend writing. Other times they may bring their “picture” over to you and ask you to read what it is about. Because you know how to read and they don’t, they assume you will be able to translate their linear writing scribbles. Simply tell them you used to be able to read scribble writing, but now you have forgotten how. Maybe they can tell you what it says.

Their picture scribbles may eventually evolve into something like an oval “head-person” with eyes and mouth, lines of hair sticking up from the top of the oval, arm lines sticking out from either side, and two leg lines sticking down from the bottom of the oval. Balls at the ends of the lines represent hands and feet.

Their lines of writing scribbles, however, look nothing like letters or words at first. Learning to write is not only a lengthy and complex process, but it is much different from what logic tells us it ought to be. It would seem that learning to write is simply learning to make letters and combine them into words. Research has proven otherwise. Rather than mastering the parts (letters) first, children do just the opposite. They attend to the whole (written lines) first, and much later to the parts (letters) (Temple, Nathan, & Burris, 1993).

Child development of all kinds proceeds from the general to the specific like this. In motor development, the large muscles of their arms and legs develop before the small muscles of their fingers and hands, toes and feet. In drawing, most children make generic humans who all look alike before they begin to draw specific people with identifying characteristics.

In writing, children first see the whole pattern (lines across a page) and only later can they identify separate words and finally letters. They are at the “emergent stage” in learning to write.   From their own observations, and not from being taught, they seem to extract the broad general features of the writing system: that it is arranged in rows across a page; that it consists of loops, sticks, and connected lines, repeated over and over. Some children fill pages of scribbled lines over and over from top to bottom in a sort of self-imposed practice, as in the 3M’s “mastery” level.

Eventually you will note that alphabet-like cursive letters (“mock letters”) begin to appear in their lines of scribbles. When children begin to write mostly lines of letters (“letter strings”), they may again ask you to read them, as previously noted. If given enough time and support, children will create their own knowledge about writing by extracting the information from the writing they see around them. It is not up to you to teach formal writing to preschool children. Instead, you should observe the kinds of scribble writing and mock writing they are doing and encourage them to continue by providing outlets for their writing: sign-up sheets, journals, messages, signs, lists, stories.

Printing is somewhat different from the cursive writing described here. Children also go through several emergent stages in teaching themselves to print letters and words with the letters in order. Even the letters of their names are sometimes mixed up, written backwards, upside down, or scattered around a page. The concept of a “word” is still somewhat fuzzy for them, and they often substitute the picture of an object for the word. It is not for you to correct them, but to encourage them by involving them in all kinds of writing. What they need is the freedom and time to experiment on their own. They will eventually get it right. As Temple, et al, tell us: “. . . it appears that we learn to write at least as much by discovering as by being taught. Learning to write is largely an act of discovery.”

Some child development specialists are worried that teachers who are unfamiliar with the concept of emergent writing, may not know how to help these children. As Schrader and Hoffman (1986) note:

When teachers are unfamiliar with current knowledge about the natural development of literacy in young children, they impose skill-oriented expectations and tasks on these youngsters—copying and tracing standard adult print, for example. Such activities not only are stressful for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children, but they do not afford children the opportunity to use their self-constructed knowledge in meaningful ways. (p. 13)