The preschool teacher is all too familiar with the random scribblings of young children. Putting crayon or paint to paper is one of the staples of the early childhood classroom.
It would be easy to view these scribblings as nothing more than the creative output of fertile young minds, but they are more: They are a child’s earliest efforts at written communication, the seeds of a lifetime of writing.
The pre-K teacher is a child’s first writing teacher. Learning to write is a process—one that never ends. The first time a child picks up a tool and intentionally makes a mark—on paper, on a chalkboard, even in the sand—this process begins.
For most children, writing starts with random scribbling at the age of 2 or 3. Children at this age make marks on paper with little deliberate muscle control. With these often colorful crayon creations, they are building the strength to create symbols of written language later on.
The next stage in the process is controlled scribbling. Around the age of 3, children begin to write across the paper in linear fashion, repeating patterns and showing increased muscle control.
Three- and 4-year-olds make mock letters. These forms have letter characteristics, but they are misshapen and written randomly. Sometimes they are in no apparent order; at other times they appear in a line. But don’t let the crude forms fool you; this is writing in its infancy as a form of communication. The letters have a purpose and, if asked, children will tell you what they have written. They also have begun to understand the difference between writing and drawing and may separate these on the page
Around 4, children begin writing letters to represent words and syllables. If they have learned the visual word that represents their name, they can write it. They also can look at a word and copy it. Children frequently reverse letters at this age; for example, the horizontal lines in an E or an F may point to the left instead of the right.
In the next stage of learning to write, 4- and 5-year-olds start inventing spellings. Simply put, they choose a group of letters to form a word. With their crisp, clear sounds, consonants dominate most of their letter groups—because by now children understand that letters relate to the sounds of spoken language.
Preschool-aged children are also starting to absorb written language in the world around them. They recognize words that identify things they are familiar with, such as favorite cereals and the names of stores and restaurants. This recognition is known as environmental print; it involves rote learning instead of decoding the individual letters and words.
In the early years of elementary school, 5- to 7-year-old children learn standard spelling. Their written work includes correctly spelled and written words and some punctuation. They organize words in lines with spaces separating them. They arrange words from left to right, and from the top to the bottom of the page.
Preschool children will be most successful as writers if their attempts at writing are encouraged in their earlier years. Preschool teachers can do this by:
- Devoting time for 2- and 3-year-olds to scribble and draw; regular practice boosts muscle control and an interest in the physical process of writing.
- Showing children how to spell their name if they don’t already know, and giving them time to practice. One way to do this is to have children “sign-in” when they arrive at school. Over time, they will begin to write their name in a way that can be recognized.
- Asking children to write their name at the top of a page when they are drawing or using paper for another purpose.
- Asking 3- and 4-year-olds what is happening in their drawings and written words. What is the story they are trying to tell?
- Asking children to label their drawings in their own writing and/or taking “dictation” by writing the children’s description under their drawings
- Encouraging children to write words they know from their environment. For example, teachers can put sentence strips with pictures and labels in the classroom writing center.
As a child’s first writing teacher, you can plant the seeds for a lifetime of success by starting with the preschool curriculum.