Supporting Emergent Writers With Spacing
As emerging writers venture into the world of writing sentences, they’ll encounter many challenges. One of the most challenging parts of writing a sentence is including spaces between words.
Whether the spaces are too narrow, too big, or nonexistent, we see a wide range of print as kids approximate, approximate, approximate.
Not unlike any other skill, some writers will show proficiency with this more quickly than others. For this reason, it’s important to practice spacing in whole-class minilessons and interactive writing sessions, and provide further support in conferences and small groups.
Before planning a strategy lesson or preparing a tool for a writer (no matter the skill), it’s important to do some research, questioning, What’s making it tricky for this child?
Kids struggle with spacing for different reasons. Writers may be:
- Still developing concepts about print: When kids do not yet understand the difference between letter and word, writing with spaces is very difficult. If kids do not yet have one-to-one matching (matching spoken words to printed words/objects) in reading or when counting, it is likely that they will not have it as writers. It is possible, however, that kids can read with one-to-one matching, yet struggle to understand letter versus word when producing the print.
- Writing too quickly: Sometimes young writers are so excited to finally be writing sentences, or are writing with such elaborate detail, that they get distracted with getting all of the sounds on paper, forgetting to slow down and add spaces.
- Oversizing or undersizing spaces: Writers can have strong concepts of print and write with spaces between words, yet lack an awareness of how big the spaces should be. While we are not expecting a perfect measurement, this can become problematic when it becomes difficult to read the writing or when kids are only able to fit a couple of words on each line.
In my years of teaching kindergarten at PS 59, I’ve collected strategies and supports from a few of my favorite colleague-friends for helping young writers with spacing.
When Writers Are Building Concepts Of Print
Lots and Lots of Interactive Writing (and Shared Reading)
Shanna Schwartz, who we are incredibly lucky to have as our staff developer from TCRWP, shared several tips for reinforcing one-to-one matching in interactive writing, which can be done whole class or in small groups:
- Rehearsal is key. After planning a sentence, writers can point to each word in the air, then point on their white board or rug spot. After lots of practice, writers can do this as they rehearse for their own writing, pointing where the words will go on the paper.
- Name the process of adding spaces. Any time we write with kids, or in front of kids, we can name the process of spacing by saying, “There’s no more sounds in this word, so now I need to add a silent space before writing the sounds in the next word.”
- Reading-Writing Transfer: Interactive writing can double as shared reading. After writing each sentence, have kids practice pointing under each word while reading it together. Similarly, writers can warm up by practicing pointing in a shared reading text, counting the words on the page, using highlighter tape to mark each word, and studying the spaces in sentences are all great options for supporting transfer.
Tools For More Practice
When pointing to where each word should go isn’t enough, writers may need a visual support.
- Lines: After rehearsing a sentence, add a line for each word. At first, this can be done in interactive writing or with the child until they are ready to do it independently. Writers can use their writing tool or a highlighter to do this.
- Boxes: This tried-and-true method comes from the ever-inventive, Kristine Mraz. After rehearsing a sentence, kids can use a rectangle stamp to mark where each word will go on their page. Once again, this should be done together first. To make a rectangle stamp, Kristi used a small wooden block. She traced the outline of the rectangular surface with a hot glue gun, then adhered skinny strips of craft foam to make a stamp-able rectangle outline. Duplo legos work just as well, as is. Sticky note labels are another quick option!
- Cut apart sentences: Whether writers cut apart each word of their sentence, then rebuild with spaces, or restructure a cut up sentence from interactive writing or shared reading, this is a great, kinesthetic way for kids to practice 1:1 matching.
When Writers Are Writing Too Quickly
Point and Tell
We encourage young writers to “Touch and tell” as they plan their stories. To build upon this strategy, writers can “Point and tell” as they rehearse each sentence. Model in a small group (or in a minilesson), how to point across the page where each word will go, so writers can have a visual before writing.
Reread After Each Word
Rereading is key for these writers, but instead of waiting until the sentence is over, writers can practice (in a strategy group or small group interactive writing) going back to reread the sentence-in-progress after each time they finish writing a new word. This will help them slow down, and also gives them an opportunity to point to where the next word will go.
These writers will likely have a hard time rereading their writing if they have not included spaces. They can revise by cutting apart the words and pasting them on a new strip of paper with spaces. They can also attach a revision strip and write the sentence again. This can be done in a conference or strategy group.
Tools For Slowing Down
Writers can use the stamping method (explained in the Concepts About Print section) as a tool for slowing down. Instead of stamping the whole sentence at once, writers will add a new stamp after writing each word, building the habit of taking a pause between each word to leave a space. This method worked well for the poet in the video below:
When Writers Are Oversizing Or Undersizing Spaces
Study A Familiar Text
Looking closely at the way favorite authors use spaces can be a helpful visual for kids. “Not too big and not too small, just right.”
A Spacing Tool
Many teachers craft tongue depressors into spacing tools for kids to use as a guide. Kids can use the spacing tool after writing a word to determine where to start the next word, or use two fingers as a guide.
- Important: Shanna Schwartz reminds educators that writers should only use a spacing stick when they understand what a space is and when to use it. Kids who are still forming concepts of print can, instead, use the spacing tool as a pointer to mark where words will go.
Katie Lee, my go-to for inspiration, adhered a “space bubble” tool to writing folders using velcro.
The strategies outlined above do not result in immediate mastery. (Repeat)
Mastering spacing can be a year-long+ feat for many young children. Like reading, there are many skills working in tandem as we write. Planning, phonics, snap word word recall, directionality, one-to-one matching, letter formation to name just a few.
With each one of these skills, as an educator of young children, approximation is the mantra.