Children as young as 18 months create their own forms of reading and writing that appear to be imitation or play but actually have meaning to the child, new studies of child development have shown.

When young children scribble, recite the text of a familiar book, string together miscellaneous letters or tell a story as if they are reading their scribbling, they are demonstrating a recently identified phenomenon known as "emergent literacy," according to the studies.

Elizabeth Sulzby of the University of Michigan, who this spring studied 123 kindergarten students in suburban Chicago, said that when she asked a 5-year-old boy to read a line he had scribbled, he looked at the paper and, while tracing the scribbles with his finger, recited a sentence he had constructed, pausing at one point as if he were sounding out a difficult word. She asked him to read it once more, and he repeated the same sentence, again sounding out the difficult word and tracing with his finger. He repeated the process without changing four times, she said.

This and similar patterns of behavior indicate to Sulzby and other specialists that children understand the association between writing and speech and develop their own version of literacy much earlier than previously believed.

"You can see the beginnings of reading and writing when children are very young," said William H. Teale, associate professor of education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "For children who are brought up in a literate society, especially if they're read to, they begin learning to read in their first year of life."

The research has begun to influence the way children are taught, with textbook publishers changing their basic readers to draw on children's early experience rather than immediately introducing the traditional, formal method of reading. Fueling the change is the upcoming selection of new reading textbooks in California, which controls 10 percent of the national textbook market, and where officials have indicated they want reading books to reflect the emergent literacy approach.

Researchers have long tried to understand the development of language in children, but unlike previous work, research into emergent literacy takes a broad perspective on what makes up literacy.

"What we are documenting is that this is really part of literacy development," said Sulzby. "The children are already doing this, it's not something we're teaching them."

It is still difficult to discern when children are imitating and when they are creating, researchers say. And no one is suggesting that children are designing their own system of language. But Sulzby says it is clear that many children who cannot read in conventional ways see clues in their scribbling or on a written page that mean something to them.

"They can compose things, from scribble or letter strings, that you couldn't read, and they couldn't read back in a conventional way," said Sulzby. "But they will read it to you."

Also, long before they go to school, many 3-year-olds can pick up a favorite book and recite the story nearly verbatim. Now researchers argue that this is more than rote memory or imitation.

"Thirty years ago, people would have said it's just memorization," Teale said. "But there is input from the children. The adult has had influence, but just as clearly . . . the child is active, constructing things."

Sulzby said many children insert spaces, hyphens and dots in their scribbling. And she described seven-page stories written in scribbles by 5-year-olds, who illustrated their texts with drawings on alternate pages. All of this demonstrates their understanding that written language is governed by rules, and there is an association between writing and speech, she said.

"We've now been able to document that they compose," she said. "They say the story while they're scribbling." She said children also re-read their scribbles and make corrections, apparently testing their work against the story they had in mind.

When they read aloud, they often add more words so their speech matches the scribbling in length. Sometimes, she said, they add a few scribbles if the spoken sentence seemed too long.

Children also make up their own letter-like markings, known as "psuedo-letters." Sulzby said a 4-year-old girl told her she used these markings to "write fast" and when was "doing a batch of thank-you notes."

And as children learn a few letters, many begin to invent spellings, writing "etn" for "eating," for example.

Researchers stress, however, that this behavior does not emerge in sequential stages, but often appears, disappears and reappears.

Emergent literacy has its origins in research, popular in the mid-1960s, that focused on a child's early experience with language. At the time, the theory argued that children should not be taught to read using the traditional phonics approach, but encouraged to draw on their own experiences with language and the world.

A form of that thinking has resurfaced in a movement known as the "whole language" approach, stirring a renewed debate with phonics supporters. But Sulzby and others in the emergent literacy camp fall somewhere in between the whole-language and phonics schools. They suggest that teachers build on what children already know and use signs of emergent literacy to indicate when to begin more formal instruction.

"When you analyze what you need to know to begin reading, it might look very different as adults," said Elfrieda H. Hiebert, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado. "We start with what seems the most obvious -- you need to know individual letters -- when in fact there are some other things that might be more necessary."

Hiebert, one of four authors of the 1985 report "Becoming a Nation of Readers," which encouraged parents and schools to draw on emergent literacy to promote reading, has studied how children attribute meaning to print in the world around them, such as stop signs, storybooks or fast-food containers. Using this familiar language in the classroom may be more effective than teaching them abstract concepts, like the letters of the alphabet, she said.

Teale, who has researched what children learn from their parents reading to them, argues that parents and schools should systematically re-read books to children and use materials that repeat language. These stories, such as "The Three Little Pigs," stimulate what he calls "emergent reading."

He estimated that as many as one-quarter of the nation's school districts are already rethinking their curricula based on the emergent literacy research, and some have begun giving children more opportunity to experiment on their own with reading and writing.

Not everybody is convinced that changing textbooks and curricula will have broad impact. "We have found that even the kindergarten teachers, if you really press them -- many are closet phonics teachers," said Andrew W. Bingham, president of DLM Teaching Resources, an educational publisher near Dallas. "The thing about emergent literacy {is that} because it doesn't focus on the formalities of language, it kind of makes people nervous."

Nevertheless, Sulzby said that children's television and game producers as well as publishers are bringing in academics in this field as consultants.

"It has taken off amazingly rapidly, a kind of shift you don't often see," she said. "We're not talking about a new teaching method, we're talking about a whole new way of looking at children."