This month it just clicked for 6-year-old Jennifer Peters, and the letters, pages of them, flowed from her pencil onto the dingy beige writing paper of the first-grader.
She wrote copiously; backward As, slanted Ls, capital Ns, two pages of nonsensical words. To her they made sense; in fact they made a story, about a pumpkin that "liked to be a jack-o'-lantern" and "felt cuddly in the snow and fell asleep."
To her teacher, Kathy Bell, her work is an excellent example of "scribble writing," believed by educators to be a child's first written language and one that elementary school teachers in Montgomery County are seeing as the first signs that their new curriculum for early writers is working.
"She just took off," said Bell, a first-grade teacher at Bel Pre Elementary School in Silver Spring, describing the day Jennifer began writing. "She's going to be so successful."
"The correct letters will just come," Bell said, looking at a page of letters that explained a drawing. "It's like a baby saying 'addy.' He'll soon say 'daddy,' " she explained. "Ninety percent of the kids come to school thinking they can write. Nobody has told them they can't."
Montgomery County for the first time this year is implementing a writing curriculum in kindergarten classes through eighth grade. The effort marks an attempt by county educators to respond to recent national studies indicating that American students do not write well by stressing writing in all classes and writing in journals.
More than half of Maryland's ninth graders -- one-third of the ninth graders in Montgomery County -- failed a state writing exam required for graduation for the past two years.
Educators believe that if writing is encouraged from the time children enter school, before they can read, it will promote better writing in later years.
Public schools in the District, Prince George's, Fairfax and Charles counties, as well as many local private schools, are using similiar techniques, according to school officials.
The critical reports dovetail with a decade of research that indicates young children develop a written language of their own -- dubbed scribble writing by some -- before they master the English language, according to Norma Kuehnle, language and reading arts coordinator in Montgomery County schools.
Nongraded journal writing, done twice a week in kindergarten and first grade, is used to cultivate the pseudo-writing.
Educators say scribble writing develops children's ability to organize their thoughts and will ease the transition to real writing by building confidence. "They are very proud . . . . It makes them feel so good about themselves," said Bell.
The journals of kindergarten and first grade students are usually filled with drawings that contain letters or scribbles making stories. The children are asked to tell a parent volunteer what the scribble means and the volunteer writes the story beneath the drawing.
The free-flowing scribble writing is combined with more structured lessons, including editing the first draft, proofreading the final copy and sharing the writing with the class.
Incorporated in the curriculum at higher grade levels are spelling, grammar, punctuation and good handwriting, as well as traditional lessons in phonetics and vocabulary.
"The children become so involved with the project that those symbols mean their thoughts and their experiences . . . they don't forget it," said Jane Hunt, assistant to the director of the National Capital Writing Project, a 1982 offshoot of the National Writing Project in Berkeley, Calif., a group of educators who promoted and developed techniques for teaching writing in the 1970s.
During the half-hour they spend writing twice a week, the kindergarteners at Brown Station Elementary School in Gaithersburg want nothing more than to understand the letters they are copying from anywhere -- the teacher's handmade signs, name tags stuck on drawers, manufacturer's labels.
"F-A-O," Michael Arrigo, 6, banged out on the large type typewriter the children can use to practice.
"It spells something," he said as he searched the room for something else to copy, his eyes landing on a small stop sign on the floor.
His classmate, Michael Carter, finished a drawing of what he called a snake. Underneath the drawing was a separate scribble that ran almost the length of the paper and contained a few distinguishable letters.
"It says, 'I made a snake,' " he translated for an adult.