As a teacher, one of the things I watched parents “struggle” with the most was helping to develop their children’s writing abilities. As a parent of 2 preschoolers (Aggh! Don’t remind me!), I am right in the middle of the joys (and frustrations) of helping the boys learn how to write. Below are some of my tips based on my teaching and parenting experiences for helping your child learn to write:
- Remember that stages are developmental, and not necessarily directly related to your child’s age. Your child will first begin by scribbling or drawing a picture and telling you those scribbles have a message. Then, your child will begin to recognize scribbles carry the meaning while the pictures support the words. Next, your child will begin to write letter-like symbols, (likely in a linear fashion), often starting with the letters in their name. After that, children will begin using letters that correspond with the sounds they hear in the words [beginning letters come first, then ending letters, then long “middle” vowels (without the other letters that actually make the word long – so at this stage boat = bot), then come short vowels.]
- Use appropriate materials. Writing is difficult for little kids, as they are still developing their fine motor skills. I like to offer an assortment of materials – such as plain paper (scraps, post-its, or computer paper, envelopes) and writing utensils (markers, crayons, pencils, foam letter stickers). Lined paper is difficult for beginning writers – concentrate more on content than form at this point! Their handwriting is not so important.
- Encourage invented spelling. Do not expect your 3-5 year old to spell things conventionally. In preschool, your child should only be expected to spell their own name correctly. If you push “conventional” spelling too early, you are likely to discourage your child from writing. In my work with primary grade students, children who were encouraged to use invented spelling took more risks and used more interesting vocabulary than their peers.
- Once your child has developed some sense of letter-sound relationships, help your child “sound” out words. Make sure to string the sounds together instead of segmenting them. When you separate each of the sounds in a word, you actually “add” additional sounds because no consonant can be said in isolation without being attached to a vowel sound. So, a word like “cat” sounded out with each letter in isolation sounds like “cuh – ah – tuh” to a kid who doesn’t have a sense of what the word looks like in “conventional” print. Want an explanation for those mysterious u’s that show up in the middle of kids’ writings – here it is! Instead of separating each sound, stretch them out – “cat” becomes “kkkkkkaaaaaaaatttttt”. I always tell my students to practice before doing this with children because it is a bit awkward…but it works. Don’t expect your child to get all sounds, either. Just have them write the sounds they hear.
- Write for authentic purposes. Celebrate successes! With preschoolers it is especially important to have an authentic context for writing so that they can see that writing has a real purpose. “Want to help me write the grocery list for the store later?” “Can you help me write this card to thank Billy for helping me with the new fence?” or the very important reason Buddy came up with to write recently, “I need to write a letter to Santa so he knows what to get me and does not forget Christmas this year with the new baby here and all…”
Yes, it is August. Yes, he made his Christmas list.
But, look, he did a decent job. He wrote in list form. He wrote left to write. I can “read” most of the entries based on my experience in working with emergent and beginning writers (I tell my pre-service teachers that this is a great bar trick when they want to impress people – have them try to read a piece of children’s writing, then work your magic and read it to them. They’ll be amazed!) Anyway, you can see Buddy would like CR 2 (Cars 2), KT (track – he spelled this one in reverse), HWT (Hot Wheels track), LEGO (it was written on a box nearby and he recognized it to copy it), and a PNO (piano).
Learning to write is not a competition. Don’t worry if you see other children who write their name first, or you receive a handwritten note from a child that is in perfect handwriting with all words spelled correctly. For example, right now Buddy (age 4) has mastered uppercase printing, most beginning word sounds, and some ending word sounds. He also usually remembers to write left to right. However, we are now working on lowercase printing, more consistent use of ending sounds, and long-vowel middle sounds. We work at his pace, concentrating on the skills he needs to work on next, without worrying where his classmates are in the process. This ensures writing is still fun and rewarding for him!