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A Comparison Between the History of Writing and Children’s Transition into Conventional Writing: Parallels and Divergences

June E. Barnhart

      Over the past two decades, results from emergent literacy research have shown that children have literacy knowledge that is correct by conventional standards. Furthermore, descriptions of young children show that they have literacy knowledge that is emerging toward conventional standards along a logical path based on features of written language, both in its graphic form and in its function (Barnhart, 1988; Chomsky, 1970; Clay, 1975; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982; Sulzby, 1985).

      These descriptions now suggest that children explore various hypotheses before understanding that the writing surrounding them is alphabetic in nature. The writing of children which precedes the discovery of the alphabetic principle, however, is far from unstructured. Rather, children’s early writing behaviors provide evidence of their efforts in their search for an understanding of the rules of our alphabetic writing system.

      From this descriptive research, two questions relating to the transition process from emergent to conventional writing warrant further attention: (a) how can we characterize children’s development into conventional writing; and (b) why does writing in young children develop toward a conventional adult model?

      In an effort to explore these two questions, the present paper drew from the knowledge base that describes two levels of orthographic development. First, drawing on the historical work by Gelb (1963), the evolutionary development of writing across time for humanity was examined in order to grasp some notion of what there is to be discovered about written language at a global level. Second, a focused consideration of current research that offers empirical descriptions of writing development in young children was considered (Barnhart, 1988; Dyson, 1985; Richgels, 1995; Sulzby, 1985; Sulzby, Barnhart, & Hieshima, 1989; Teale & Sulzby, 1986). The discussion then searched for parallels and divergences that can be discerned between these two levels of orthographic development that may hold promising and insightful implications for researchers and teachers who study and instruct young children. Finally, this paper attempted to explain parallels in broad transitional patterns of change between the two phenomena by suggesting a common mechanism of change at the global level.

The Evolution of Writing

      In his book, A Study of Writing, Gelb (1963) traces the history of writing from its earliest stage of expressing meaning via loose connections with speech, to the later stage of writing as an expression of meaning via a linguistic speech form. While a detailed and comprehensive account of this history can be secured from Gelb (1963), the discussion which follows presents only a brief sketch of the salient relationships and patterns relevant to the discussion at hand. The writing systems to be highlighted here include: (a) pictographic writing, (b) ideographic writing, (c) syllabic writing, and (d) alphabetic writing.

Pictographic Writing

      According to Gelb (1963), man first attempted to convey his thoughts and feelings via pictures in order to convey intended meaning. Thus, visible, drawn forms expressed meaning directly without an intervening linguistic form. One such device was pictographic writing. Fazzioli (1986) defines pictographic writing as a direct iconic representation such as the sun, the moon, or a tree. Pictographs embody an extremely simple and primitive notion about how to communicate by means of visual symbols.

Ideographic Writing

      A second device described by Gelb (1963) is ideographic writing. A simple ideograph is an abstract symbol that represents ideas not spoken words (simply, “idea writing”), such as three horizontal lines to represent the number 3 or an arrow to signal the directions up or down (Fazzioli, 1986). Road signs convey messages to motorists (e.g., the idea that a winding road is up ahead, they will be driving on a 2-way highway, etc.) in the form of simple ideographs. Other examples used in our writing system today include number symbols (1, 2, 3, etc.), mathematical operation signs (+, =, etc.), and others ($, &, #, etc.).

      Chinese writing is a modern system based on the principle of using a single symbol to represent an idea. In ancient times the symbols were pictures of things they represented. Through constant use, the symbols came to look less like pictures, and the meanings became abstracted from the original concrete things that the symbols represented.

      The widely used systems of pictographic and ideographic writing are perhaps best represented by the American Indians. This stage in the history of writing is called “descriptive” or “representational” by Gelb (1963), since these pictures served to communicate ideas by means of pictures, each of which separately or by their sum total, suggested the intended meaning.


Syllabic Writing

      According to Gelb (1963), it was the invention of the phonetic principle (the principle that relates symbols with words on the basis of sound) that was instrumental in opening new horizons in the history of writing. With the introduction of phonetization, a new device was created by means of phonetic transfer. This system of writing can be illustrated by the rebus system. When a graphic sign no longer has any visual relationship to the word it represents it becomes a symbol for the sounds which represent the word. A single sign can then be used to represent all words with the same sound (i.e., the homophones of the language).     

Alphabetic Writing   

      But even in a language with a “simple” and regular structure the number of syllables which would have to be used is enormous. The use of the alphabet, as we know it, was a Greek invention that occurred approximately 5,000 years ago. Instead of representing a whole syllable (a vowel plus a consonant), the new Greek symbols would represent either a consonant or a vowel, but not both. Thus, according to Gelb (1963), the alphabet and the alphabetic principle were invented as maximally efficient systems for transcribing human language. The 26 letters of our alphabet can, in some combination, represent all of the sounds contained in all 130,000+ words in a large English dictionary.

      Four major types of writing systems have been briefly described as: (a) the pictographic system, which uses pictures to directly represent meaning; (b) the ideographic system, which uses symbols to represent whole words or ideas; (c) the syllabic system, which uses symbols to represent syllables; and (d) the alphabetic system, which uses symbols to represent individual speech sounds or “phonemes”.     

      The history of writing shows that the concept of alphabetization took humanity a great deal of time to establish. From our reconstruction of the various phases of writing through history, it appears that we can characterize the process as unidirectional. In other words, there has been systematic change in one overall direction. Over historical time, there has been a gradual increase in the use and awareness of increasingly more abstract linguistic levels and categories.

      Our brief review of the history of writing further suggests that writing systems evolved via a process of hierarchical developmental sequence (Flavell, 1977). In this type of pattern, simpler constituents develop earlier, and the more complex structures develop later. In tracing the history of writing, the evolution of writing moved in steps from a point where meaning was transcribed directly via pictures toward the transcription of meaning by sound.

      In fact, Gelb (1963) argues that in reaching its ultimate development, any system of writing (whatever its forerunners may be) must pass through stages in the following order: ideographic, syllabic, and alphabetic. A system of writing can naturally stop at one stage without evolving further, and some writing systems have. However, according to Gelb (1963) if the evolutionary process is to continue, no stage of development can be skipped.

Writing Development in Young Children

      From this overview of the history of writing and a discussion of the nature of the change process, let’s now look at writing development on a different level--writing development in young children. First we ask, “How can we characterize their progress through various hypotheses about written language until they develop an understanding and use of alphabetic writing?”

      Over the past two decades research results have reported that children who are not yet writing and reading conventionally, nevertheless, exhibit knowledge of features of the written language system of their culture. For example, when kindergartners were asked, “What can you write?” Sulzby (1985) reports that they most often used conventional spelling and conventional letters; however, when asked to write a story, these 5-year-olds used a range of writing forms including drawing, scribbling, letter strings, and some conventional spelling.

      More recent research (Barnhart, 1986, 1988) confirms these findings. When kindergarten children were asked to write isolated, familiar words they often used conventional and invented spelling. Yet, when these same children were asked to write a sentence, they used more variety in writing forms. Further, when asked to write a story, even more variety in writing forms was reported. More specifically, when asked to write a sentence, some chose to draw; others used letter strings, invented spelling, or conventional spelling. When asked to write a story, some children chose to draw their story, while others used scribbling or curved letterlike forms. Others used strings of letters or name-elements to stand for their stories. Still others used invented spelling systems varying from one letter to stand for one syllable to full invented spelling. A few used some conventional spelling. Importantly, when asked to write a story many children used a combination of various writing systems.

      Along these lines, Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 provide photocopy reductions of writing samples from kindergarten children that were produced in September of the school year. All children were asked to write the following items: MOM, DAD, BEAR, DUCK, MY DOG EATS BONES, and to write a story about how they learned to ride a bicycle or big wheel. After each item was written, they were asked to read what they had written, and the readings of their productions are included in parentheses.

         - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

          Insert Figs. 1, 2, ,3, 4 about here

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The representative examples presented in these four figures illustrate the variety in writing systems between and within children that has been described consistently by researchers in emergent literacy (e.g., Barnhart, 1988, 1991; Dyson, 1985; Sulzby, Barnhart & Hieshima, 1989).

      Thus, researchers to date report that children use a wide range of writing forms that fluctuate as the items vary in phonetic complexity, abstractness, and task demands (Barnhart, 1988). However, rather than a strict developmental sequence, Sulzby (1985) proposes that these writing systems are part of a many-featured repertoire, and children may fall back on lower-level knowledge in order to accomplish a higher-order goal.

      Similar to the evolution of writing across time, research shows that young children’s gradual transition toward conventional, alphabetic writing appears to also be unidirectional--from less to more alphabetization. Slowly, from infancy onward, children develop knowledge about writing and reading, and gradually these various notions form patterns that become more and more integrated and organized. However, instead of learning about written language in a serial manner, research suggests that young children uncover multiple features of written language concurrently.


In contrast to the history of writing, empirical evidence suggests that the transition process in children’s written language development may follow a pattern of developmental synchrony. In other words, if the development of performance A and B does not form a consistent sequence in a sample, the synchronous development of two or more performance capabilities may emerge together during some interval of time. The development of writing behaviors does not form a consistent sequence across all children with research suggesting instead that there may be the synchronous development of two or more written language behaviors which are unordered. Sulzby (1992) concludes that children write with many forms before developing a concept close to conventional writing, moving back and forth across these forms, and numerous studies likewise document the apparent ambivalence children show about writing forms (Barnhart, 1986, 1988; Sulzby, 1983, 1985; Sulzby, Barnhart & Hieshima, 1989).

      While research suggests that literacy development in young children does not proceed via one series of hierarchical levels or stages, neither does the evidence suggest that development proceeds idiosyncratically. Rather, evidence suggests that literacy development may follow a complicated pattern even though overall, children do progress toward conventional, alphabetic writing (Sulzby, 1985).

      So, when we look at the specific pattern of change, there is a divergence between the history of writing and the development of writing in young children. However, if we now focus on the similarities between the history of writing and writing development in young children, we can ask our second question--“Before formal instruction in school, why does writing in young children develop toward a conventional, alphabetic model?” It appears that both phenomena systematically change in a unidirectional manner, suggesting a shared source of overall change (i.e., a common underlying mechanism of change).

Parallels in Underlying Mechanism of Change

      Perhaps it can be suggested that with regard to the history of writing, writing passed from one stage to another because at a certain time a new system was deemed better suited to local needs than the one currently in use. In other words, improvement and adaptation to conditions were the aims of the evolution of writing as it progressed across time, developing in the direction of a more suitable and efficient means of human communication.

      According to Gelb (1963), writing began at the time when humans learned to communicate their thoughts and feelings by visible signs that were understandable, initially, only to the individual creating the marks. In the beginning, pictures served as a visual expression of an individual’s ideas in a form that was, to a great extent, independent of speech. Thus, the relationship between writing and speech in the early stages of the evolution of writing was very loose, in as much as the written message did not correspond to exact forms of speech. In other words, a given message could be read (i.e., put into words) in many different ways. In later periods, systematic application of “phonetization” enabled individuals to express their ideas in a form which would correspond to exact categories of speech.

      But, is there any inherent reason why children who speak English should expect writing to eventually work by the alphabetic principle? Discovering how to write conventionally in English involves making choices from a very large range of alternatives. So, if children from certain cultures finally arrive at an alphabetic understanding to the exclusion of other hypotheses it might be suggested that they may do so because any other hypotheses enter into unsolvable conflicts with information provided by the writing system which they experience in their environment. Along these lines, Scribner and Cole (1981) view literacy as a cultural practice. Thus, when children become literate they use writing and reading in the performance of the practices which constitute their culture.

      For many children then, the discovery that written language can be transformed into speech and speech into written language is not at all accidental (Heath, 1982; Ninio & Bruner, 1978; Scollon & Scollon, 1981). Parents in many cultural groups engage their children in school-oriented book-reading, picture-labeling games, and telling and reading bedtime stories. The modeling of parents and older siblings may provide the impetus for children to experiment with writing as they become interested in the functions and uses of the writing system of their culture. Gundlach (1982) suggests that children begin to write because they have come to value written language through interactions with parents, siblings, and literate others around them, and to use written language for the purposes already important to them when they talk, draw, and play. Thus, children write to name and organize parts of their worlds, to capture their experiences, to tell stories, to fulfill family and school responsibilities, to communicate messages to readers, to make lists to help them remember, etc. On this journey, children draw on different models in developing an understanding of the uses and forms of writing. In other words, they take different routes to the same destination. Similar to the history of writing, the young child’s writing evolves from serving as a personal and private system for recording his or her ideas, feelings, and speech to the conventional model, as writing comes to be viewed as a means of human communication that requires a socially- and culturally-shared symbol system.


Thus, with regard to both the history of writing and writing development in young children, socially interactive events may be the inducer, playing an essential role in both triggering and shaping the evolution of writing at both levels.

      This suggests a mechanism-related parallel between the history of writing and writing development in young children. It is proposed here that the basis for this dynamic process at both levels lies in the sociocultural influences that surround language, and applies regardless of whether we are considering it from the perspective of changes in writing systems across history or changes in writing systems across the child’s lifetime.


Results of the present comparison between two levels of orthographic development (i.e., the history of writing and children’s transition into conventional writing), lead us to suggest the following:

      1.   There are divergences in developmental patterns of data between the two levels of orthographic development when comparisons are made at a focused level. More specifically, the history of writing appears to follow a pattern of hierarchical inclusion, while the process of transition to conventional writing in children may instead follow a pattern of developmental synchrony. The order in which knowledge and discovery occur in the child as well as just what knowledge becomes understood during this transition toward the conventional, alphabetic model, does not appear to follow a strict one-to-one recapitulation model.

2.   There are also parallels in developmental patterns between both phenomena at the global level, as both follow a unidirectional line (i.e., from less to more abstractness of linguistic categories), proceeding gradually through a series of continuous transitions toward an adoption, understanding, and usage of the alphabetic principle.

  3.       An explanation for the parallels at this global level may lie in the overall social, cultural, and functional nature of literacy.

      The results of this examination of the transitional process in writing systems at the historical and individual levels suggest that in order to understand the obstacles to be overcome as children transition from emergent writing to conventional writing, we must consider the similarities at both levels. In this regard, if we are to understand and foster children’s transition toward conventional writing, the present discussion underscores the importance/salience of not only the linguistic, but the social, cultural, and functional contexts in which both processes occur as well.

      Issues related to instructional efforts of teachers to foster young children’s transition toward conventional, alphabetic writing arise from this present discussion. According to several researchers (Clay, 1975; Dyson, 1985; Graves, 1983), it appears that children may learn to write at least as much by discovering and experimenting as by being formally taught. With repeated practice in writing, they produce graphic marks that more closely approximate the writing seen in the print world around them. Social interaction with adults along with opportunities for independent experiments with written language are critical for early literacy development (Scollon & Scollon, 1981; Teale, 1986). Our challenge is to find developmentally appropriate and meaningful ways to continue children’s literacy growth when they enter school. Holdaway (1979) proposes that children’s early attempts at writing are closely connected with their interest in environmental print, with both presenting a mystery that is well worth solving. They begin to play with writing in a way that is similar to the way they play with reading, producing writing-like scribble that carries a message. They learn to write their names, and explore creating letters and letter-like symbols with a variety of writing devices. This playlike writing provides opportunities for children to learn about the form and functions of print. Graves (1983) suggests that teachers can build on this early knowledge of writing by encouraging and valuing children’s efforts to communicate with personal marks on paper. Functional opportunities for children to use writing for a variety of real-life purposes also serve to promote young children’s writing development. Through opportunities to use reading and writing for practical purposes and playful exploration of print, teachers play an important role in fostering young children’s understanding about the functions, form, and conventions of written language. 


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