How to Teach Children to be Successful Writers

  • November 14, 2015

Preschool teaching expectations are changing. Some things are constant: parents will always seek a safe environment where their child can learn to get along with others, develop independence and strengthen creativity, practice self-expression and learn to follow routines. However, new initiatives are afoot: what began as NCLB (No Child Left Behind) legislation has morphed into the new CCSS (Common Core State Standards) and Assessment expectations of all public schools, and these standards have spread to state preschools. Discussion of universal preschool is on the rise and moving towards the reauthorization of the ESEA (Elementary Secondary Education Act). One of the important concerns throughout is how to help our less-advantaged youngest learners before they enter the elementary years and find themselves already lagging behind their more-fortunate peers.


Early childhood educators are as focused as grade-school teachers on the research relating academic achievement and success to parental involvement, vocabulary, early literacy and writing. Preparing children for the demands of CCSS begins with early educators doing their part to provide caregivers and parents with the tools they need to help their children succeed in school. For decades, early educators have shared what they believed would contribute directly to early literacy development: activities such as exposing children to the words around them, both spoken and printed, as well as reading in groups and one-on-one with a child. New findings, however, are calling these ideas into question. Wasik & Hindman (2010) found that shared book reading alone accounted for only 10 percent of the variability in children’s literacy skills (73). Recent studies have revealed that skill-based parent involvement plays an important role in early literacy development (Evans et al., 2000). How does this differ from traditional book reading? It turns out that when picture books are traditionally shared with young children, links do not automatically form between the words on the page and the illustrations (Philips et al, 2008). To remedy these shortcomings, early childhood teachers can help parents improve early literacy development through a few simple changes to book-reading routines, including easy-to-use skill-development techniques their children will barely notice but will soon feel good about because they lead them to greater success.

  • Model finger pointing as you read to help young readers develop print awareness: the understanding that words are separated by spaces, move from left to right, and continue on the next line down.
  • Have children identify letters and words on the page as you read.
  • Model the identification of high-frequency sight words: help children sound them out, and use illustrations to assist with the beginning reading process.
  • Ask questions to connect new vocabulary, sequences of events and text to self while reading a given story, not just at the end.

We know that the home-literacy environment plays a more important role than socio-economic status when it comes to academic success (Dickinson and McCabe, 2001, p. 196). How can early educators align themselves with parental-involvement initiatives for school-based early writing development?

Lately the journals have focused on writing in the early years and how to help even our youngest learners begin to learn it. Unfortunately, research has indicated that few early childhood educators know how to take the first steps to assist our youngest learners with writing (Gerde & Bingham, 2012).

The goal of the writing process at all levels is to help children find their own voices and to nurture their writing development with scaffold support until they feel confident taking independent responsibility (VanNess, Murnen, & Bertelsen, 2013).


Research on the stages through which children typically learn to write in preschool and kindergarten can help educators easily identify student readiness for the next scaffolds in the learning process (Temple, Nathan, & Temple, 2012).

  1. Drawing and Scribbling: Writing development starts with pictures. Scribbles and pictures are interchangeable. Children cannot discriminate between the two, and do not yet connect print with meaning. Most children do not associate text with the pictures they focus on in picture books.
  2. Letters and Letter-Like Forms: Children begin to repeat letters, typically from seeing their names in print. They do not associate letters with the sounds in words, but they do link text with meaning.
  3. Salient and Beginning Sounds: Inventive spelling occurs at this stage. Children represent words with one or more letters that are most distinctively heard when saying the word. First letters in words are often represented here too.
  4. Beginning and Ending Sounds: Children begin to write with spaces between words, and include less-salient letters within words (Cabell, Tortorelli, & Gerde, 2013).

Early educators are very aware that early writing is connected with later reading success (National Early Literacy Panel [NELP], 2008). What scaffolds are appropriate at each stage of writing development? Below are ideas useful for parents as well as preschool classrooms.

  1. Drawing and Scribbling: Incorporate writing into play at centers. Allow children to sign into centers on a pad or sheet. Ask children about their drawings, and model writing their dictated sentences on their paper to tell their story in words. Have children write their names often on their work, and have opportunities for them to write their names in various forms (chalk, play-dough, paint, sand). Model writing by pointing at words while reading and writing.
  2. Letters and Letter-Like Forms: Provide writing prompts in journals to help children write and draw about items in their environment. Help children sound out letters within words as a scaffold mechanism at this stage. Have children write their names as frequently as possible. Scaffold letter sounds, then repeat and ask children to share words with similar sounds. Encourage inventive spelling.
  3. Salient and Beginning Sounds: Use writing prompts to incorporate both beginning and ending sounds. Play activities can incorporate single words. Children should be journal-writing, with attention to pronouncing and identifying initial and ending sounds.
  4. Beginning and Ending Sounds: Writing should begin to incorporate word families and patterns. Encourage writing of simple sentences through writing prompts during play. Use journal activities to challenge children to identify middle sounds in words. Break up phonemes in words with horizontal lines (Cabell, Tortorelli, & Gerde, 2013).

It is important to model through scaffolds and allow for guided practice before attempting to integrate independent center, journal or play-based writing opportunities. Additionally, remember that writing at any stage is foreign until it is tried. Helping children take ownership of writing as they gain confidence with each writing milestone is essential in order for this process to be successful. Writing development typically follows behind reading, and playing catch-up with writing can be as frustrating for children as learning to read. Take it slow, and enjoy the process with them. You will find it rewarding for all involved.

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