Writing? In Kindergarten and First Grade?

by Diane Lilleberg

Can writing be taught to kindergarten and first grade children? That depends.

If writing includes adult-imposed rules and structure, adult-selected topics, and a predictable adult reaction to mistakes, then the answer is no, writing should not be part of a program for such young children.

If, however, learning to write occurs in the same safe environment we provide for children learning to talk, enthusiastically accepting approximations and restraining from correcting errors, then the answer is yes, writing should be an important and integral part of an early language arts program.

Research has demonstrated the strong connection between learning to read and learning to write. They enhance one another, and the potential for success in becoming an effective and fluent reader is enhanced by early writing experiences.

Inspiring Confidence

Kindergarten and first grade students can learn to write. They may be cautious at first, especially if they have experienced evaluation of early writing attempts. The first key to helping young students write is inspiring confidence in their ability to do so. I listen to them read me what they write. I read it back to them. I enjoy each stage as their writing develops from pictures to squiggles to initial consonants to essential words, just as I enjoy hearing their speech develop from babbles to approximations to words to sentences.

Just as we listen past the linguistic errors of toddlers and hear what they mean to say, so the adult reader needs to read past the written errors of beginning writers to see what they intend to communicate. When I demonstrate that I can “read” the compositions of young writers, they become more confident in their ability to write. Accepting their meaning without evaluating the writing against a standard of perfection helps students think of writing as an exciting way to communicate what they think and feel, rather than as a difficult activity, never quite good enough.

Extending Writing Skills

Although the emphasis is on celebration of what young writers can do, there is another aspect to encouraging children to learn to write. That aspect is extension. We celebrate what children do. As teachers, we also encourage them to extend what they do, helping them to learn and grow as writers.

One way to extend young children’s writing is by providing a positive writing environment, one rich with opportunities and suggestions for real writing activities. A list of things to pack in a suitcase can be written. Shopping lists can be recorded. Household items can be labeled. Events to look forward to can be recorded on a calendar. Family rules can be written and posted. Notes can be written to family members noting positive accomplishments. Letters can be written and envelopes addressed. Regular journaling activities (with adults modeling the process) can be encouraged.

We can extend children’s writing as we share it together. If a child “writes” a story that is all pictures, the teacher might have the child “read” it, then suggest they write down some key words together. If the child knows some beginning consonants, the teacher may leave blanks for the student to fill in the symbols for those sounds. After words are written down by a teacher, teacher and student can read the story together, reinforcing the written code and its relationship to meaning.

To assist young writers in their natural progression from scribbling to literate writing, parents and teachers need not resort to negative evaluation. Extending from their desire to communicate, we witness growth as they begin including the use of familiar letters from their name, as they represent a beginning sound with the correct symbol, as they begin to understand the basic structure of words and use initial and final sounds to convey them and as, in anticipation of more effectively conveying their intended meaning, they string words together into sentences.

Yes, “formal” spelling and punctuation can be taught. We assist growth by teaching mechanics when there is a real need to know and a real desire to communicate with a wider audience in an appropriate way.

I treasure one piece of writing from a first grade student who discovered that vowels make different sounds. She questioned how to record a vowel in a word she was writing, and we discussed the use of silent e. She enthusiastically and consistently applied it. For weeks, every word in her writing that had a long vowel also had a silent e following the vowel. As children do in learning oral language, she overused her new discovery for a time before her growing familiarity with written language assisted her in applying it appropriately.

Young writers need to “own” their spelling. They learn spelling by visualizing the word, by slowly saying the word to hear the sounds, and by guessing at how the sounds might be represented by letters.

It requires a patient and consistent teacher to allow students this learning process without habitually feeding them correct spellings. If correct spelling is emphasized with young writers, they will quickly limit their written vocabulary to words they have been taught, with a very repressive effect on what they can communicate.

Opportunities from real writing experiences do allow instruction to be part of extending children’s writing. The focus of this instruction, however, is to assist student ownership of a growth process related to personal communication needs rather than to produce a mechanically perfect written product.

Encouraging the development of writing in kindergarten and first grade is encouraging growth in expressing what young children think is important. It gives merit and permanence to their thoughts and feelings. It allows them the opportunity both to control and to reflect on what they really want to say.

When the desire to communicate is not restrained by the worry that it must be done correctly, writing allows children to express their individuality. These pieces of who they are deserve to be treasured, a gift they bring to the relationship of love between student and teacher.

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