…Two understandings, equally true at once: Sean is a writer, and Sean is
four. If his teachers let either one of those identities hold more weight in their
thinking about Sean, they run the risk of having developmentally inappropriate
expectations for him. And the thing is: developmentally inappropriate expectations can work in two ways. If teachers think too much about the fact that Sean
is a writer, a writer just like Eric Carle, they run the risk of pushing him too much
and asking him to do things he’s just not ready to do. On the other hand, if teachers focus too much on the fact that Sean is four, they run the risk of not helping
him realize his full potential as a writer—the risk of not expecting enough. This
is just as developmentally inappropriate as expecting too much.
Already Ready, p. 7, by Katie Wood Ray & Matt Glover
Preschoolers, many kindergarteners, and some first graders are in the stage that many educators call “emergent.” It’s the stage that comes at the very beginning, starting from birth. There’s no stage that comes before it. Until a child is writing somewhat conventionally, they are an emergent writer.
Occasionally, I have heard adults refer to some children as “non-writers,” which I find confusing because all children developing into writers of some sort. Even babies are learning every day to make new sounds, attach meaning to the words spoken to them, and identify familiar voices. Soon they’ll point to objects, and use words, then sentences, and before long they’ll be creating dramatic play scenarios… their very first made-up stories.
By the time children are in preschool, they are not just ready to be writers, they are writers. They are storytellers and creators. Handed a blank booklet, some will fill it with scribbles, and when asked, will tell you the elaborate story that goes along with the scribbles. Others will stand at the sand table, pouring sand from cup to cup, narrating a detailed description of where the sand is coming from, and where it is going–complete with elaboration and craft. Their oral language is an important part of their writing life.
Emergent writers are often misunderstood in school as they get older. Their scribbles often mistaken for carelessness, and because traditional definitions of “writing” often equal handwriting and spelling, the other definition of “writing” gets lost. In order to understand what emergent writers can do, you have to understand that writing is more than handwriting and spelling–it is storytelling, composing, and communicating.
Three Things Emergent Writers Can Do
In preschool, kindergarten, and early first grade, oral storytelling can play a major role in your classroom. Children might be in the early stages of learning letters and sounds, but that need not get in the way of telling a great story.
You might support their oral storytelling by setting aside a little bit of time each day to do some shared storytelling as a class. You can model retelling a shared experience, like a fire drill, a morning on the playground, or any classroom event. Give students turns telling the same story to each other, or taking turns telling a little part of the story one student at a time.
Record the shared class story on chart paper, by drawing the pictures first, and then adding labels, and perhaps sentences.
During writing workshop, encourage students to tell their own stories aloud to a partner, multiple times if possible. This is a type of “rehearsal” for getting things down on the page, and gives children a meaningful audience for their stories.
2. Getting Their Mark on the Page
Another thing emergent writers can do is get their mark on the page. Scribbling is an important and fascinating stage. If you aren’t already familiar with Rhoda Kellogg’s research on scribbling and children’s art, I recommend you do a quick google search and then come right back.
When adults look at children’s scribbles, they can choose to see them in two ways. The first way is to look at the scribble and note what the child isn’t yet doing–the absence of letters and words.
The other way to look at scribbles and see them for what the child is doing. Is it a controlled scribble or more free-flowing? Is there evidence of left-to-right directionality, or perhaps some intentionality to the scribble? Straight lines mostly, or curves? Are there shapes like circles or squares?
Observe the child while they are at work and there’s even more to learn: Does the child hold the writing utensil with a fist, or with a three-finger grasp? Does the child narrate what they are doing? Are there sound effects to go with the scribble?
Chalkboards, dry erase boards, big sheets of newsprint, and a range of writing materials can support children who are in various stages of scribbling. It takes a lot of practice to develop the fine motor skills and conceptual understanding to move from scribbles to representational drawing. As children gain more practice and control over their marks on the page, they do begin to draw representationally, with shapes and lines that look like the thing they are trying to convey. They can add details to their drawings, and make revisions. They can even make books, where the story is told through the pictures, and can be “read” or told aloud by the child.
All this, before they’ve learned their ABC’s.
As children begin to learn how print works, they will apply what they do know about letters and sounds, adding approximated labels to their pictures, sometimes getting a few of the correct letters on the page, sometimes not. On their own, some will create strings of random letters, approximating the look and feel of a book with print. Again, adults can choose to see these approximations two ways – a display of what children don’t know, or evidence of what they do already know.
Lastly, emergent writers know an awful lot about sharing with an audience. Any early childhood teacher can tell you how much kids love to share their writing — with their teacher, especially. Kids crave positive feedback.
In the classroom, you can set aside time daily for students to share their work with a partner. They can tell the story aloud, point to parts of their picture, and ask each other questions. At the end of writing workshop during a share or reflection, you might highlight student work in various ways each day as well.
Additionally, you can create an area in your classroom designated to displaying student work, both finished and in-process, and invite adults and other students to visit your classroom to hear students’ stories.
In the younger years “publishing” need not be a laborious process, like the publishing process adults go through. Age-appropriate publishing can be simply sharing their best work with a meaningful audience, giving and receiving feedback.
From scribbles, to drawing, storytelling, and publishing there is a lot that emergent writers can already do, if we choose to see it.