Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Helping Preschoolers to Become Writers

I get many questions from concerned parents on this blog worrying about how fast they should push their preschool children as writers (see the comments on a previous post on writing HERE). Some worry about their four year old children reversing letters like 'd', 's' and 'b'. Others wonder why their children can't write their name by age three. Others want their children writing words from memory before they start school. While such concerns are well motivated, they miss the point that real writing is more than just correct letter formation, accurate spelling and neat handwriting. While all these things are important, and are important component skills for writing, your child might be able to do some of these things before the age of three and not be far along the path to becoming a good writer. For writing, like reading is above all, about meaning. Being able to communicate, record, express, instruct, persuade and so on. If parents become too preoccupied with letter formations, sound-symbol relationships and transcription too early, they may neglect other key understandings. 

1. What are the things to look for and encourage?

Here are six things that are foundational to early writing success.

Writing is about meaningful intent - What I mean by this is that when your child picks up a pencil, crayon or piece of chalk and makes a mark on paper, the path or (sadly) the wall, the hope is that they will be trying to 'say' something, even if it is just "Hey, I did this!"

Writing is about connection - When your child starts to bring a piece of paper to you and says "For you Daddy", he is saying, I did this and I think it's special and, I want you to have it. This suggests an understanding of written language as a symbolic system, a way to make meaning that others can grasp.

Writing is about ownership - As your child begins to attempt to place their name on everything, it is about them saying, this is mine; I know this (and you will too) because I've put my mark on it.

Now this image shows perseverance and intent!

Writing is about perseverance - When your child sits with a piece of paper for 15-20 minutes scribbling, drawing, trying to form letters and words, this suggests that they are motivated and can show perseverance.

Writing is about words - When the young writer begins to connect writing with spoken language play, words heard or seen via radio, CDs, computers, iPhones or television, they are developing a sense that language resources are to be used for writing.

Writing is about response - When your child reaches for some paper to draw and write after hearing a story, watching a television program or experiencing something, they show that they grasp that writing can be a way to respond and say, this is what I think this means. 

2. What can parents do to encourage the above?

There are many things that parents can do to encourage the above. Here are six that should seem obvious but need to be stressed.

Her sister reads Lydia her first story at age 2 hours

Read to your children from birth - Books will teach your child about language, story and the world. This is what will ultimately determine whether they have much to say.

Provide lots of writing materials - Have a writing table from the time they can sit, or use a high chair for this purpose. Give them paper, crayons (not pencils before 12 months) and pictures to 'play' with in order to communicate, make their mark or respond.

Discuss print in their world - Show them words, point to signs, direct their attention to packaging symbols and brands, television logos, writing on clothing, computer images and graphics.

Give them rich experiences - Use language to explore their world, encourage them to draw as a record and try to add words. Write some words for them and read them together.

Sing songs, read poetry, dance, and create - And as you do, use language in all its forms.

Show them how to form letters - You can do this with paper and there are many great iPad apps that help and are fun (see my review here).

3. What should I expect my child to be able to before school?
I'm always amazed that almost every parent expects their children to arrive at school able to write sentences that are perfectly formed with accurate spelling. I have rarely found any child who by 5 years can attain this. What are reasonable milestones that most children achieve before school?

At age 7 months Lydia already has some reading intent

18 months

Between age one and two, most children should be scribbling with some intent. By this I mean that they will try to make repetitive scribbles, make unusual lines, play with crayons and paper for up to 3-5 minutes. They should also be able to listen to parts of stories, try to turn pages, make noises when pictures are shown etc.

24 months

By two they should be able to scribble with intent, try to make written forms that could approximate letters (circle shapes, lines and circles). They will listen intently to stories, turn pages, say words that correspond to pictures, play with simple word and sound apps like Peekaboo Barn.

Above: Sample from the "Young in Art" site showing intent in the drawing of a young child

36-42 months

Most children will be attempting to draw letters, represent words with some letters, or letter-like shapes and associate these signs with pictures and meaning. They will try to 'read' books alone by turning pages, looking at pictures, making up the story to go with the pictures or reciting simple predictable stories from memory (e.g. 'There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly')

48-54 months

Between the age of four and five most children will be trying to write their name but not achieving it accurately. They will be beginning to use letters or numbers, word-like forms and pictures to communicate meaning. They might also make up signs to put on doors or the fridge that have a purpose (but are not necessarily written in accurate form). They will be beginning to learn to recognise letters and numbers. They will enjoy sending and receiving cards, looking for words in their world and recognise their association with meaning (e.g. store signs, brands, own name). They may try to write on an electronic tablet and will enjoy books.

60 months

By age 5 many children (probably 50-60%) can write their name and read some signs. A majority will also be able to write some numbers up to 10 (some will reverse them), and some letters (again some children will do this with reversals). A small number (less than 10%) will be beginning to read words, sound words out, and read predictable books. A small number (less than 10%) will also write messages that use invented and conventional spelling that can be read or partially read with the child's help.

4. What do researchers have to say about this?

There have been many studies of children's early art and many that have examined early literacy, but few have looked at the relationship between the two. A colleague of mine from Indiana University, Professor Jerome Harste conducted significant research in late 1970s and early 1980s that did just this and is seen as seminal work. With his colleagues Professors Virginia Woodward and Carolyn Burke and many graduate students, they studied the early writing of children aged 3, 4, 5 & 6 years. Harste, Woodward and Burke published their research in a book called Language Stories and Literacy Lessons. They concluded that most children know the difference between reading and writing by age 3, and that by this time they are developing an understanding of written language, demonstrated in their scribbles and attempts to write and draw, and that these parallel those of older proficient language users. They put to one side traditional developmental notions and suggested that children, at least from age 3, begin to demonstrate elements of authoring; they called this the "authoring cycle". For example they identified in the early scribble and 'writing' of very young children:
  • Organization (evidence of conventions and the genesis of cognitive processes similar to adults)
  • Intentionality (evidence that the children know that their marks signify something)
  • "Generativeness" (an attempt to generate or make meaning)
  • Risk-taking (trying things they haven't before)
  • An understanding that language has social function
  • Awareness that context matters in language (the situation is related to what you and write and how you use it)
  • That one's scribbles and later words form a text or unit of meaning (they realise that the sum of the elements collectively mean something)
For example, picking up on just one the above elements of authoring, Harste, Woodward and Burke observed in the scribbles of children from families who had a first language other than English some interesting differences. The writing below shows just one example of how different scribble can be for four-year-old children living in homes that speak different languages; in this case, English, Arabic and Hebrew. They concluded that evidence like this demonstrates that at age four, even before these children are writing words, that there scribble demonstrates organization, and that this is similar to the processes used by proficient writers.

Above: Harste, Burke & Woodward (1984), p. 82

I have also written about this topic at length in other publications such as "Pathways to Literacy", Cassell: London, 1995.


Preschool San Antonio said...

This is really helpful. This will help the kids to develop their skills in writing in early stage.

Tina said...

I agree to Preschool San Antonio, this will really help kids to develop their writing skills.