Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ten Ways to Encourage Preschool Writers

I wrote a post on early writing last year in which I cited the seminal work of Harste, Woodward and Burke (1984) on early writing. They concluded that most children know the difference between reading and writing by age 3, and begin to develop an understanding of written language well before they arrive at school. Children demonstrate this understanding in their scribbles and their attempts to write and draw. Harste, Woodward and Burke put to one side traditional developmental notions that once assumed that children couldn't write until they were at least 5 years old. They suggested that children, at least from age 3, begin to demonstrate elements of authoring; they called this the "authoring cycle". Their research established that the early scribble and 'writing' of very young children demonstrated:
  • 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" (that they were attempting to make meaning)
  • Risk-taking (they were trying things they hadn't before)
  • An understanding that language has social function (it was for a purpose)
  • 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 seemed to realise that the sum of the elements collectively mean something)
I suggested in my earlier post that this research should encourage parents and Preschool teachers to:
  • Take children's early drawing and scribble seriously - look at it, enjoy it, discuss it with your children (e.g. "What's this?" "What does this mean?" etc).
  • Encourage children to write - give them blank paper and tell them to "write"!
  • Let them see you writing and talk about your writing.
  • Look for patterns in children's early drawing and scribble and expect to learn things about your child from it.
  • In short, encourage writing just as much as you encourage reading and celebrate their drawing and 'writing' - put it on the wall, date it and keep it, make up a folder etc.
Top Ten Ways to Help Young Writers

I thought I'd add some more practical suggestions to my earlier thoughts on early writing. If you were to accept the findings of this research what might you do to help your preschool children to become writers? Here ten simple ideas.

1. Read to your children - It is from hearing the stories of others that children learn about language, story and the joy that words can bring. The seedbed of writing is the richness of early reading and narrative experiences.

2. Immerse your children in language - talk to your children, sing them songs, teach them nursery rhymes, engage in word and sound play, experiment with sound.

3. Tell them stories - it is as you tell (rather than read) stories, no matter how poor, that your children witness the composing process and gain an insight into how writers structure stories in their heads.

4. Show your children that pictures symbolise and represent other things - encourage them to draw and ask them to explain their drawings - What have you drawn? What does this mean? Tell me about it. Show them that multiple pictures can be used to tell a story.

5. Teach them that drawing and art can take many forms - introduce them to painting, drawing, collage, and modelling with playdough.

6. Encourage your children to use toy animals, their dolls, teddies, television programs, Thomas Trains and so on to tell or even retell stories. This is composing in its earliest form.

7. Begin to associate written words with your children's early art, scribble, modelling and so on. Show them that we can use words to record meanings, add additional richness of meaning, and record and complement one creative form with another.

8. Incidentally draw your children's attention to letters of the alphabet as they encounter them on TV, in books and in the world all around them. Show them words and demonstrate how to write them. Do this in response to their efforts tell, retell and record experiences.

9. Give your children paper and encourage them to write. This might consist of drawing, some letter formation, simple words, scribble and so on. This varied and mixed use of symbols, pictures, colour, shape and line is early writing.

10. Display their early efforts and celebrate their 'authorship' demonstrated in their drawings and early writing.

The above suggestions are not meant to be sequential, but rather are ten examples of how interactions with your children can support them as early writers to gain a sense of what it means to compose, and begin to feel like an author as they record their thoughts, observations, responses and meanings.

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