Photo courtesy of hworks.
The advent of writing is a momentous time in any child’s life. It is important to realize that the process preparing a child to write begins very early in life; long before she puts pencil to paper. I view the development of writing as having three major components: 1. Fine motor control, 2. Understanding that print carries meaning, and 3. An increased awareness of the alphabetic principle, leading to more conventional spelling.
Fine Motor. The first obstacle to the physical act of writing is obviously the physical skills of fine motor control and hand strength. Until a child can grasp and control his writing instrument of choice, his paper will remain blank. Children begin this process of physical development from infancy. As a baby, first larger muscle coordination is honed then fine muscles can be developed. As babies become mature enough to use a finger and thumb pinching motion to pick up small pieces of food from a high chair tray, they are beginning to progress in their fine motor control. Throughout early childhood this skill continues to be practiced. This is done through any fine motor activity like painting, sculpting playdough, or tearing paper, activities children begin doing in their very early years.
Print Carries Meaning. The thing that gives writing value and makes the task intrinsically motivating for any of us is that it carries meaning. Think about it. When was the last time you sat down and wrote random letters just for the sake of writing letters? You wouldn’t waste your time because there is no pay-off. Similarly, children are unlikely to learn to write simply because you’ve told them to sit and write letters. They must first appreciate that what they write carries power. It conveys a message. It becomes almost magical to them; the idea that their thoughts can remain even when they leave the room. Even when a child scribbles unrecognizable figures on paper and hands it to you explaining that it’s a letter, that child is demonstrating a knowledge that print carries meaning. Though the mechanics of writing and the concepts of spelling remain underdeveloped, the primary concept that ideas can be recorded is a huge milestone! As a student teacher in a kindergarten classroom I was handed a small card from a student with a series of intentional scribbles. I asked the author to tell me what it said. Her response still makes me laugh. “I don’t know,” she said, almost indignantly, “I can’t read yet!” As she was growing in her awareness of reading and writing, she had become increasingly aware of what she didn’t yet know.
The Alphabetic Principle. As children increase in fine motor control and gain more knowledge of the alphabet, its components, their formation, their sounds, and the way those sounds are combine to create the words of our language, the more their writing becomes conventional. Their writing progresses from pictures and scribbles, that simply convey an awareness of meaning, to letter-like forms, and eventually actual letters in decipherable arrangements that convey the intended meaning of the author. This process takes time and experience. It is a developmental process with its own stages and progressions (click here for examples of developmental writing). It is important to recognize and celebrate writing in all its phases, not just those that appear closest to our own adult attempts. Don’t panic if a fervent writer begins to show less willingness to write. As I mentioned with my kindergarten friend above, as children begin to “know what they don’t know” they may be a bit less willing to write. This is actually a sign that they are advancing in the writing process and becoming increasingly aware of the alphabetic principle and conventional writing. Support them through this period by valuing their attempts and being careful not to correct or criticize too much. They may prefer more support than in the past to ensure a more correct result. Offer to write the words on a separate paper for them to copy. As you do so, involve them in the writing process so that they are, perhaps unwittingly, still putting their own skills into practice as you spell the words together.
It is important to recognize and encourage writing in all its stages and to support the various components of developmental writing. Workbooks and drills may have their place within moderation and when welcomed with enthusiasm by children, but removing meaning in place of rote exercises causes writing to become less meaningful and authentic and eventually less motivating. Here are a few ideas for encouraging writing development in the early years.
Strength Training. Provide a variety of activities that will strengthen fine motor skills. This could be anything using the hands and fingers like cutting with scissors, sewing with needle and thread, lacing beads, building with small blocks (like LEGOs), kneading dough, using basters and tweezers at the sensory table, and the list goes on. (Search this blog for plenty of fine motor activities!)
Write in Front of Them. Think of the many ways you use writing and involve your children whenever possible. Need to make a shopping list? Ask your children to help by making suggestions or making lists of their own! Writing a note for someone? Tell your children about the note and ask where you should put it so that the recipient will find it. When children see you write and know it has a purpose, they begin to understand that the written word carries meaning.
Write Together. Help your children make cards or help them record stories by transcribing their words. When your child shows you a picture ask, “Tell me about this picture!” Or, “Can we write down a story to go with this?” Even if you merely write down a label or title for the picture, it is a goes a long way in personalizing the writing experience. Involve your children in writing letters or thank you cards. As you record what is said by your children, repeat the words as you write them to connect the written and spoken words. To increase awareness of the alphabetic principle, occasionally stretch out the sounds as you go. Pause now and then and “think out loud” about the spelling. “Truck. T…t…t…t… what letter do you think comes first?” Invite your children to write their own names at the bottom of a letter or picture.
Let Them Write Their Own Way. Provide your children with a variety of writing materials to explore and experiment with. Make sure these materials are freely accessible for your children to be able to write independently. You may want to set up their own writing table, drawer, or shelf, depending on the amount of space you can allot. Incorporate writing into their play when possible. Playing restaurant? Give her a notepad to take orders. Have a cop on your hands? Maybe he could write out tickets. Princess trapped in a tower? A letter carried to the prince by a dove might help him find her. Let your children experiment with different writing forms. It may be just a drawing that conveys the message, then scribbles that follow a line, then symbols that resemble actual letters, then letters themselves, and finally words. Whatever the developmental level of a child’s writing, honor it! Ask what it says and commend them for working so hard.