early childhood · emergent writers · kindergarten

The Scribble: Worth a Closer Look

The classic scribble:

The lonely scribble:

The multi-crayon scribble:

The scribble scribe:

The abstract scribble:

The portal scribble:

All scribble jokes aside, these are (just a few) of the scribbles I discovered while looking through kindergarten writing folders on week two of writing workshop.

Following frequent sessions of interactive writing, demonstrations of drawing clear pictures, and handwriting practice, it can feel discouraging to see children scribbling during writing workshop. In the absence of representational drawings, it’s important to remember what is there:

  • understanding that writing is made up of print on pages.
  • completion of writing on every page.
  • growing stamina for writing independently.
  • exploration of straight and curvy lines.
  • strengthening of fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination.
  • development of meaning-making.

Scribbling IS Writing

In these foundational moments where children are forming identities as readers and writers, it’s important to remember that scribbling is a stage of emergent writing. Just as we wouldn’t want to say to a child who is approximating reading by pointing to text, “That isn’t reading,” we wouldn’t say to a child who is scribbling, “That isn’t writing.” Labels convey messages to even the youngest of children, which is why I’ve stopped using the term “scribble-scrabble” to identify or ban any kind of writing. Instead, the focus is on fostering an understanding and develeopment of using lines to make writing that can be read and enjoyed by others.

From Promoting Preschoolers’ Emergent Writing, by Teresa A. Byington and Yaebin Kim. Click image for the link to the article on NAEYC.

While the above chart focuses on scribbling as a form of text, scribbling also evolves pictorially:

  • Uncontrolled scribbling: large muscle movements, may go beyond boundaries of page, looks away while drawing.
  • Controlled scribbling: repeated motions, smaller marks, multiple colors, watches while drawing.
  • Representational scribbling: purposeful placement of print and blank space, intention of print is named before, during, or after drawing.
  • You can find information about the subsequent stages of artistic development here.

New research shows that there is more to scribbling than just motor activity. Longobardi, Quaglia, and Iotti highlighted the results their recent study:

  • We analyzed scribbling and discovered a clear intention behind young children’s gestures.
  • We reassessed scribbling as a vital part of cognitive and emotional development.
  • We traced the evolution of the line as a tool that is used to communicate feelings and intentions.

Supporting Writers Who Scribble

Before supporting a writer’s transition from scribbling to more representational pictures and letters, it’s important to determine why they are scribbling. To do so,

  1. Look across several pieces of the child’s writing.
  2. Observe the child writing during independent writing time and at other times of the day when drawing is an option.
  3. Have a conference with the child, leading with genuine interest and excitement (i.e. “Tell me about your writing.”).
Click image for link to document.

No matter the reason, we can share excitement with children as they approximate representational writing by:

  • Putting a book that has scribbles side-by-side with a book that has representational drawings and celebrating the visible growth with the child (as shown in the image below).
  • Naming the importance that a child’s writing (pictures or words) can be read by others (and allowing the child to read their book to others or the class).
  • Highlighting the elements of clear pictures and words in a child’s book as a mentor during a lesson or as a focus for a share session.

Until then, as you look with love (and optimism) at children’s writing, remember: scribbling is writing too…and it’s worth a closer look.

4 thoughts on “The Scribble: Worth a Closer Look

  1. My 19 month old granddaughter loves to scribble. I love sitting with her and giving praise and wow’s. How can I communicate more effectively with her?


  2. As you know, I don’t do much consulting in Kindergarten. However, I remember watching Isabelle’s scribbles evolve into representational drawings and eventually writing when she was in Kindergarten. I wish I had had the research and your tips back then. But at least I have it now with Ari who loves to scribble. (Isabelle often tells him “I love your colorful scribbles, Ari.”)

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    1. AMEN! “Tell me about your writing.” or “Tell me about your sketch.” are some of the most powerful words one can use when talking to a writer. Any marks on the page convey meaning and it is our job to uncover that meaning through conversation! This is how we begin to grow writers from the start! Love EVERYTHING about this post! (I think Jerome Harste wrote similar research years ago!) Thanks for sharing, Kelsey! Now I’m sharing with our K/1 teachers!

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