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Writing Milestones to Watch For

Nothing is more exciting than watching our children learn to read and write. The good news is if they’ve heard hundreds of stories, have books to interact with, have access to writing materials, and see you model reading and writing in everyday life, they’re just champing at the bit to learn to read and write themselves. 

It’s a challenge

Learning to write with conventional spelling is no easy feat. Imagine starting over again in a new language in which there are 26 times 2 symbols, dozens
 of sounds made by said symbols, and a list of rules as long as your arm, all with exceptions (you might just pass on that bit of learning).

But your child can’t pass on this learning. Reading and writing are the doorways to learning. They need these skills and will use them for the rest of their lives. And let’s face it, kids have the capacity to persevere where we adults might be prone to give up.

Reading and Writing = Literacy

You can’t talk about writing without including reading skills. “Emergent literacy” is the term used when children gain knowledge, bit by bit, gradually gaining understanding of the way the English alphabet works.

Young children, even babies
 and toddlers, are in the process of 
becoming readers and writers. As
 we adults expose them to books and 
provide a rich learning environment,
 children make their way through a series of lessons toward conventional reading and writing proficiency.

From squiggles to words

Here are the stages children move through as they become more and more skilled in writing:

1. Drawing and scribbling. At an early age, children begin to understand that messages are conveyed with pencil and paper. They see words in books, they see letters and words in their home and in public places, they see their parents reading the mail and reading books. They want to do that, too, so they begin by making marks on paper. Even toddlers enjoy scribbling and later drawing. They may tell you their marks are pictures of a family member or a pet, or they may convey the message they have in their head, “This says, ‘I love you!’”

Parents can encourage every effort of written communication and suggest more writing projects. This is not the time to ‘correct mistakes.’ Your child’s efforts are not mistakes, they are developmental strides toward real words and sentences.

2. Letter and letter-like forms. Children are learning the alphabet via books, songs, labels, and written messages in their environment. They try to reproduce those letters. They may try a circle shape for the round letters and straight lines or block shapes for others. They begin to understand that letters are strung together and move from left to right.

Parents can model writing real words such as family names, posting labels for common items around the house, and continue to provide any writing information the child asks for.

3. Beginning and ending sounds. As your child learns the sounds that each letter says, they’ll try to string them together into words. They understand that they must use certain letters in a certain order and add spaces in-between. Each word carries meaning. They’ll hear the beginning sound of words first, thus the letter “c” or “k” may mean “cat.” Later they’ll include the ending sounds (“ct”) and some children notice dominant sounds in the middle of words such as “bbl” for “bubble.”

Parents can begin to print out three- and four-letter words for their children. Help them notice that each sound works together to make the word. Write their name and let them copy it. Encourage any independent writing and champion their efforts.

4. Invented spellings. Now our little writer is cruising! The vowel sounds, which are so tricky and unpredictable, may be wrong but the writing is now legible and understandable: “I rod mi bik.” Since the words approximate the correct spellings, they get their message across to readers. Provide lots of opportunities for the child to respond in writing. Work on vowel sounds,
 both long and short during short lessons, but allow the invented spellings in their writing efforts.

5. Conventional spellings. Through much trial and error, study, and through reading many books, children finally arrive at conventional spellings of the English language. Even adult writers continue to misspell many words because the English language has so many similar sounds and so many exceptions to the rules.

Your role

You, the fortunate parent, have the joy and privilege of directing your little writer toward success. Your child will move through the various stages at their own pace - sometimes hovering between two levels for a time before moving on. There is no rush. The focus should be on writing as a tool of communication and the process should be enjoyable.

As much as possible, encourage writing growth through authentic writing tasks. Let’s say you want to learn French. Which would you rather do? Trace five words in that language beginning with a certain letter, or try to write
a short letter to your friend? Fill in the blanks on the names for food items or make a real grocery list or order from a lovely French restaurant menu?

Children tire of rote memory work. Sometimes it is necessary, but usually there is a better, more authentic option. Have them write to a pen pal, tell the story of their pet’s life, write an invitation to a friend for a sleepover... you get the picture. Give them a real reason to practice and then the ‘work’ is also fun.

Reading and writing are essential tools for learning. They open the door to knowledge about anything in this great big world. You can help your child master reading and writing at the earliest age possible by providing a positive learning environment in your home from day one.

Read books, engage in conversations, make books and writing materials available, and give lots of praise for any and all reading and writing efforts. You’ll be amazed when your child asks, “How do I spell...?” (Insert big word here.)

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and reading specialist. She is the author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun: Unplugged. Find her at



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