Often, when we think of writing, we think of penmanship. We give children handwriting guides and workbooks and think we’re teaching writing. But truly writing in the context of developmental literacy is so much more. In my view, writing is a display of a composite of skills:
- Fine Motor Skills
- An Understanding that Print Carries Meaning (Concepts of Print)
- Letter Form (Alphabet Knowledge)
- Breaking Words Down into Sounds and Connecting Them to Letters (Phonological Awareness/Phonics)
If you look at writing as an exercise in penmanship, you are prepared to emphasize component 1, and possibly 3. If you are aware of the broader goal of using writing in its proper context — that of meaningful literacy — then you open up the possibility to emphasize all four aspects of early literacy on the list.
Fine Motor Skills
The act of writing requires a lot of muscle control and strength out of those tiny hands. Provide some relief by encouraging children to write with their fingers in a cookie sheet full of cornmeal, colored sand, or salt; with fingerpaint; or in bags of goo like these (I realize they’re numbers here, but you can imagine the possibilties!).
Meanwhile, build fine motor skills by encouraging tasks that use those tiny muscles. Use tweezers and basters in the sensory table, provide lacing boards and small legos at your working tables, and provide small collage items for picking up and plenty of playdough for kneading at the art table. As children develop strength and dexterity in their hands and fingers, the physical act of writing becomes a bit easier.
Print Carries Meaning
As a child writes — truly writes now, not just doing handwriting exercises— that child is showing that she knows that those lines and curves tell a story or send an important message. No matter the level of developmental progression, if a child puts marks on a page and gives them meaning, she is writing!
As a child progresses through the developmental stages of writing, it becomes clear that the child’s concepts of letter shape and form are becoming more conventional. When we allow children the opportunity to generate meaningful writing, we can (to some degree) analyze their alphabet awareness.
Words Become Sounds, Become Letters
As children are given opportunities to write, they go through the task of thinking of words, segmenting words into sounds, and then connecting those sounds with the appropriate letters to convert into print, which will later recombine into the words they were seeking to write. That’s a very complicated process! It essentially shows an element of competency in every aspect of early literacy.
Even when the end result is a jagged note reading: “i wot moR toz” (invented spelling) for “I want more toys” (conventional spelling), we can see that that child is building upon each of those fundamental literacy skills. Encouraging children to write independently using invented spelling causes young children to go through that involved process, further strengthening essential literacy skills. Additionally, those writing experiences tend to be more genuine, more meaningful, and as a result, more salient.
So how do you encourage more child-generated writing?
Here are a few ideas:
- Create a writing area with basic writing supplies, which children can access at any time.
- Rotate novel writing tools such as typewriters, envelopes, clipboards, dry erase tools, overheads, and letter magnets in and out of your writing area.
- Designate personal journals for children to really “own” and write in their own way.
- Create systems that encourage functional writing like lists, sign-ups, sign- ins, creating signs (great in dramatic play), and “internal mail”.
- Do shared writing where you take turns holding the pencil, but go through the writing process together. You can do more writing together without the early writers becoming fatigued.
- Used shared writings to write thank you cards, letters to friends and family, record stories, and label charts.
- “Think out loud” and model good skills as you write in front of or with your children.
How do you encourage young children to become writers?
Top photo by Weliton Slima.
Read more at Do the Write Thing.