The History of Writing
The Fourth Great Lesson


Teacher Preparation


The Story of the Coming of Writing

Journal Suggestions


Follow Up

Upper Elementary Ideas

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Some years I go ahead and do the next two lessons and some years I wait until Novemeber. The work from The History of Writing really lends itself to practical life activities and helps fill the three weeks from Thanksgiving to winter break. I try to have 5 or 6 reports editied, but not presented, for the first week back in January. The History of Wrting can lead to research on the ancient civilizations that first used writing.

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Teacher Preparation

You should read The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson or Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts by Georges Jean if you do not have a good knowledge of how writing came to be. Writing: The story of Alphabets has great pictures, although small, that could be cut up.

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One thing I noticed long ago, was that many children this age do not have a good understanding of commerce. It is well and good to talk about how the emergence of writing was linked to the emergence of trade, but if students do not understand how a shop needs to keep track of what is sold and bought, they will not understand this link.

So I often have different students think of special things they want to sell. A student wearing the imortant Phoenecian purple will sail with her die to trade for clay pots of Mesopotamia. The clay pots of Mesopotameia are then brought by the Phownecians to trade for the beautiful linen of the Egyptians. Purple die, pots and linen can be brought to the Greeks. How does this change cultures?

Of course, previous knowledge of the civilizations are needed to role play. If your class has not looked into these ancient cultures previously, then take some time to talk about why civilizations happen where they did - rivers. Talk about how people started to compartmentalize their abilities. Some would farm, some would hunt, some would trade, some would make pots.... They need a basic understanding of the needs of people, how people cooperate in groups and how trade works.

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The Story of the Coming of Writing

I use cards to tell this story. The words are simple, a reminder of what to say as I often get off track talking abot one culture or another. The dates help the child to place the cards on the time line when it has become a work on the shelf. The time line should go from about 25,000 BC to now. Try to find pictures to go with the cards that are realistic and interesting.

Pictographs circa 15,000 B.C.

People had lived on Earth for about 4 million years. They had leatned to control fire, make complex tools, and survive variable weather. Humans wanted to share what they had seen so they drew on the walls of caves. We can learn much about the animals that were important to these humans by studying these pictures. Maybe someday you will travel and visit some of these caves.

Show pictures of important cave drawings. Wer newletter (see The Beginning in resources) has a great stroy on the Laycern Caves and other great stories from this time period. See how to make your own animal skin drawings in Practical Life.

Ideograms circa 7,500 B.C.

Humans later used a combination of pictures to tell a story. They used pictures as symbols - pictures that represented a word. A picture of a mouth and a bowl meant eating. They used natural materials for 'paint' - like dried blood, berries, charcoal or rocks.

Show pictures of symbols that told a story. Don Jennings has some in his album pages that you can look at.

Sumar circa 3500 B.C

The people of Sumer had a great civilization. They did not have many trees in Sumer so they learned how to use clay as a tablet. They baked the tablet in the sun to dry. They used a wedge shaped tool called a stylus. We call their wedge shaped writing cuneiform. Cuneiform means wedge shaped.

Use a map of globe to show where the Tigris-Euphrastes Rivers were. You can have a tablet of clay ready with a stick to show how they wrote or for now, just have a laminated picture of cunieform writing. Make you you mention how people are influenced by the materials they have on hand. I also talk about the great king Hammurabi and show laminated copies of his laws. I ask if they'd like to hear a few of the laws to that time. I also tell about the epic poem of Gilgamesh.

Egypt circa 3200 B.C.

The Egyptians developed a style of writing called hieroglyphics, or writing of the gods. They carved their symbols into rock. It was very difficult to learn as it had so many symbols so they had scribes who went to school to learn how to write. Only boys were allowed to go to scribe school. The Egyptians developed a type of paper from a plant called papyrus. They used a reed sharpened into a point to write on their paper. They then rolled the paper into scrolls. These were their books. Sometimes the Egyptians wrote symbols that stood for concepts and sometimes they mixed in symbols that stood for sounds. We use symbols for sounds today. They wrote left to right, right to left and up and down.

Have a scroll rolled so students understand. Try to find some samples of papyrus or other paper made from plants. Show maps of where Egypt was.

3,500 B.C. Indus River

There was another great civilization on the Indus River near the Arabian Sea. They developed a system of writing with around 250 symbols. They carved their writings on soft soapstone. No one has yet deciphered their language. This civilization died out, whereas the other two continued to grow.

I tell them that someday, maybe one of them will decode the symbols of the Indus. Recently there was another civilization discovered in Asia that also had writing. Watch for current articles so you can share them with your students to let them know this research is living and ongoing.

2,000 B.C. Shang Dynasty

The Shang on the Yellow River is the earliest known civilization that used Chinese writing. They used about 3,000 symbols for words and actions. The Chinese language of today differs very little from this early writing. This is because the Chinese civilization was siolated from the rest of the world for many years.

Have a laminated picture of Chinese writing or a Chinese newpaper.

Phoenicians 1,600 BC

The Phoenicians lived on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They were merchants who sailed around the Mediterranean Sea selling ivory, spices, incense, ornaments, glass. Their name comes from a purple dye they used to make clothes. It came from shellfish called the Murex Snail. They were famous for their purple dye. They needed an easy system of writing to keep track of all the goods they traded. They saw the Egyptian and Sumerian alphabets and borrowed their ideas. Their first alphabet had 80 symbols, but eventually they simplified it to only 22 letters with sounds. The Phoenicians did not have any vowels.

Try to find some good pictures of old sailing ships. Have a laminated copy of the Phoenician alphabet.

The Greeks 800 B. C

The Greeks learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians. They did not speak the same language as the Phoenicians so they had to add some new letters. They changed to an alphabet with 24 letters. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters of their alphabet - alpha and beta.

The Greeks used vowels, left spaces between words, used some punctuation and were the first to only write left to right.

Have a laminated copy of the Greek alphabet.

Romans 100 B. C.

The Romans were a great civilization. They conquered a lot of the world. They simplified the Greek alphabet by changing the shape of many of their letters. They named their language Latin. The shape of our letters today is a lot like the Roman letters of 2, 000 years ago. The Romans kept their writing in books, instead of on scrolls. Monks copied the books by hand using beautiful script and pictures called illumination. They wrote wih quill pens on paper made from animal skins called parchment. They wrote beside open windows using the sun for light.

Have a book that shows examples of illumination. Michael Olaf has a great chart that shows how letters have changed through time.

The Chinese 900 B.C

The Chinese invented many things before the Europeans. The Europeans did not know as the two cultures rarely mixed with each other. The Chinese invented the first printing press. They first had individual letters carved in wood. Pages were written by puuting individual letters togeher. Later they carved a whole page of words onto a wooden block. Many pages could then be printed, but the wood wore down rapidly and had to be replaced. The Chinese also invented true paper from wood pulp around 105 A.D.

Alcuin 780 A.D.

Charlemagne was a king of another great civilization that conquered much of the world. He had a library full of all the books written at that time in the great city of Alexandria. Unfortunaltely most of the books were lost in a great fire. A monk named Alcuin developed many of the rules we use today for capital letters and punctuation.

Printing Press, Europe 1400 A.D.

Johann Gutenburg, a German, is thought to have invented the first paper in Europe. The Chinese had developed a process to make paper long age, but refused to share their secrets. Gutenburg also invented a faster printing press. More books could now be made in a day than a monk could produce in several months. The Koreans were the first to use a type set made out of bronze. It lasted much longer than wood.

Try to find a picture of an old printing press.

Rosetta Stone 1799 A.D.

The Rosetta Stone is discovered by some of Napoleon's soldiers while they were fighting in Egypt. Napoleon was a famous French General. The Rosetta Stone had a passage written in two languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek. As many educated people could read the early Greek, they slowly figured out the meaning of the hieroglyphics. It took forty years, but the secrets of the ancient language were finally unlocked. Reading a civilizations writing lets us know a lot about how they lived and what they thought.

You can pruchase a replica of the Rosetta Stone that is much smaller, of course, than the original, but students love to look at it and try to find hieroglyphics they know.

Computers 1900's

Today the written word can travel from one part of the world to another in seconds. Computers and satellites have made it possible to exchange news as it happens. Languages are translated from one to another by machines. Great quantities of information can be held by one magnetic disk. Whole encyclopedias are stored in about a six inch space. Someday communication with paper may be looked upon as we now look upon cave drawings.

We always end by talking about how language will change when they are my age. They talk about wrist watch telephones that allow you to see the speaker, talking computers, etc. This is also a good time to talk about how languages are disappearing and how languages are influencing others.

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Journal Suggestions

Humans began their history with pictograms, ideograms and oral stories. Think of an oral story you can tell.

Humans used available materials to write on. The plant papyrus and clay were two of the early materials used for writing. Write some words in hieroglyphics, cuneiform or other system.

The Phoenicians brought the alphabet to the Greek islands. They further refined the alphabet to 22 symbols, but did not have vowels or punctuation. The name alphabet comes from what two Greek letters? Write a story without vowels and see if we can read it.

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This site,, lists the laws of Hammurabi. It also gives situations where the reader has to decide what they would do if they were king and a brief history. The links are good as well.

Stories on Stone
Jennifer Owings Dewey
Little, Brown and Company ISBN 0 316 18211 7

The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone
James Cross Giblin
Harbor Trophy ISBN 0 690 04797 5

An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary Vol I and II
E. A. Wallis Budge
Dover Publications ISBN 0 486 23615 3

The Story of Writing and Printing
Anita Gamneri
Oxford University Press ISBN 0 19 521256 8

The Book of Kells
Time life ISBN 1 85891 004 8

Alphabetical Order
Tiphaine Samoyault
Viking ISBN 0 670 87808 I

Atlas of Languages
Facts on File Inc. ISBN 0 8160 3388 9

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Follow Up

To make great animal skin ideograms or pictographs, save paper bags and cut 2 animal skin shapes from each bag. Talk with your students about Early Human life - even so some will draw a picture of the beach... Put the paper on the shelf with instructions to draw what they would like to share about their life. They have to outline shapes in black and color pretty darkly. They then take a piece of wax - use small candles or paraffin chunks - and cover the picture thickly with wax. Now comes the fun part for the students. They seriously crumple the paper up - sit on it, throw it, whatever it takes. Take the paper home and iron each one - use a dry iron and put an old pillow case or piece of cloth between the iron and the paper. Viola! An animal skin.

You can also have the students make 'paint' from berries, spices and different colors of dirt, but this leaves chunks and you can't wax them into skins.

One year a student wrote a story to go with his ideogram. This proved it was a story and not just a pictograph. It was the best story he wrote all year.

Hieroglyphic Kit

Be sure to have a stamp kit for hieroglyphics. I laminated phrases like so they can make cards for others.

Chinese Brushes and Ink

I also put out several different sizes of brushes. They have to add a small bit of water and then rub in the ink. Many art stores and museums and catalogues sell kits for this now. I have a book on Chinese painting techniques for landscapes that they use for inspiration. Many students can draw beautiful flowers and acceptable landscapes.

African Stamps

I also have a set of African stamps that are symbols that stand for concepts like love, hope, etc.


This work must be done on a table over the floor - not over a carpet. Students may do their work with quills and ink. I also was given a set of glass pens from Venice that are fun, but so breakable.

To make a Hieroglyphic entrance to your room:

Use the Egyptian dictionaries. The second volume has a dictionary of English words that can be translated. Look at how they wrote in those days first - it was pretty formal. Construct a portal that matches your door, find the words in the dictionary and copy the hieroglyphics. Somewhere in these dictionaries or other materials I have read it talks about how the hieroglyphics face the person entering the door so that as you enter the symbols are read right to left on the right and left to right on the left. All the animals symbols face the center. Cool. This is a great language work as when you look of room, there will be 20 definitions depending on the type of room. It is quite enlightening to realize all the different meanings have a different symbol in some languages.

Secret Codes

Morse codes, books on secret codes and those of the students own making can be used in their work. I tell them they have to include a master code so I can decipher their work.

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Upper Elementary Ideas

Of course, the History of Language would be approached form the concept of the intermingling of cultures and how that affected language. It is still happening today.

The one concept that is difficult for Lower Elementary to understand, in my experience anyway, is that different languages cannot be translated by using our sounds. They think that if they use the hieroglyphics, Greek alphabet or Chinese symbols that stand for the sounds in our words, that they have written in Greek or Chinese. Surely Upper Elementary students understand that they would need to know how the word sounded in its own language to write it correctly. (If the language was phonetic.)

I think the Upper Elementary would be a great place to begin the study of Latin. Latin helps with the understanding of English and is not too hard to learn at a beginning level.

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Copyright © 2007 Barbara Dubinsky