Just as with reading, the most important thing to bare in mind when teaching writing to children is that at no point along the way, should a child experience any negative feelings.
It should always be slightly challenging and it most definitely needs to be fun and enjoyable for them. At every stage. This is the balance that a good teacher will find. And as a parent knowing your child’s limits it is crucially important. I’d like to add here that this is often the key to fostering any skill; be it literacy, maths, language or physical.
Regular practise is necessary but over-practise will often be detrimental to a child’s progress and have adverse effects to learning and skill acquisition. Too many times we struggle at school with children that are being pushed too much at home. These children always make the slowest progress in school and often enjoy learning the least.
Now keeping writing skills fun and exciting is obviously most important, the younger the learner is. It is fortunate then that there are so many lovely activities that can be done with toddlers that start them off on their writing journeys and help them to develop important skills that are necessary as a foundation to picking up a pencil and manipulating it effectively. We are so lucky in this day and age with idea sharing sites such as Pinterest and Facebook.
As an Early Years teacher, when I think about the writing skill itself, I think of two factors; the physical skill of holding a pencil and manipulating it with control and the skill of writing words (spelling) and then eventually sentences using appropriate grammar and conveying meaning (syntax).
These two rather different skills will often start as separately and discretely taught and practised elements. This is particularly true in early years where fine motor skill practice and development usually start a while before any letter or number writing.
In this blog I will focus on the physical skill and discuss ways that we help develop fine motor skills at BEYC. Whilst activities 1-3 are generally used pre-pencil / crayon they should have continual application during and throughout pencil use.
Developing Fine Motor Skills
1. Fine Motor Activities:
Anything that toddlers are able to manipulate with their fingers which enables them to build muscle strength and control can be counted as the first stage in writing. Typical preschool resources such as play-dough and clay, bead-threading, lego type blocks as well as intricate picking and pinching activities, all help to develop small hands to prepare them for gripping a pencil.
Here are some great ideas that our Toddlers teacher uses in her classroom. All of which can be played at home, some may of course need adapting.
1. Button / Lolly Stick Sorting
3. Clothes Peg Games
4. Cutting and Sticking
5. Marble Balancing
6. Bead threading
7. Water Syringing / Squeezy Water Toys
9. Nuts and Bolts
2. Mark Making:
Allowing children to have fun making marks and scribbling on paper, chalkboards or whiteboards is the perfect precursor to more formalised and intricate writing. The key aspect in this phase is fun. Children need to enjoy picking up a mark making tool to make a mess or attempt to draw. Just the fact that they want to use a pencil for play means that they will develop fine motor control by choice.
3. Colouring /Drawing/Painting: I think this is the first stage where an adult should start to intervene and demonstrate how to grip a pencil in the correct way. The intervention should be small and short at first. Remember that too much correction will take the enjoyment out of the play activity. Teachers and parents alike should be aiming to extend what the child deems a ‘play’ activity for as long as possible.
Colouring activities can easily be over used by schools. Parents don’t tend to force colouring worksheets onto children but schools, ironically, can be guilty of this. I always think that a colouring worksheet is a lazy teacher’s best friend. For a small minority of children, usually the more creative of a class, colouring doesn’t become a tedious activity. But for most it does. Used in the correct way, with an appropriate amount of space to be coloured, worksheets are great. Colouring in the same picture as the children, sat alongside them was always one of my favourite things to do as a teacher. As an adult I, of course, never do colouring, so its really nice to join the children and chat or sing with them as they colour. Adult enjoyment aside however, this is an opportune moment to model good pencil grip and control.
This doesn’t mean the writing of letters and numbers but it could. At this stage of the process, whilst getting used to the gripping and manipulating of a pencil, it doesn’t really make sense to start practising the writing of letters straight away. There are a wealth of fine motor worksheets and activities on the internet. We have a great scheme which is downloadable from our website called “Write From The Start”. Most good phonics schemes now include similar tracing type activities for young learners as they begin their phonics curriculum. Whilst making a set of worksheets at school recently we included a traceable version for each of the beginning letter sounds, differentiated for the children; those already writing freely and those who were still not yet ready to write.
5. Letter Formation:
As a teacher, the teaching of the formation of letters and numbers is something that should be learnt in one way. Children are often confused by the differing instruction they receive from home and school. In an ideal world the parent and teacher would communicate about teaching techniques and methods but of course this doesn’t always happen. In actual fact there are so many different ways to teach letter formation. Any parent or teacher having tried this will know that handwriting worksheets, phonics schemes, educational apps, online software and youtube videos will all vary in terms of font style, upper and lower case styles, starting points (where to start with the pencil) and then you have cursive and precursive letters.
Parents will more often than not teach the method that remains with them from their childhood.Children’s T.V. programmes such as Sesame Street are still particularly vivid when I think back; the animated pencil writing a letter in the correct way on the screen. For today’s children I can guarantee the most effective method will be the i-pad and tablet technology; being both visual and tactile.
In our Kindergarten classroom we are lucky to have an interactive board with some pretty amazing software. There are video demonstrations of letters being written with audio instruction and the opportunity for children to come and write in a whole range of exciting pen styles and colours. It really is very effective, modern day teaching; something I would have absolutely loved when I was their age. Another resource that I quite like, to teach letter formation, are stencils. We actually made a set out of recycled plastic, which is something that can easily be made at home.
The key at this phase is repetition. Not for any long periods of time. But a little every day. Even as little as 2 or 3 minutes at first, focusing on one letter or number. Discussing where to start with the pencil and the direction of flow is extremely important as well as holding the child’s hand to demonstrate correct gripping position. Repetition is the only thing that will eventually lead to memory.
So far I have only discussed the development of the physical writing skill. At some point during the last 5 stages and it will depend on the school, children should start learn a synthetic phonics programme. This is any phonics curriculum that teaches the skills of blending sounds together (reading) and segmenting words into sounds (spelling). It is during daily phonics lessons that the writing skill takes a different focus.
Developing the Skill of Segmenting for Spelling
So far I have only discussed the development of the physical writing skill. At some point during the last 5 stages and it will depend on the school, children should start learn a synthetic phonics programme. This is any phonics curriculum that teaches the skills of blending sounds together (reading) and segmenting words into sounds (spelling). It is during daily phonics lessons that the writing skill takes a different focus. The
Phonics Phase 2,3,4,5:
1.Writing of individual sounds
A little attention given to the formation of the letter. It is taught and modelled with appropriate language but the objective shifts to the children recalling the sound (Phoneme-Grapheme Recognition). This means when a child hears a sound they are able to write it down.
It is important to remember what the learning focus or objective is at this stage. Remember your child will be practising fine motor control with all the before mentioned activities. If a child is simply not yet ready to write with a pencil or as we use, a whiteboard pen, and shows signs of becoming disinterested with writing there are a whole host of resources that your school should have at their fingertips to allow them to practise the skill without actually writing anything. Resources such as: Magnetic Letters / Sand Trays / Phonics Multilink Cubes / Phonics Software / Apps
2.Segmentation of sounds (Spelling)
Now the term ‘spelling’ is used here to describe two separate processes. In synthetic phonics programmes, when a child is asked to ‘segment’ a word it assumes that the child has already learnt the individual sounds within the words, thus allowing a child to spell any word of this nature that has not been pre-learnt. It is important in actual fact to ask children to spell words that they have never seen before. We even use non-words or fake words in this way, to allow the effective practise of the skill. Sight words or as we call them, Tricky Words are still taught in modern phonics and literacy lessons since there are still words that follow no rules whatsoever and the only really effective way to remember them is through traditional teaching methods.
Many schools still choose to teach rote learning of high-frequency words but we opt out of this and only ask the children to learn words that are tricky, by memory. This, we find speeds up the learning process. We can not see reason behind using a child’s time to learn the word ‘yes’ or ‘and’ for example when both of these words can be segmented by listening to the individual sounds in the words. Words such as ‘no’ and ‘the’ however could not be segmented at this early stage of the programme.
One of the best resources that teachers will use to develop this important skill are phoneme frames. The children have a grid in which a separate phoneme or sound must be written. They can clearly see the total spaces available therefore minimising the possibility of mistakes.
It is often forgotten that this skill doesn’t have to be taught using materials at all. Effective practise can simply be done orally. And for parents wanting to nurture their child’s spelling, this means games can be played in the car, at the shopping mall, whilst preparing a meal etc. The adult simply needs to say a word and the child must say the individual sounds contained in the word, in the correct order. The dialogue might go along these lines…
Adult: Can you segment the word “sleep”
Adult: “How many sounds does it have?”
Child: “5 sounds”
3. Writing Captions and Sentences
Once children are secure in writing words and have already learnt some high frequency tricky words they are ready to be challenged to write with meaning. Captions to photos and pictures are probably the best place to start. It is important that the vocabulary in the picture can easily be segmented. It is also a good idea with younger children to have them verbalise their caption first. It may need a little adjustment from the adult. A child might want to write ‘The cat sit’ and whilst the focus is not on the grammar itself rather on the writing of a caption, this would be fine. I think it is always good practise to model corrections i.e. ‘The cat sits’ If the child is able to write the ‘s’ at the end then great, if not, then it doesn’t matter.
As this stage progresses though, the adult or teacher should make judgement as to when more intervention is needed. If the child says “sits” and only writes “sit” then they have failed to recognise a sound in the word and have not segmented correctly. This skill should have already been learnt, so some prompting is necessary.
This stage continues throughout the synthetic phonics programme and will eventually see the children writing in paragraphs and of course stories. Nothing more needs to be said about this stage other than that as any child progresses, at every point along the way they should be appropriately challenged with words and only ever to write tricky words that they have already learnt. List of high frequency words and tricky words can be found in lots of places on the internet. In fact for all Letters and Sounds resources (The synthetic phonics programme that we use at BEYC) take a look at twinkl.co.uk.
The following four elements to effective writing should be happening on a regular basis at your child’s school. Each element should be given equal weighting in the literacy curriculum.
Modelled Writing – Shared Writing – Guided Writing – Independent Writing
Modelled Writing – The teacher demonstrates writing to the children, be it words, captions or sentences. For this to be most effective there needs to be talk and verbalising of the writing as the teacher writes. Thinking out loud, modelling thought processes, pretending to spell words wrong and vocalising the correction. Anything that you expect the child to do as they write, should be modelled correctly. Talk about letter formation, where to start with the pencil, recite mantras to remember the direction of the pencil. Absolutely everything should be verbalised.
Shared Writing – This is essentially scribing what the children say. I used to do this after I read the children a story. I would ask the children what happened in the story and we would agree on a good sentence that we could write. I also used to write up any of the children’s news that they told me, first thing in the morning. It’s a really good habit to get into as a teacher. But it is also very easy for parents to do at home. Some parents at BEYC have a diary that they write with their child each evening. Their child tells the parent what they did at school that day and they write it together. It is fine for the adult to write but the child should be encouraged to write a little too. Ask the child to help segment and spell words that you know they can manage but write the harder trickier words yourself.
Guided Writing – This is often timetabled in at school. In bigger schools this will be done in small groups of similar ability children but in smaller schools like BEYC we are able to work one on one with children. The purpose of this teaching element is to allow the teacher time to focus in on an individual’s specific issues and areas for improvement. Things that can be missed in a whole class teaching scenario can be addressed in guided writing sessions.
Independent Writing – From making paper and pencils available in the writing area of a classroom to more formal writing activities during literacy lessons, giving children regular opportunities to write independently is incredibly valuable. For every class topic there should be a selection of writing activities planned. They should differ in length and in general any extended writing (lengthy) should be done more infrequently.
Remember make writing fun. Listen to the children. What do they like doing? What toys do they chose to play with? What movies have they seen recently? The answers to all of these questions can lead to exciting writing opportunities, with a little thought and creativity on the adult’s behalf. Christmas is just around the corner..what better than to sit with your child and write up a list for Santa?