Supporting your child’s early writing is key. Learning to write actually begins well before learning to read. Children embark on their writing journey from a very young age, by mark-making; something that looks like scribbles to an adult observer, (see post: Mark Making: A Building Block for Brain Function and Literacy).
Around the age of 2-3, children begin to show that they are understanding some basic concepts about writing. This understanding comes from things such as:
- books that are read to them as well as seeing adults read newspapers, books, magazines etc.
- print they see in their environment, such a signs and labels
- the language adults use to speak to them
- learning from their peers who are slightly more advanced in writing
Learning to write (and read), however, is not a natural development. Our children will not be able to master the skills required for either reading or writing without regular exposure to print, opportunities to interact with it and some form of instruction. And it is the early years, 0-8 years, that are crucial, if our children are going to become competent in literacy.
How do children learn to write?
Children begin to learn about language from sources such as, the stories that are read to them, the books parents read and the print they see in their environment. They begin to understand that the symbols on a page, the print, represent meanings. They also begin to see differences between the printed word and pictures and start to understand that it is the words on the page that tell the story.
At a young age they will start to do their own ‘writing’, by making marks on paper or another surface. Although at this stage, the marks they make don’t form letters, they are beginning to explore the process of writing and begin to understand that what they ‘write’ has meaning. If a child has ‘written’ something, which to anybody else is a scribble, the child will often be able to tell you what it means to them.
As children develop, they become aware of the alphabet and its function. Preschools will often use songs and stories to enable children to become familiar with the alphabet. In addition to learning it through these means and through reading, research has also shown that children learn how the alphabet works though writing. Read (1971), found that preschoolers who had not had spelling instruction, used their knowledge of the way words sound to spell words. This is often referred to as, ‘invented spelling’ and refers to:
beginners’ use of the symbols they associate with the sounds they hear in the words they wish to write. For example, a child may initially write b or bk for the word bike, to be followed by more conventional forms later on.
(National Association for the Education of young Children, 1998)
What does the research say?
Research tells us that supporting your child’s early writing is fundamental to how well they will do. Some parents may worry that using invented spelling will result in their child always being a poor speller. Research suggests however, that this temporary stage actually serves as a benefit to children with regard to their reading ability. That this process encourages them to actively think about the relationship between the letter and its sound.
Research has also shown that children who are encouraged to ‘write’ early, (as in mark making with crayons, paint etc), and use invented spelling; learn to write more words correctly, than children who are taught using more conventional methods. (L. Clarke, 1987).
Children also learn to write from each other. As stated by the renowned psychologist, Jean Piaget, (How do Our Preschoolers Think?/How Children Make Sense of the World Around Them), it’s often easier for children to learn from someone who is just a bit better than them. For example, a child who is just starting to write, would find it easier to learn about ‘invented spelling’ from someone who is slightly better than them, than from somebody who has mastered spelling to a high level.
Many studies have also shown that when children are learning to write, discovery learning works well and benefits the child. A useful analogy is put forward by C. Temple et al (2010). Many teachers had been concerned that the discovery approach, (opposed to not allowing children to do any writing until they had been taught how to do it correctly), would result in children memorising the incorrect forms.
Temple likened this to: what if children learning to talk were made to wait until they could speak correctly, they would never learn to speak.
As with many areas in education, there isn’t one approach that suits all children. Alongside the approach used, most children will need some direct instruction to become a skilled and competent writer.
The research however, agrees on the following points on children learning to write:
- some systematic instruction can help children write legibly
- the most important part is that children are not rigidly limited to a particular form of handwriting
- many children will need refresher lessons in legible handwriting, even past grade 3
(C. Temple 2010)
Learning to write helps reading
As mentioned above, ‘writing’ comes a long time before reading. Dr. J. Gentry (2013), a professor and acclaimed author on how children learn to write, suggests that there are several reasons why writing helps early reading.
Early writing can help children crack the reading code. When children attempt to write down the sounds they hear, it results in phonic practice: words are made of sounds that are written with letters. To write a word, kids have to hear it. Then they have to associate the sound they hear with a letter symbol.
Early writing builds reading confidence. ‘Writing’ helps children understand the meaning connection because they are putting their own thoughts across. Often if we ask a child to read what they have written (which may look like scribbles to us), they can ‘read’ what they have written and often remember their ideas behind the words.
Writing provides children with a head start with concepts such as spelling, punctuation and handwriting. That learning to write early on means that children are getting more opportunities to practice handwriting, spelling, punctuation etc.
Writing is a brain power workout. Writing requires the skills of reading as well as some logical skills in maths and science and small motor coordination. As such, it’s quite hard work for children which is beneficial to their learning. And as long as a child is not pushed to frustration point, the learning taking place will only be of benefit.
Writing is a useful assessment of reading ability. Research has shown that you can assess a child’s early reading development and monitor progress by their writing. By looking at a child’s piece of writing, you can learn about what letters and sounds they know and how they make sense of a text.
Supporting your child’s early writing – 15 tips
Our children’s writing journey starts long before they start formal education. This provides a golden opportunity for parents to help and support their children to become competent and confident writers. This support however, shouldn’t stop the day they start school, but rather carry on.
Below is a list of practical tips on how parents can provide help and support to their children, as they learn the vital skill of writing.
From a young age, encourage your child to ‘write’ in ways that are fun. For example, take some chalk to the playground and let him make marks on the concrete; trace letters with their fingers in some flour or sand; give then some brightly coloured paper and let them ‘write’ with a toddler sized crayon.
Expose your child to a lot of print. Let them watch you write, whether it’s making shopping lists or writing a memo. Let them write their shopping list while you do yours.
Point out the written word to them as you go about your day. Tell them what a sign says, or an advert in the supermarket. This will reinforce their understanding that letters ordered in particular ways have a specific meaning.
When reading books to your child, point out the author on the front and let them know that you’re reading from top to bottom and from left to right.
Provide them with lots of opportunities to write themselves, such as having an easel/whiteboard, paper, card and pencils. At this stage, pens and pencils need to be fat. Teach them how to hold it properly.
Encourage your child to ‘read’ what they have written and give them plenty of praise for the interesting ‘writing’ they have done.
Have a fun alphabet chart on the wall where they can see how upper and lower case letters are formed. Help them to learn the letters of the alphabet through songs and jingles.
Provide them with plastic or foam letters that they can arrange on the floor. They may be able to recognise the letters from their own name and spell it out using the letters.
Encourage them to ‘write’ during their play. For example, they may need to write a parking ticket when their friend parks in the wrong place.
As they develop further, practice writing the alphabet with them. Start with all the upper case letters first as they are easier than the lower case.
Encourage your child to to write ‘thank you’ notes to friends and family. At the beginning, you can ask them what they want to say and then they can copy the words you’ve written onto the card. This will add excitement to the writing process as they are writing for a real purpose.
Play card word games to help increase their exposure to the letters of the alphabet.
Let your child make their own book. You could do it together or make one each, complete with a cover and pictures.
When reading to your child, point out words that have similar spellings, such as ‘top’ and ‘hop’. Ask her to come up with other words that have similar spellings.
Once they start formal school, ask your child’s teacher what you can do to continue supporting their writing (and reading), at home.
Some final thoughts…
Supporting your child’s early writing will set them on the right path for success. Learning to read and write are the most critical skills for our children to master. They are fundamental for their future success, both in school and later in life. And it is the first 8 years of a child’s life that are the most important for the successful acquisition of these skills.
As such, we as parents have a significant role to play, both before they start school and after. It is our efforts, as well as their teachers’, that will contribute to the overall success of our children.
I’ll end this post with an interesting article in the New York Times on why handwriting is still important in the digital age.
Over to you…
What experiences have you had with your child learning to write? Are the tips on supporting your child’s early writing helpful to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! And in case you missed the Trouble Shooting Handwriting Guide above, you can download it from here: