I used to have Kindergarteners write in pencil and now I have them use a felt-tip marker.
One autumn day in the Kindergarten writing workshop, a student asked me how to spell a word. I responded in my most enthusiastic voice, “Sound it out!” Rather than say the word for her, I told her to say the word herself, listen to the first sound and write that letter down, say the word again, listen to the next sound and write that letter down, and so on. Invented spelling is my go-to approach for encouraging children to use their developing phonemic awareness skills to take risks and write more independently.
Kindergarten writing is so much about approximation. Emergent writers use their evolving schema of what writing is in order to do this novel work. As such, their output is somewhat dependent on the kinds of writing they have already been exposed to in their lives: storybooks, shopping lists, emails, street signs, classroom charts, their teacher’s modeling, and more.
And in giving space to approximation – not just with spelling but also in terms of sentence structure, voice, and organization – the writing workshop is also about honoring the process that children go through as writers as they form a writing identity. It’s important to give them writing tools and strategies that they can use to make their own learning more visible–mistakes and all.
Thinking back, this particular child had some articulation issues, and so when she said the word aloud, it was missing some dominant sounds. She was a strong reader and knew that some of the sounds she was hearing in the word were not, in fact, the “correct” sounds. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to try her best, so with some apprehension in her eyes, she went back to work on her writing some more.
A few moments later she approached me again because she wrote a letter down that she had not intended, and she wanted to change it. Perhaps you’re thinking, why couldn’t she just erase it? She was probably feeling stuck because she was writing with a felt-tip marker and not a pencil, and so she could not make the letter just disappear off the page. She did not know what to do! I showed her that she could simply cross out the word or part of the word that she did not want, and try it again.
At first, she seemed displeased with this solution—crossing something out instead of erasing it was not familiar territory to her. She was quite the perfectionist for a five year old, and my suggestion must have seemed messy, clunky, and imperfect. After all, isn’t writing supposed to be neat and tidy? Isn’t it supposed to look clean and polished? In Kindergarten—absolutely not! But there was an important lesson here that I wanted this student—and all of my students—to learn: writing is a messy process and that we can learn from our mistakes.
I used to have Kindergarteners write in pencil and now I have them use a felt-tip marker. When students use pencils, they have the opportunity to delete their work—both their drawing and their writing, essentially nullifying the entire process they went through to create it. Many students take comfort in erasing something they know or think is imperfect. They are embarrassed by what they perceive to be their lack of knowledge or ability to write, and they do not want me or their classmates to see it unless they know it’s “right.” I have watched countless students work tirelessly to erase their entire drawing or writing to the point where there is nothing left on the page. I do not want them to spend their time “unwriting.” Instead, I want their time spent on getting their ideas on the page without interruption. I want them to know that the process of writing—as confusing and sloppy as it can sometimes be—is as important as the product.
I now believe that it is important, especially for the youngest writers to SEE the path they took to write. They need a great deal of time trying out new skills and strategies and putting images and words down on the page, no matter what it looks like. When students use felt-tip markers, it frees them up to make mistakes and just keep going. It allows them to cross out and insert letters or words as needed, and to let go of some of the fear that they might be doing it “wrong.” By using a felt-tip marker instead of a pencil, writers of all ages can look back on and remember the steps they went through to do their work. The memory of past sittings is laid bare.
It is important for me to be able to assess students’ writing, and to see their writing moves, especially when I am not able to sit down and check in with them each day. I learn a great deal from what a student crosses out, probably just as much as I do from what remains. I can see if a student is doing any self-correcting as they go in terms of using uppercase and lowercase letters, punctuation marks, and finger spacing between words. I can see if a student is attempting to refine the spelling of a word based on additional sounds they were able to hear. And I can see if a student has removed or added words to make a sentence clearer.
There is no perfect writing tool for all children, but after having students use felt-tip markers for several years instead of pencils, I have learned that the permanence of the medium benefits both me and my students in ways that pencils do not.
Perhaps what I have learned most is that when emergent writers use felt-tip markers, they know that what they put down on the page will stay there. If nothing else, this encourages them to take their work more seriously. I also hope they learn that making mistakes, changing one’s mind, and being okay with uncertainty is a valued behavior in writing workshop in particular, and in our classroom in general.
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