Writing in Preschool. Where Does it All Fit?

Composing?

Spelling?

Handwriting?

Where do all these fit in the preschool classroom?

People who are comfortable composing are much more likely to have strong identities as writers than people who don’t. (Katie Wood Ray & Matt Glover, Already Ready p. 26)

Composing begins through talking, composing a verbal story. Spelling and handwriting are completely different concepts that have a place later in the game. Yes, children need to know that print carries a message, but they also need to know that they have stories inside of them. If we are able to build stories, content and ideas the physical writing will come.

It is true, in order to “write” you have to know how to form letters. You need to have some understanding of letter sound correspondence. However, this happens at different times for different students. Our best means of teaching these skills is to create a literacy rich environment that demonstrates correct model spelling and print carrying a message.

Once children know more about how to get words down, they’ll necessarily be distracted by this knowledge and will put more of their thinking energy into transcription for quite some time. They won’t be able to help it; this transcription “distraction” is developmentally inevitable for writers. But when teachers expose children right from the start to composition, allowing them to experience what it’s like to make something with writing, they’re helping them develop the idea of using the skill of writing productively long before the skill itself is mastered. (Katie Wood Ray & Matt Glover, Already Ready, p.27)

I believe the best way to determine readiness in preschool for spelling and handwriting is to observe what the student is doing. There is no speeding up this process. Students will go through stages of development and you will know what to teach based on their model.

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Above, this child is using a vertical surface, large and small strokes and creating swirls and scribbles. This is the beginnings of a writer. We all did this as a child when given the opportunity. That is what it is all about. Give students the materials to explore and engage in writing activities and they have the opportunity to go through these writing stages. This child is ready to verbalize his story and dictate what is on his page.

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Then we have the child who is beginning to make letter like shapes and symbols. She is also ready to begin telling her message and dictating her story for transcription. I won’t debate the best way to take a child’s story down, but some options are:

  • Write the story on a sticky note to place on the work. This purpose is for the teacher, not the child. The benefit of this approach is there is no teacher created part to the child’s work. Merely a “note” to refer to later that explains the work.
  • Write the story, as it is told by the child, under her picture or where she dictates it should go. This is more for the child so she might be able to notice that print carries a message and read her story.
  • Write the story on the back of the child’s work. This again serves as a “note” to the teacher and has little benefit to the child. However, it gives the teacher reference when asking the child later, “Tell me this story.”

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Here we have a child who is writing letters. He knows print carries a message and is making a label for the “markers.” He has approximated some letters with likely no sound correspondence. This child might be ready for a letter chart to further his letter/sound knowledge. It would also give him more models of letters to experiment with when stringing letters on the page.

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This child is drawing pictures that within context are recognizable. He is not yet labeling his picture or placing letters on the page. A letter chart would also benefit this child and a lesson explicitly demonstrating how to label with initial sounds. This lesson could be one-on-one or done with a small group that is in the same stage of development.

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Letter charts are in play here, and this child is utilizing a tool to carry his message beyond his picture. This tool assists the child in handwriting and spelling as he gains more confidence, fine motor ability and letter/sound skills. Again, this child is benefiting from all the literacy rich activities that go beyond writing time. He is taking in stories, songs, classroom labels and a communication rich environment. These pieces are all critical to a child’s writing development. Talk is always the key at these beginning stages (and I would actually argue all writers benefit from talk). Even when a child begins to put pictures and words on the page, his voice will communicate the content and ideas of his thinking. Let his voice be heard and validated as the writer of his story.

I think it is important to point out that each of these children are preschool age but in different places. This is a challenge for the teacher. Here are some questions that may come up with an answer to follow:

  • What does the teacher do for whole group lessons?
    • Engage in talk.
  • What does the teacher model?
    • Talking and drawing models.
  • When does spelling and handwriting come into the model?
    • When most of the children are beginning to show readiness for these skills.

You have to start somewhere, and using the children to guide you is always your best indicator of what to teach next. Let them lead you. Listen to their words and observe their work. Watch them progress through scaffolding and modeling. You will see a child progress through these stages and see/hear the composition of story.

On a separate note: Will you be at the Dublin Literacy Conference on February 22nd in Dublin, Ohio? If you will be there, I’d love to meet you. Let me know in the comments and we can look for each other!