To me, early writing is the act of putting pencil (or pen, crayon, colored pencil, etc.) to paper and making marks. For young children, writing may consist of “scribbles,” but those scribbles hold meaning for the children who are making them. It is important that teachers of young children encourage their writing and help to express what their writing means.
To see themselves as writers, children must have the opportunity to develop their ideas both in and out of the school setting. To do this, teachers can provide students with “Seed Notebooks” or “Teeny Tiny Topic Notebooks”, which allows students to write or draw their ideas so that they can turn them in to writing pieces at a later time. Students must also know that they can write anywhere and about anything; it’s important that teachers provide their children with the opportunities to write whenever they want to. Parents should also provide their children with opportunities to write at home. According to Gretchen Owocki, author of Literacy Through Play, “…children’s schemas for the functions of written language are initially shaped by the literacy events that occur in the home” (59). Therefore, it is important that children are exposed to and provided with opportunities to write at home so that they’re eager to write in the classroom. It is also important to give children choices of mediums and artistic techniques, so that they can experiment with different writing instruments and artistic outlets. Students also need invitations to write because not all students will necessarily seek out the tools to write. Therefore, a writing center should be set up in the classroom (or even at home) where students can find many different materials to use in their writing process. Some of the items that should be found in a writing center are as follows:
- Blank Book Bin
- Teacher should fold and staple paper, creating books
- Provide students with a variety of colors, number of pages, and choices for front and back covers
- There should be a variety of paper styles: Big lines, small lines, a full page of lines, blank paper for drawing, lines with a box for drawing on top, etc.
- Writing/Drawing Utensils: Pencils, pens, markers, crayons, colored pencils, cray-pas, watercolors, paint, etc.
- Other materials: Name cards, alphabet chart, picture cards, etc.
In school and at home, children should have the opportunities to write whenever they want to, as well as access to different mediums and different paper choices, which will allow them to see themselves as writers.
Early writing (ages 2-4 years) generally consists of children making portraits of themselves (see the progression below). At first, this tends to be teacher-directed, and the teacher provides the student with a circle to begin their drawing. As students grow a little older, they can draw their own circles for their drawing. Generally, at first, the face, arms, and legs are all draw inside the circle (head) and no body is drawn. As students grow older, the hands and legs come out of the head. After that, as students become older and more sophisticated drawers, they will add a body to their drawing and the arms and legs will come out if their body rather than their head. A particularly useful tool for helping students to see that there are many different parts to add when drawing a person is Mat Man (see below). This tool consists of a mat for a body, and wood pieces that can be made into arms, legs, ears, hair, etc. Through teacher modeling and guided student practice, students will learn the parts that should be included in their drawing and are able to use Mat Man as a tool when replicating these parts in their pictures. When students are in the early stages of writing, they’re generally unable to write coherent words that tell about their pictures. According to Marie Clay, whose research is used in Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s book, Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook, “…the gross approximation of letter forms that appears in early drawing and scribbling develops into later writing behavior. Interestingly, these approximations are not just random lines but often have some specificity…” (149). Therefore, it is important that teachers ask their students about their drawings and dictate what they say onto their papers because students have intentionally drawn these pictures with meaning in mind. Teachers shouldn’t assume that a students’ picture is something, and instead should say, “Tell me about your picture.” Some students may give an abundance of information and description about their pictures, and others may be reluctant. If the latter is the case, teachers can encourage students by asking questions such as, “What is ___ doing in this picture?” or “What is ___ wearing?” or “What is ___ feeling here?” Dictations are incredibly important in early writing because they turn what looks like scribbles into an actual picture or story.
In the stage of early writing, there are two types of writing that students will do: Compositional writing and functional writing. Compositional writing is the writing that students do when they’re telling a story, sharing information, and observing, questioning, or problem solving. Functional writing has real-life functions and consists of list making, taking notes, and writing names among many others. Before students participate in either of these types of writing, it is important that teachers model so that students know what to do when they’re working independently. Anchor charts are especially useful when modeling for students, and they’re also wonderful reminders for students when they’re posted around the classroom. A chart as simple as “What Can We Write About?” allows students who are having difficulty getting started on their writing piece to locate a topic or something to write about (see below for examples of early writing anchor charts). According to Fountas and Pinnell, shared and interactive writing is also incredibly useful for emergent writers because “[students] learn from demonstration and participation and by trying things out for themselves” and allows students “…to participate in the writing process with a high level of support” (155). Shared and interactive writing is also collaborative, so students can share ideas as well as view their teachers’ ideas. Most importantly, “all aspects of writing can be demonstrated through shared and interactive writing; as children experience more of it, they will start wanting to write for themselves (155).
Children can also be exposed to and explore different functions of writing through play, according to Gretchen Owocki, author of Literacy Through Play. People of all ages are exposed to four types of print, environmental (provides information about the world around us), occupational (used to do one’s job), informational (for storing, organizing, and retrieving information), and recreational (used for leisure activities), on a regular basis and children should be exposed to these types of print through play in the classroom (58-9). It is important that teachers “…model [this type of literacy interaction as well as make suggestions for] uses of written language based on the children’s existing play themes” (59). Owocki also states, “play is a powerful medium for discovering functions [of written language] because it engenders so many good reasons to read and write” (60). Therefore, it is important that teachers not only provide students with the access to written language through writing centers, but also through play using the various types of print that children are exposed to on a daily basis. By using a variety of methods to expose children to the written language, teachers make writing meaningful and accessible both in and out of the classroom, as well as in the world around us.
Other activities that promote early writing and can be used in the classroom and at home are as follows:
- Writing with Shaving Cream: Who doesn’t like to get messy? With shaving cream, students can draw pictures, write letters and words, among many other things. This allows children the tactile experience of playing with shaving cream as well as practicing their writing and drawing. Although these shaving cream creations can’t be shaved without making a mess, teachers and parents can take pictures of their childrens’ work to save instead.
- Paint Bags: Teachers and parents can fill zip-lock bags with paint, and students can use their fingers or q-tips to draw or write on the outside of the bag. The paint will move into the shapes or letters that they’re drawing, and then it will go move back into it’s original shape so that the child can start again!