Teaching Writing: Preschool, Kindergarten, and First Grade

by Dr. Wayne D. Lance1

In the Introduction to this series, I shared a few introductory comments about teaching children to write. In this article I would like to discuss some of the ways parents can help their preschool, kindergarten, and first grade children have successful experiences in writing.

The title of this article may raise a question in your mind: “Should I really be teaching writing to such young children?” Diane Lilleberg, prepared an excellent paper in which she asks the question, “Writing? In Kindergarten and First Grade?” She goes on to answer that question in both the affirmative and the negative. It depends on what you mean by “teaching writing.” I thoroughly agree. Let’s look at the preschool years.

Writing for Preschoolers

“Children who are encouraged to draw and scribble ‘stories’ at an early age will later learn to compose more easily, more effectively, and with greater confidence than children who do not have this encouragement.” This finding is based on research literature reported by the U.S. Department of Education (What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning, second edition, 1987). This same article goes on to comment:

Even toddlers, who can hardly hold a crayon or pencil, are eager to “write” long before they acquire the skills in kindergarten that formally prepare them to read and write.

Studies of very young children show that carefully formed scrawls have meaning to them, and that this writing actually helps them develop language skills. Research suggests that the best way to help children at this stage of their development as writers is to respond to the ideas they are trying to express [italics added].

Very young children take the first steps toward writing by drawing and scribbling…others may dictate stories into a tape recorder or to an adult, who writes them down and reads them back…it is best to focus on the intended meaning of what very young children write, rather than on the appearance of the writing [italics added].

Children become more effective writers when parents and teachers encourage them to choose the topics they write about, then leave them alone to exercise their own creativity. The industriousness of such children has prompted one researcher to comment that they “violate the child labor laws” (p. 9).

The preschool years provide parents with the opportunity to build a solid base upon which good writing skills will be developed in later years. Use this critical time in a child’s development by providing paper, crayons, large pencils, good modeling on your part, and most of all, lots of encouragement and supportive response.

Writing in Kindergarten and First Grade

This same safe and encouraging environment should be carried over into kindergarten and the first grade. It is important to remember that children develop at different rates. For some beginning school-age children, “writing” may be conveying their ideas through pictures. Pictures actually serve as a rehearsal for writing. They provide a framework for putting thoughts and ideas into words.

Later, children will begin to experiment with letters to represent words or sounds. Our job as teaching parents is to encourage this experimentation and to convey to our children the idea that their marks on paper do represent meaning. Ask them to read you what they have written. Read it back to them, being careful not to interject your own interpretation or to be in a hurry to suggest how they might improve their story.

If you are like I am, you find it easier to write when you have all of your tools at hand and conditions are just right. Children also need a writing environment: chair, table, selection of paper, envelopes, pencils, crayons, ruler, etc. The alphabet, in upper and lower case letters, should be posted nearby at the child’s eye level.

Sometimes writing involves making a grocery list; at others, a letter to grandma or perhaps a story. Often the writing session begins with children drawing a picture, then writing something about it, or having you write down what they dictate. Perhaps they can finish the story by writing their name.

Teach by Example

It is important that your children see you writing and get the idea that writing is an important means of communication. When you write a letter, encourage them to write one; when you make a list, have them make their own list; when you address an envelope, let them address one of their own. Demonstrate how to write a story by writing about something that happened or will happen today.

As you write, tell what you are thinking. In a classroom setting, this demonstration is usually done on a large chart for all the children to see. With your individual child or small group of children, you can do this on ordinary paper, but write large enough so that they can differentiate between letters, words, and sentences.

Make a habit of writing messages to your children. For example, you might post a message on the refrigerator door: “John, I liked the way you made your bed and cleaned your room today! Love, Mom” or “Betty, remind me to buy apples at the market today. Mom.”

Remember It’s a Process

At this stage of writing, children will begin to “ear spell,” or invent spelling. Sometimes we as parents have trouble accepting incorrect spelling or poorly formed letters, fearing that our children will learn the words incorrectly and develop poor penmanship habits. Remember some of the principles we discussed in the first article of this series. Children approach writing as they learn to talk. Perfection comes later. If your children are hesitant to begin to write letters or words to convey a story, ask what sounds they hear. Usually they will isolate the sound of a beginning consonant, and if necessary you can help them find this letter on the alphabet chart.

Later on, children will begin to experiment with other conventions: spacing between words, capitalization, and punctuation. They may go through a stage where exclamation points end every sentence. As they are exposed to more and more books and other forms of writing, they will begin to follow those models and to try new things in their own writing.

The important thing for parents to do is to focus on the content more than on the form. Now is the time to help your children put their thoughts into words and feel the sense of empowerment that comes from being able to do so.

With this approach, most children by the end of first grade will be making books of their own writing — a few pages of drawings, captions or even complete sentences about the pictures, and all stapled together into a volume like a real book. Remember that fine motor skills, like other stages of development, are quite variable among children. Some first graders, especially boys, are still having difficulty copying and forming letters, writing on a line, and translating what they think and speak into written form. But all those skills will come with time, support, and encouragement.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. Dr. Wayne D. Lance has a B.A. in Elementary Education and an M.A. in Educational Administration from the University of Redlands. He received his Ed.D. in Special Education from Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. He has taught upper elementary grades and special education. Wayne was the Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton, and a professor at University of Oregon. He served with WBT for ten years.