How do I write….?

By: Sonia Q. Cabell, Laura S. Totorelli

During free-choice time, Mrs. Jackson (all names are pseudonyms and vignettes fictional) moves around her preschool classroom. Her students are busy in centers — some engaging in dramatic play, some working in journals, and some drawing animals at the science center. Carmen looks up to Mrs. Jackson as she passes her table and asks, “How do I write snake?”

Mrs. Jackson looks around the classroom at her students, who are just beginning to experiment with writing. Some students, like Carmen, know the names of all the letters and can produce most of them accurately. A lot of Carmen’s classmates, however, are still learning to write their own names, and others do not yet know the difference between drawing and writing. How can Mrs. Jackson help all of her students when they are in such different places in their development?

How should Mrs. Jackson respond? Should she name the letters of the word? Focus on the sounds in the word? Encourage Carmen to write down her “best guess” and praise her hard work? And how should Mrs. Jackson help the next child, and the next?

Many preschool teachers recognize the importance of early writing by making writing materials available in their classrooms and providing opportunities to write during the school day (Gerde & Bingham, 2012). However, for teachers like Mrs. Jackson who want to offer explicit writing instruction to their students, the diversity of skill levels in a typical classroom presents a real challenge.

Preschool teachers receive limited practical guidance about how to apply the research on early writing to help individualize instruction for children. Not surprisingly, recent research indicates that few teachers understand how to appropriately scaffold instruction to help children take the next step in their writing development (Gerde & Bingham, 2012).

How should Mrs. Jackson respond? Should she name the letters of the word? Focus on the sounds in the word? Encourage Carmen to write down her “best guess” and praise her hard work? And how should Mrs. Jackson help the next child, and the next?

In this article, we offer a straightforward framework that teachers can use to easily evaluate children’s writing and help children take the next step in development. We address why it is important to foster early writing skills, how writing typically develops in young children, and how teachers can actively support this development. We discuss in detail four different students who might appear in a typical preschool classroom and how teachers can use their understanding of early writing to shape instruction for these students.

We also provide examples and concrete suggestions for fitting individualized writing instruction into common classroom contexts, including centers, journaling, and morning message.

This article will help teachers individualize early writing support for all students and at the same time foster other important early literacy skills through writing.

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