Stages in the Acquisition of Written Language

Discover the different stages in the acquisition of written language in children, from their first scribble to conventional writing.
Stages in the Acquisition of Written Language

Last update: 02 August, 2022

Writing and reading are instruments and tools to access and produce written language. But reading and writing are separate tasks. In the paragraphs you’ll find below, we’ll focus on writing. We’ll see the different stages in the acquisition of written language that children go through before mastering conventional writing perfectly.

However, not all children go through these stages at the same age. As we well know, each child is unique and has their own pace of development and learning. Therefore, we must validate and congratulate every little achievement.

When do children start learning to write?

Traditionally, reading and writing have been considered as something that should be systematically taught in school. However, for Ana Teberoski and Emilia Ferreiro, “the activities of interpretation and production of writing begin before school, as part of the activity of preschool age”.

These two authors make this statement based on a series of investigations they carried out with children from different countries and from different social classes. Therefore, the studies by Ferreiro and Teberosky tell us that the child begins their learning of writing long before the adult begins a systematic teaching of it.

A child learning to write during one of the stages in the acquisition of written language.

Likewise, they point out that children try to understand from a very early age all the information that the literate environment provides them, such as labels, advertisements, texts on containers, newspapers, magazines, and on television, etc.

Although there are predetermined stages in the acquisition of written language, not all children have to go through them at the same age. Like other learning, each infant has their own individual pace.

At the same time, learning to write, like reading, is conditioned by several factors, including:

  • Rich and varied interactions of the child in different literate contexts
  • Interest and motivation in the face of the written proposal
  • Emotional autonomy to resolve the acts of writing and reading

Stages in the acquisition of written language

Children, in order to learn to read and write, as happens with any cognitive learning, go through different stages. During these stages, they themselves are capable of formulating different hypotheses regarding how to write, they test their assumptions to improve and face different cognitive conflicts.

As little ones know nothing about writing until they use it in a conventional way, they’ll go through several phases. According to Teberosky, these are categorized as follows.

Undifferentiated presyllabic writing

This level is divided into two phases:

  • Graphic undifferentiation of drawing and writing.

For children, their first form of writing is drawing; they don’t distinguish between drawing and writing. During this stage, it’s characteristic that children “read” what they draw, although they vary their reading each time they’re asked. The important thing about this fact is that the infant assigns a purpose to their drawing and considers it as if it were writing.

But this graphic lack of differentiation doesn’t last long. In a short time, they’ll move on to the stage of differentiation, where they’re already able to graphically recognize between drawing and writing. However, they still include the pictures in the letters, so that the picture supports the writing to give it meaning.

  • Differentiated stage.

In this phase, the child is already able to differentiate drawings from letters. However, they make the same letters for any word or sentence.

The spellings used by children differ in three types of graphic codes:

  • A single character that can be attributed to an object or a verbal statement.
  • Squiggly lines are based on graphics linked together that form a wavy line.
  • Independent graphics formed by curved and straight lines, or a mixture of both.

Although these codes or doodles mean nothing to adults, as in the previous stage, children can “read” what they write. Also, at this stage, they write with a purpose. They can write a letter, a story, a shopping list…, as they’re able to recognize that there are different writing formats.

Differentiated presyllabic writing

During this stage, children will learn to make increasingly precise and letter-like strokes. In the same way, they begin to be more aware of conventional writing. This can be seen in the effort they make to integrate real letters with their invented letters.

At first, little ones write letters without correspondence to the sounds. Other times, there may be letter patterns, and at other times, they may copy words without understanding the meaning. Also, they discover that, in order to decipher something, the letters must be different and that they must have more than one spelling that’s not repeated.

A child learning to write starting with scribbling.

Phonetization stage

It’s here when a phoneticization of writing is observed. In other words, the child is capable of producing the correspondence between the sounds that letters make and how they’re written. In turn, the strokes are firmer and safer, although there are spelling errors. Different levels of writing may appear at this stage.

  • Syllabic level. At this level, the child represents each unit of sound with a letter. Thus, each syllable corresponds to a letter. OAO(TO MA TO).
  • Alphabetical syllabic level. Here, children write with both vowels and consonants. Some letters occupy the syllable value, but others correspond to phonemes. TO MO O (TO MOR ROW).
  • Alphabet level. The child already masters the purpose and value of syllables and letters. They have a clear word concept and are capable of making the phoneme-grapheme correspondence, although they’re not yet capable of mastering specific spelling, such as uppercase and lowercase letters, blank spaces, changes between letters (b and v, c and z, m and n), punctuation marks, etc…

However, these errors aren’t important, as the child will learn and correct as they interact with the written language.

Another characteristic that can be observed at this stage is the invented spelling used by some children. Ferreiro and Teberosky tell us that this stage isn’t the end of literacy development, but the starting point of new stages that will bring with them new cognitive problems.

From alphabetic to calligraphic

The previous levels are encompassed and give rise to a properly calligraphic process, which starts at approximately six years of age. Let’s talk about the stages:

  • Precalligraphic: In this stage, the strokes aren’t yet controlled. When writing, the child lowers their head to look closely. Torso and forearm seem to lie on the table and the wrist remains slightly raised. They tire very quickly and express restlessness.
  • Children’s calligraphy: Here, there’s mastery of graphics, the calligraphy is regular and shows mastery of fine motor skills. Regarding written production, errors such as rotations, inversions, omissions, additions, substitutions, or mirror writing are common, as well as confusion between graphemes and phonemes, among others. But all this only indicates the frank progress of a very complex activity that requires constant training.
  • Post-calligraphic: At this stage, the calligraphy is distorted and personalized by the need to copy quickly. In this regard, María Crus Pérez Sans says: “From the age of 12 (post-calligraphic phase), the writer enters a stage of life in which the desire for singularity and its manifestation becomes more and more evident. This, along with the demands of speed that academic life entails”

“…only the automation of handwriting, as a basic instrumental technique, will allow the child to shift their attention to other aspects of the written response such as spelling, grammar, syntax, and even content…”

Maria C. Perez

Things to keep in mind about the acquisition of written language

Each stage that the child goes through in the process of acquiring written language is very important. Therefore, parents and educators must validate, congratulate and positively reinforce what children “write”.

It’s good to ask them questions like: “What did you write? Who did you write for? Why did you write it?” It brings joy and satisfaction to little ones. In addition, they’ll feel motivated and eager to learn more and more words.

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  • Pérez Sanz, M. C. (1993). La escritura como apariencia: la aceptabilidad de la escritura. Didáctica (lengua y literatura).
  • Teberosky, A., & FERREIRO, E. (1979). Los sistemas de escritura en el desarrollo del niño. Madrid.
  • Vissani, L. E., Scherman, P., & Fantini, N. D. (2017). Emilia Ferreiro y Ana Teberosky. Los sistemas de escritura en el desarrollo del niño. In IX Congreso Internacional de Investigación y Práctica Profesional en Psicología XXIV Jornadas de Investigación XIII Encuentro de Investigadores en Psicología del MERCOSUR. Facultad de Psicología-Universidad de Buenos Aires.