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How Writing Skills Develop

It can be helpful in working with students at various grade levels to understand the stages of writing development. The stages are helpful when thinking about where a student is, what skills they presently possess and what they should be able to do in the next stage. Scroll over each writing sample below to read a short description of the stage and review writing behaviors typically exhibited by students at that stage.

Remember, however, that the stages may overlap a bit. Like any developmental progression, growth is often uneven, happens at different rates for different children, and is greatly influenced by environment and experience.

Click on the writing samples below to read more about the developmental stages.


Exploratory or Preemergent: Children are beginning to recognize that written symbols are used to convey meaning, and experiment with marks on paper as a means to communicate a message or emulate adult writing.

The exploratory or preemergent stage is characterized by these features:

  • The child grips the crayon or pencil with a full fist.
  • The child creates representational scribbles or drawings that sometimes resemble writing.
  • Objects or “letters” are often unrecognizable.
  • Children can often “read” a message that is conveyed in their drawing or scribbles.

Writer’s Tools:

  • Thick markers, crayons, pencils and unlined paper

Emergent or Letters: Children realize that spoken language can be written down. They begin to understand left-right print orientation and start to experiment with letter-like forms and shapes which evolve into letters and words.

The emergent stage is characterized by these features:

  • More mature grip
  • Awareness and emulation of the different shapes found in letters
  • Letter-like forms eventually evolving into real letters
  • May write the same letter in different ways
  • Produces long strings of letters
  • Begins using letter sequences, such as writing his or her name

Writer’s Tools:

  • Thick markers, crayons, pencils and unlined as well as some primary lined paper

Transitional-Early Writing: Typically in kindergarten or first grade, children can write about topics that are personally significant. They begin to formalize their understanding of print conventions, letters, words and sentences.

The transitional stage is characterized by these features:

  • One letter may represent an entire word, often the initial consonant sound.
  • Writing may still include random letters or letter strings.
  • Eventually, children master high-frequency words and add vowels and ending consonants.
  • Children begin to develop a sense of “spacing.”
  • Writing may include some simple punctuation, including the use of capital letters with a purpose.

Writer’s Tools:

  • Lined paper, memo pads, envelopes and some smaller pens and pencils are good writer's tools at this stage, as well as tubs of foam letters and letter magnets

Conventional writing and spelling: At this stage, children spell most words correctly, with a reliance on phonics knowledge to spell longer words. Writing for different purposes becomes more important.

The conventional stage is characterized by these features:

  • Writers use punctuation marks correctly, and use capital and lowercase letters in the correct places.
  • Storybook language, such as "Once upon a time," and "happily ever after," become a part of writing.
  • Children develop a sense of storytelling and begin to select forms to suit their purpose.
  • Writing is more organized and incorporates more details.

Proficient Writing: This stage is characterized by more sophisticated writing, which is more focused and descriptive. Writers at this stage demonstrate a good grasp of mechanics, but may stumble when experimenting with unfamiliar grammatical structures.

The proficient stage is characterized by these features:

  • Writing has clear purpose and audience in mind.
  • The writer is invested enough to express her own voice.
  • Conscientious word choice is notable.
  • Sentence structure varies.
  • Images and ideas are clearly communicated to the reader.

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