ERIC Identifier: ED327312
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Maehr, Jane
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood
Education Urbana IL.
Encouraging Young Children's Writing. ERIC Digest.
Many educators and parents assume that young children must progress
through a sequence of clearly defined skill areas to acquire listening,
speaking, reading, and, finally, writing facility. As a result, young children
often are not encouraged to write until they have learned how to read and
have mastered the mechanics of writing (grammar, capitalization, punctuation).
Recent studies in emergent literacy--the early stages of learning to
write and read--have shown that young children compose before they know
much about the conventions of writing and reading or have the skill to
control the formation of letters. As young children gradually realize the
usefulness of writing--even unconventional writing--they are encouraged
to develop related literacy skills.
HIGH/SCOPE'S APPROACH TO EMERGENT LITERACY
A developmental approach to literacy emphasizes the gradual emergence
of skills in all areas of language rather than the end results of this
process: formal skills in speaking, reading, and writing. Such a developmental
approach is used by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti,
Michigan. High/Scope curriculum developers and teaching adults recognize
that preschoolers and kindergartners have plenty of ideas and enjoy composing
and reading their compositions.
Children in High/Scope preschool and kindergarten classrooms, centers,
and homes often write and read in unconventional forms (scribblings, drawings,
letter-like marks) in order to relate their thoughts and experiences. Such
attempts to communicate are not viewed as mistakes. Instead, young children
are encouraged to "write" without worrying about the mechanics of writing.
However, teachers and parents don't adopt a hands-off or laissez-faire
approach to literacy development. Instead, they support the naturalness
of learning about reading and writing by enriching the atmosphere in which
children live and learn. In such an enriched atmosphere, authentic reasons
for learning to write and read are readily apparent to children, and they
have opportunities to hear good literature and use language in many forms
to accomplish tasks.
In High/Scope learning settings, children are given numerous opportunities
to observe purposeful writing. For example, on the first day at the High/Scope
Demonstration Preschool, each child chooses an identification symbol that
is used to label his or her cubby, artwork, and other belongings. Children's
symbols are usually drawings of shapes or familiar objects (for example,
a circle, star, or tree). Each child's symbol is displayed on an identification
sign that also includes the child's name and photo. Children use their
Teachers and other adults involve children in writing messages, notes
to parents, and lists of things to do. Because the symbols and processes
of writing are commonplace in High/Scope early learning environments, children
can observe the relationship between spoken and written language. Preschools,
kindergartens, and day care homes or centers have some type of "writing
area" or "office center." In a preschool or day care program, the writing
area may simply be an informal arrangement, such as a table with writing
implements and materials. In a kindergarten, it may be a full-fledged activity
area. Whatever the setting, the place where children are encouraged to
"write" should be stocked with a variety of writing tools. Most important,
it should be a place where children feel free to write in their own way.
Children who respond in such a setting by saying "I can't write" or
"I don't know how," or who assume that an adult will automatically write
for them, will soon learn that the adults believe that the children can
write. Adults respond warmly to all attempts children make to write, even
when these attempts result in the random scribbles, letter-like marks,
and drawings that children call writing. Adults ask such open-ended questions
as, "Tell me what you've written" or "That's interesting . . . what about
this part?" When adults respond positively to all efforts at written language,
children learn that their decision to take a risk with writing was worthwhile.
Even casual observers of young children's writing will see that they
often combine conventional and unconventional print. Some preschoolers,
and many kindergartners, know how to write their names conventionally.
However, most preschoolers are more comfortable with scribbling their messages
or attempting representational drawings than with trying to write in conventional
form. Occasionally, preschoolers will move on to forming letter-like units
or even a letter or two from their names. At the beginning of the school
year, some kindergartners will be able to string nonphonetic letters together
in imitation of print. As the year progresses, some will begin to invent
the spelling of isolated words and compile lists of words they know.
It's important for adults to recognize that such experimentation at
the preschool and kindergarten levels allows children to use comfortable,
nonconventional forms of writing to express complex thoughts. By encouraging
children to write in their own way, adults assure that the composition
process as a whole does not stand or fall on children's knowledge of, or
skill in, conventional writing.
UNDERSTANDING THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN DRAWING, WRITING, AND READING
When adults use the teaching techniques of the emergent literacy approach,
they understand the relationships between children's drawing, writing,
and reading. They realize that some children may consider their drawings
to be actual writing. If asked to "read" their text, these children will
respond with a clear message or story. Older children may recognize that
drawing is an illustrative form, but still continue to use it as writing.
It is important to resist the pressure to introduce skill and drill
practice in children's early years. Forcing young children to practice
writing out-of-context words they do not understand and cannot read; suggesting
that they print letters so that they fit in lined spaces; insisting that
words always be spelled conventionally; and overemphasizing practice with
discrete letter and sound relationships will not make children become better
writers and readers. In fact, such demands may make it less likely that
children will develop a pleasurable association between reading and writing.
SUPPORTING CHILDREN'S WRITING
The process of learning to write begins in infancy. The positive oral
and written language experiences children have at home, day care, preschool,
and kindergarten contribute to the developing capacity to communicate in
Adults in day care settings and preschools can promote the development
of writing skills by offering numerous informal opportunities for children
to observe, explore, and experiment with writing. When children observe
that adults are writing in order to accomplish real tasks, they learn the
value and function of writing. Caregivers can involve the children in writing
brief notes to parents or listing the foods that are to be purchased for
the next day's snack time. It's a good idea to have a box of writing tools
and materials available for children to use when they want to write their
own way. The materials can be arranged on a special table set aside for
Although informal opportunities to write should continue at the kindergarten
level, it's also appropriate for adults to begin to provide slightly more
formal and organized opportunities. For example, adults can set aside a
special time when children are asked to work in the "office center." The
office center can also be available as an option for children at work time.
In the office center, children should easily find everything they need
to write names, design signs, send notes, record telephone numbers, or
Although many kindergartners can recognize some letters, words, and
phrases, they may revert to drawing or scribbling when encouraged to write
a story. Adults should accept this as a valuable attempt at writing and
avoid prodding children to write only in words.
In the course of the year, some kindergartners will experiment with
phonetic spelling and begin to move closer to conventional forms. Teachers
should treat such developments as part of the natural process of emerging
literacy. Attempts to use emerging skills should be warmly supported, not
pushed or scrutinized for errors. The developmental approach emphasizes
learning experiences that are meaningful to children, and not drill and
practice of isolated skills.
This digest was adapted from the article "Right! Young Children Can
Write!" by Jane Maehr, which appeared in EXTENSIONS: NEWSLETTER OF THE
HIGH/SCOPE CURRICULUM, Vol. 4, No. 3 (November/December 1989): 1-4.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hiebert, E.H. "The Role of Literacy Experiences in Early Childhood Programs."
The Elementary School Journal (November, 1988).
Kontos, S. "What Preschool Children Know About Reading and How They
Learn It." Young Children (November, 1986).
Maehr, Jane. "Right! Young Children Can Write!" Extensions: Newsletter
of the HIGH/SCOPE Curriculum 4 (November/December 1989): 1-4.
Schickedanz, J.A. More Than the ABCs: The Early Stages of Reading and
Writing. Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1986.
Strickland, D.S., and Morrow, L.M. (Eds.). (1989). Emerging Literacy:
Young Children Learn To Read and Write. Newark, DE: International Reading
Teale, W.H. "Writing in the Early Childhood Classroom." Reading Today
Teale, W.H., & Sulzby, E. (Eds.). Emergent Literacy: Writing and
Reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1986.
Temple, C., Nathan, R., Burris, N., and Temple, F. The Beginnings of
Writing (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1988.
Wells, M. "The Roots of Literacy." Psychology Today (June, 1988).