Writing is the theme in our house at the moment as Jude has just started to get into it. I try and get him writing every day, he draws a picture of whatever is in his funny little head at the time and then writes a sentence about it. We recently had some homeschooling friends over who are a similar age to Jude but all at different developmental stages and it got me thinking about the ways I get children writing in school. Children often want to write before they can actually do it -they understand what writing is and have something to say. I love this age with children, I’m not keen on the toddler stage but once they start expressing themselves I’m in my element. It’s the most rewarding thing as a teacher to be able to give children the means of self-expression. As with all things teaching, the most important thing is to make them feel empowered, “You can do it!”, and it can seem daunting sometimes, that step from being a pre-writer up to actually making marks that mean something, and not just to the child – readable marks.
If you have taught your child the alphabet, so that they recognise all the letters and can say the letter sound (not name, the phonic sound is the important bit because that’s what they need to read) then the obvious step is to teach them to form all the letters correctly. I cannot say how important this stage is, letting them form letters any old way is not a good idea. It is as easy for them to learn the correct way of forming a letter as an incorrect way and you are just making work for yourself if you let them learn a wrong way, as you’ll only have to go back and teach the proper way later. Ruldoph Steiner adherents teach capitals first and I wonder if this is the reason why, because you can form a capital any way you wish. Jude is loving the Letterland series at the moment as I mentioned before, it appeals to his creative nature and is filling in the gaps with his letter formation.
If your child knows how to form most of the letters already, as Jude does, then the way to give them confidence it to let them sound out their own words and interfere as little as possible. Jude learns spelling separately, and if he is writing a word he knows then I do say, “remember, this is one of your racetrack words”, but apart from that he sounds everything out. Children needs a bit of help with this at first, so sit next to them and repeat the word they want to write and get them to say it too. For example, the child want to write, “Spiderman makes a web”, you say, “What’s our first word? Spiiiideeerrr man. What does it start with? SSSSSSpiderman. That’s right. Sss. What can you hear next? SssPPPPPiderman…” If they don’t hear the sound after you’ve emphasised it then that’s fine, they tend to miss out all the vowels at first anyway. After a while they start doing this process for themselves and then they believe they can write. Jude will write his own sentence and read it back to me now but we are still working on fingerspaces.
Jude wrote this sentence independently apart from the sound ‘er’ in Spiderman. That is one of Jude’s spellings at the moment so when he was sounding out that bit I reminded him how to spell it because he couldn’t remember it and I am specifically teaching him that sound this week. He wrote up to the first full stop by himself but then I reminded him about fingerspaces and told him to write another sentence with them in. He then wrote, ‘He is strong.’ Underneath I tried to get him to sound out the word ‘strong’ again to see if he could do it any better but he couldn’t. Don’t do all those extra things unless your child is a confident writer, Jude wrote this in two minutes and feels pretty good about his abilities, a few weeks ago I would have just said, “Wow, that’s brilliant!” and left it at that. I marked his work with him by putting marks where his fingerspaces should have gone. And I did praise him of course, after that. We always make a fuss, quite genuinely, we think it’s amazing that he can write!
Okay, what if your child can’t form the letters yet but is keen to say something on paper? Jude’s friend, E, is at this stage. She drew a picture and knew what sentence she wanted to write (if your child is still not composing their own sentence then you can help them, or simplify what they say so it’s manageable) but is not forming letters yet. Either because she doesn’t know them, or sometimes it can be a confidence issue at this age. E told me her sentence and we sounded it out together and I wrote it down. Of course I used the correct spellings (“hmm, ‘once’ starts with an o, that’s funny isn’t it”). I modelled how to use fingerspaces and got her to help me with sounding out when appropriate – children usually hear the initial letter first, then start to hear the last sound, finally they start to hear middle sounds. E could hear all of the first sounds and some of the last ones. After I had written her sentence in nice big letters (in yellow felt-tip, way easier then doing dots) she took the pencil and traced over my letters. I told her where to start each letter and talked her through the formation (“start at the top, that’s right, then go down to the bottom, then back up again…) E did enough work to feel that she had written her own sentence and deserved all the praise she got.
There is a stage in between tracing over letters and forming them correctly. Jude’s other friend, T, is at this stage. She knows how to form some of her letters but is not very confident at sounding out. If the child is really unsure abut writing then you could write the words nice a big and let them copy exactly underneath each word, then progress to writing the sentence on a separate piece of paper a normal size and letting them copy on to their paper. T was happy to write so I sat by her and we ‘sounded out’ each word together, “Once, you say it, Once, what sound can you hear?” She could hear a “w” – “great, let’s write a w, good girl, now what else can you hear, Once, say it again, a ssss, brilliant!” If you have older children, don’t let them make disparaging comments like, “Once doesn’t start with w”, as happened in this case. You are empowering the child, making them believe they can write. And of course, the important thing is, that they can read their own work back.
Sometimes the child hits a sound they don’t know, such as ‘th’ in T’s sentence. Just take your time and repeat the sound, if you are teaching this sound or have read it recently then you can remind them, but otherwise just let them come up with an appropriate sound. T said ‘v’ after some thought and that worked just fine (I wrote the real spelling in later so that T’s parent’s could read her sentence with her). Don’t worry about letter reversals at all, they happen and you can start to correct them as they gain confidence in their writing. T reversed her b in big and then wasn’t sure how to write a g. I drew a g in the air, sometimes this is all they need to remind them, she still wasn’t sure so I wrote a g on a piece of paper and she copied it. I would then work on the letter g and how to form it on another occasion, not during writing because you want to make them feel successful.
Three writers, at different stages. Three sentences, three children who have written what they wanted to say. When I’m in school I will work with a whole group of pre-writers at the same time so I always follow this route – first, tracing over my own letters, then writing underneath, then copying from a separate piece of paper, then sounding out with assistance. The important thing is, let the child compose their own sentence as much as possible and then let them do as much of the work as they can. Believe me, there is nothing better than hearing a child shout, “Look at my witing! I wote a sentence!”