ERIC Identifier: ED446341
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Lu, Mei-Yu
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.

Writing Development. ERIC Digest D159.

The purpose of this digest is to review children's writing development from socio-cultural, generative, and developmental perspectives. The development of children's writing has its roots in their social interaction with other more competent members of the society through various meaningful, purposeful activities (Haneda & Wells, 2000; Newman & Roskos, 1997). In a literate society, children are immersed in a world of print. As they grow older, children usually show an interest in writing if they have opportunities to observe other people writing and are invited to participate in literacy activities, such as making shopping lists and listening to bedtime stories (Bissex, 1980; Martens, 1996; Purcell-Gates, 1996). Gradually, children realize that both oral and written languages are purposeful and meaningful activities (Bissex, 1980; Garton & Pratt, 1998).


Observational studies of children's writing development reveal that their early writing is usually accompanied by talking and drawing (Bissex, 1980; Dyson, 1988a; McLane, 1990). Children usually use their drawing and talk to support their early exploration and use of print (Dyson, 1988a). Children may initially regard writing and drawing as the direct symbol systems in which meaning is embedded (Ferreiro and Teberosky, 1982). Therefore, as children write, they weave their drawing and speech into their writing to convey meanings (Dyson, 1983; Gundlach, 1982).


In addition to speech and drawing, play characterizes children's early writing development (Dyson & Freedman, 1991; Newman & Roskos, 1997). Vygotsky (1978) proposes that "make-believe play, drawing, and writing can be viewed as different moments in an essentially unified process of development of written language" (p. 116). Pretending serves as a bridge to literacy development (McLane and McNamee, 1990): (1) As a symbolic activity, pretend play allows children to develop and refine their capacities to use symbols, to represent experience, and to construct imaginary worlds, capacities they will draw on when they begin to write and read; (2) As an orientation or approach to experience, play can make the various roles and activities of people who read and write more meaningful and hence more accessible to young children.

Clay (1975) points out that when children explore with written language, they usually play with basic graphic features, such as the linearity of the print. In the observation of her own son's writing, Bissex (1980) found that he mentally manipulated and played with the arrangement of word strings (i.e., "You spell book B-O-O-K. To write 'look' you just change one letter--take away the B and add an L" [p.14]) while writing a song or lying on the bed.


Children's earliest conventional written words are usually their own names (Bloodgood, 1999; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982). While children's names play an important role in expressing self identity (Garton & Pratt, 1998), they also affect children's early writing development. Research by Dyson (1983) and Liberman (1985) suggests that young children often use their names as a basis for their further learning in writing. When children are aware of some letters within their names, they will begin to use these letters in their writing (Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984). In addition to their own names, children use signs, captions, and labels in early writing (McLane & McNamee, 1990; Bissex, 1980). The signs, captions, and labels serve different functions. They can be used to explain and identify children's drawings (McLane, 1990), announce, assert ownership (McLane & McNamee, 1990; Bissex, 1980), and to create an imaginary world (Dyson, 1988b).


As children advance in the elementary school, their writing undergoes changes. At this stage, children may just explore and experiment with different forms of writing which focus on the mastery, competency, and control of writing (Bissex, 1980). Children might repeatedly write familiar words/phrases (Clay, 1975; Edelsky, 1986), or copy whole text/stories (Dyson & Freedman, 1991). Gradually through exploration and experimentation, coupled with writing and reading experiences at home and at school, children elaborate and refine their old forms of writing, and new forms emerge (Kamberelis, 1999).

As children's forms of writing diversify, their awareness of audience develops accordingly. In their early writing, children tend to write for an immediate or specific audience, such as their parents, relatives or friends. As new forms evolve from old forms, children apply both to achieve various purposes (Bissex, 1980).

In addition to changes in form and audience awareness, children's writing becomes more coherent and internally cohesive during the school years (Dyson & Freedman, 1991). Dyson and Freedman (1991) point out, "children become less likely to make reference outside the texts themselves (e.g., to begin texts with "This is") or to use pronouns without references (e. g., to use "He is" when who "he" "is" is not clear)." Another change appears in children's global structure of their written text; their text becomes longer and more complex over time (Beach, 1996; Dyson & Freedman, 1991).

Studies on the development and the complexity in children's writing, especially their story writing, have shown that before children start school, most of them already understand the underlying features of storytelling (Applebee, 1978; Martens, 1996). King and Rental (1982) investigated the development of complexity in children's story writing during the first two years of schooling. They found that as children's oral skill develops, the complexity of their writing increased accordingly. With coherence and internal connectedness, the development of writing continues throughout children's school years and into adulthood.


Studies in children's writing development show that learning to write is a socio-cultural, generative, and developmental process. Children acquire written language as they actively explore various forms and functions. They also interact with other more competent writers in their community. Children also play with written language and weave it into activities such as drawing, speech, and play. It is through the various and rich literacy experiences that children become competent and creative members of a literate society.


Applebee, A. N. (1978). "The child's concept of story: Age two to seventeen". Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Beach, S. A. (1996). Facilitating young writers' development. "Reading Psychology", 17 (2), 181-190.

Bissex, G. L. (1980). "GNYS AT WRK: A child learns to read and write". Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bloodgood, J. W. (1999). What's in a name? Children's name writing and literacy acquisition. "Reading Research Quarterly", 34 (3), 342-367.

Clay, M. (1975). "What did I write?" Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann.

Dyson, A. H. (1983). The role of oral language in early writing process. "Research in the Teaching of Language", 17 (1), 1-30

Dyson, A. H. (1988a). Unintentional helping in the primary grades: writing in the children's world. In B. A. Rafoth & D. L. Rubin (Eds.), "The social construction of written communication" (pp. 218-248). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Dyson, A. H. (1988b). Negotiating among multiple words: the space/time dimensions of young children's composing. "Research in the Teaching of English", 22 (4), 355-391.

Dyson, A. H. & Freedman, S. W. (1991). Writing. In J. Flood, J. M. Jensen, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire (Eds.) "Handbook of research on teaching English language arts". New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Edelsky, C. (1986). "Writing in a bilingual program: Haba una vez". Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Ferreiro, E., & Teberosky, A. (1982). "Literacy before schooling". Exter, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Garton, A. & Pratt, C. (1998). "Learning to be literate: The development of spoken and written language" (2nd ed.). New York: Blackwell.

Gundlach, R. (1982). Children as writers: The beginnings of learning to write. In M. Nystrand (Ed.), "What writers know" (pp. 129-148). New York: Academic Press.

Haneda, M. & Wells, G. (2000). Writing in knowledge-building communities. "Research in the teaching of English", 34 (3), 430-457.

Harste, J. C., Woodward, V. A., & Burke, C. L. (1984). "Language stories and literacy lessons". Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Kamberelis, G. (1999). Genre development and learning: Children writing stories, science reports, and poems. "Research in the teaching of English", 33 (4), 403-60.

King, M. & Rentel, V. (1982). "Transition to writing". Columbus, OH: Ohio State University.

Liberman, E. J. (1985). "Name writing and the preschool child". Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Arizona.

Martens, P. (1996). "I already know how to read: A child's view of literacy". Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McLane, J. B. (1990). Writing as a social process. In L. C. Moll (Ed.), "Vygotsky and Education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology" (pp. 304-318). Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

McLane, J. B. & McNamee, G. D. (1990). "Early Literacy". Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Newman, S. B. & Roskos, K. (1997). Literacy knowledge in practice: Contexts of participation for young writers. "Reading Research Quarterly", 32 (1), 10-33.

Purcell-Gates, (1996). Stories, Coupons, and the "TV Guide": Relationships between Home Literacy experiences and Emergent Literacy Knowledge. "Reading Research Quarterly"; 31 (4), 406-28.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). "Mind in society". (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds. & Trans.). Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press.

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