Early writing and why it matters

By: Sonia Q. Cabell, Laura S. Totorelli

Early writing, often used synonymously with the term emergent writing, encompasses the following: (a) the manual act of producing physical marks (i.e., mechanics), (b) the meanings children attribute to these markings (i.e., composition), and (c) understandings about how written language works (i.e., orthographic knowledge; Berninger, 2009). Although mechanics and composition are important features of early writing, we focus our attention on orthographic knowledge—how children’s marks reflect growing understandings of the writing system.

These understandings include both general conventions (e.g., print goes from left to right on a page) and understandings of specific features (e.g., speech can be represented by individual sounds, which can be written down using letters). We use the term early writing to refer to children’s representations of their knowledge about the writing system (i.e., orthographic knowledge).

Early writing is one of the best predictors of children’s later reading success (National Early Literacy Panel [NELP], 2008). Specifically, early writing is part of a set of important foundational literacy skills that serve as necessary precursors to conventional reading (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998), including developing understandings of both print (i.e., print concept and alphabet knowledge) and sound (i.e., phonological awareness).

Print knowledge includes general understandings of how print works (e.g., left-to-right directionality) and the names and sounds of the alphabet. Knowledge about sound, or phonological awareness, includes the ability to attend to and manipulate sound structure of language, progressing from awareness of larger chunks (e.g., sentences, rhyme, beginning sounds) to blending and segmenting individual units of sound (i.e., phonemic awareness), for example, understanding that the word cat is made up of /c/, /a/, and /t/. These early skills work together to lay a foundation for later reading success (NELP, 2008).

As children integrate their knowledge of print and sound, they begin to grasp the alphabetic principle, a critical achievement in early literacy. The alphabetic principle is the understanding that oral language is made up of smaller sounds and that letters represent those sounds in a systematic way.

Children can grow in their understanding of how print and sound work together through experimenting with writing. Writing serves as a type of laboratory, in which even very young children are actively creating and testing hypotheses about how writing works (Bissex, 1980). Children notice print in their environment and use their experiences to invent and revise ideas about the rules that govern writing, “cracking the code” of literacy one piece at a time.

For example, a child might believe based on his experience with print and knowledge of the world that really big animals have really big written representations. So he might represent the word elephant with a very big and wide scribble and might represent the word bee with a very short, tiny scribble.

As he begins to grasp the alphabetic principle, his hypotheses change, and he may later represent the word elephant with an L and the word bee with the letter B.