By: Cierra Williams, Ed.S
If you are anything like me, when I first started teaching, teaching students how to write was a daunting task. It seemed like such a simple task for me so I never understood why my students could not just sit down and write. I knew that many of them would struggle with spelling and grammar errors, but that was an easy fix. It was not until I issued my first writing assignment and the responses I got back were appalling, to say the absolute least. My students struggled with taking what they had learned and putting it into words. I had some students who did amazingly well, but the majority could not even write a proper sentence (Clay 2010). This was beyond the small grammatical and spelling errors I had expected. This day in teaching was humbling for me because I was stuck and had no idea where to go from there.
After several conversations with some veteran teachers, I began doing some research of my own and came across the stages of writing development. I was aware that students learn at varying levels and different stages, but I never considered this in the context of writing. Once I familiarized myself with the stages of writing development, lesson planning became easier and meeting my students where they are made writing a lot easier to teach and a lot more exciting to learn for them.
Teaching students how to write does not have to be the daunting task, I created in my own head. It can be quite simple. In order to begin you must familiarize yourself with The Stages of Writing Development. There are four stages pre-literate, emergent, transitional and fluent. Each of these stages will help you to determine where your students are, how to teach them most effectively, and activities that will help aid in their instruction.
The stages of the writing development were designed to show how children from birth to about 7 years old learn and develop writing skills. While it would be so beneficial if all students learned this way and, in this order, we know this is not always the case in our classrooms. We will have students who missed a step in their writing development or who were stifled at a step and as a result never learned proper writing skills. It is imperative that we recognize these issues early on so that students can begin the process of developing as they should at the grade level, they are in. Having a reading specialist makes this process easier because it allows for an expert in this area to help assess, identify and begin planning for ways to meet the writing needs of each individual child.
The Stages of Writing Development
Pre-Literate (0-2 years)
This is the first stage of writing development in this stage you will find that children will do a lot of scribbling and drawing, at this stage of development this is considered writing (Kaye 2020). During this stage, many children will often talk to themselves while they are scribbling or complete a ‘picture’ and say a word to accompany it. This is important because they believe they have written or drawn what they know to be that word or phrase. It is imperative that you applaud your students’ attempt to try because this will encourage them to continue to try writing.
An activity that would be beneficial to try at this stage would be to allow your child to scribble and draw as they see fit and then ask them to share what they have done. Completing this activity will allow them to begin putting words to what they see (Clay 2010).
Emergent (2-4 years)
This is the second stage of writing development and arguably one of the most important because this is when letters start to emerge in children’s scribbles and drawings. While students may not be able to connect sounds or even meanings to the letters they are writing, they are watching and mimicking what they see adults do. It is important during this stage to start helping them give meaning to the letters they are attempting to create.
For this stage an awesome activity would be to begin teaching them how to write their name. Showing them how to write their name helps the student begin to make connections between letters as symbolic rather than the scribble they are used to.
Transitional (4-7 years)
Students who are in the transitional stage of writing development have begun to transition from strings of letters just being merely symbols to those letters having sounds attached to them (Lopez, Gomez, & Perea 2021). Students who are in this stage of the writing development will practice a skill called “invented spelling” in which they will simply write the sounds they hear to match with the letters. For example, “My dog is red” will be written as “mi dg iz rd”. While this is technically wrong, it is a great sounding out of letters and a true indicator that a child’s reading and writing skills have grown significantly.
A great activity for a student in this stage of development would be to work together to write a very short story but allow the student to take control of the writing. Have the student then act out the story they have written. Please remember, their misspellings are okay in this stage of development. They are still learning and just beginning to make the connections between letters and their sounds.
Fluent (5-6 years)
The fluent stage is the last stage of writing development. This is the stage in which students begin transitioning from using those invented spellings to the actual dictionary spellings. This is a great stage to begin introducing the student to sight words so, they can begin memorizing them and learning how to spell them. While spelling is learned in this stage it is imperative not to overly stress the importance of spelling as this can make the student feel overwhelmed and recoil back to old stages of development. The goal is to keep the child confident so encourage them to continue trying.
The best way to practice spelling is to have the student write about things they are interested. Have the student choose a friend, family member, or teacher to write a letter to describing the stuff they like to do for fun. Use this letter as an opportunity for the student to be as creative as possible and write down what they want to how they want to. It would be a good idea to use the concepts of drafts so that the students can practice writing something until it is almost perfect.
Clay, M. (2010). How Very Young Children Explore Writing. Heinemann: New Hampshire.
Fernández-López, M., Gómez, P., & Perea, M. (2021). Which Factors Modulate Letter Position Coding in Pre-literate Children? Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi-org.lopes.idm.oclc.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.708274
Kaye, P. (2020). Stages of writing development: Teach your child to write. Babycenter.