One day my preschooler handed me a piece of paper with all sorts of indistinguishable squiggles written on it. "That's my name," she said proudly. My knee-jerk response was to show her the correct way to write her name. But doing so might have squelched what experts call the gradual emergence of literacy.
The Children's Research Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports on an approach to literacy developed by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This approach, known as emergent literacy, encourages young children to "write without worrying about the mechanics of real writing." In other words, parents shouldn't get hung up on their child writing perfectly.
According to High/Scope, it's important for adults to recognize that experimentation with writing such as scribbling, drawing, and letter-like marks allows children to use comfortable, non-conventional forms of writing to express complex thoughts. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to ask questions like, "Tell me what you've written" or "That's interesting ? what about this part?" When adults respond positively to all efforts at written language, children learn that their decision to take a risk with writing was worthwhile.
To further cultivate the emergent literacy approach, it's important to understand the relationships between children's drawing, writing, and reading. Although we might not understand their scribbles or drawings, kids consider their drawings to be actual writing. When a child "writes" a story that you cannot decipher, ask the child to "read" his text. You'll be surprised how quickly he will respond with a clear message or story.1