Drawing letters and writing symbols

I just got a couple of back issues of Innovations in the mail (well, see, I thought I had re-upped my NAREA membership at the NAEYC conference, but apparently something happened with that).

'wonder' by Nolan
Anyway, the Spring issue features two articles about writing as a form of visual communication. One is "Between Signs and Writing: How Children Approach the Written Code" and the other is "Children and Figurative Writing". They are an example of the kind of teacher-research that they do so beautifuly in Reggio. In this case, teachers noticed children's proclivity to embellish letters and words in order to convey deeper meaning, and decided to methodically observe and notice this phenomenon. Teachers then asked children to "experiment with words and letters", documenting the process.
I am very excited by these articles because I've been asking myself questions about how drawing relates to the development of writing quite a bit lately. I think all of the drawings of bird song that happened this year really made me wonder about the relationship between drawing, sound and meaning.Of course, I knew that there was a field called semiotics, about the way words and letters and other symbols are used, and have been wanting to learn more about it. I love the idea that a word, a symbol, a motion or gesture or other signifyer of meaning could be considered a sign. This idea that all of these are equal communicators of meaning really speaks to me as a person who is so tied to helping children make their ideas visible.  Sadly, everything I've tried to read about semantics is very hard to understand.

Hummingbird Sound by Poppy
These articles in Innovations are about how children sometimes use letters and words to communicate more than just sounds, embellishing them or inventing their own symbols in order to communicate a sort of poetic meaning behind the word. So when a child thinks about the word "Sea" and all of it's connotations, he might feel it important to write it with lines that look like crashing waves, or use shimmering colors to evoke a calm sea and sunshine. 

Observing children's experiments with writing is one side of these questions, but there is another piece that comes more from the drawing side. I'm wondering how children's drawing and early creation of symbols leads to and influences writing, both before and after formal instruction begins.
The authors write about valuing the shapes of letters, looking at them from an aesthetic point of view, rather than a phonetic one. This point of view seems especially appropriate for young children who are between that stage of made up scribble letters and formal writing instruction. 
Robin Sound by Dillon
Seeing the Reggio teachers' work on this inspires me to find some good questions to ask that will unmask how the process of drawing and creating visual symbols leads into the process of learning to write.


  1. Ooh, I've got to get my hands on those articles; sounds fascinating! Thanks for this post--you've given me a lot to think about. My class has been fascinated by stethoscopes and heartbeats lately. I've been wanting to encourage them to represent what they're hearing. I'd love some more specifics about how you came to the drawings of bird songs this year. Any tips?

  2. Hi Lise,
    What a great idea to try and draw heartbeats. They could be very poetic drawings! below os a link to a post about drawing bird sounds. I think I wrote a bunch about it either hear or on the SSP Umbrella project blog

  3. Thanks--I'll check it out!

    I had some 6-year-olds today, back from a year in kindergarten, and when I asked if they could represent the heartbeats, they immediately started writing things like "A B A B" and "AAB AAB AAB" (patterns seem to be a big part of kindergarten curriculum around here). I'm eager to see what the younger children will do, and expect it to be more poetic! :-)


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