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Every Child is a Writer: Examining our Perspectives can Change our Messaging

By Anna H. Hall, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education in the College of Education at Clemson University

During my time as a classroom teacher and early childhood education professor, I noticed that oftentimes adults underestimate the amazing abilities of young writers. I’ve heard parents exclaim, “That’s just scribbling,” without seeing their child’s attempts at mimicking adult strokes on paper. I’ve also heard teachers say, “But she can’t write yet,” without noticing the letter-like forms their student is making to go along with her illustrations.

It is easy to understand why adults might jump to these conclusions about young writers. It has been years since they developed their own writing skills, and unlike learning to walk and talk, the phases are less noticeable to the untrained observer.

Fortunately, through sharing information about the developmental trajectory of young writers, adults can examine their perspectives of early writing and reflect on the messages they send to young children about their writing capabilities. In the new brief, Every Child is a Writer: Understanding the Importance of Writing in Early Childhood, we address the importance of fostering early writing skills in early childhood, research-based barriers and opportunities for writing in early childhood environments, and policy considerations related to early writing development.

As adults learn to recognize each phase in writing development – drawing, scribbling, letter-like forms, letter strings, invented spelling, and conventional spelling – they are better able to celebrate and encourage young writers each step along the way.

As infants near their first birthday, they may begin imitating adults and experimenting with writing tools. From there, early writing development follows a similar trajectory into the early grades, outlined in the graphic below. Although children typically move through these phases in this order, the phases do overlap and children may use a combination of techniques described in the different phases concurrently.

While the primary audience is early childhood teachers and administrators, recommendations are also made for families and community stakeholders, including activities and techniques to use for infants through kindergarteners to help develop a child’s inner writer.

Children are naturally motivated to write at a young age. In order to continue to nurture this desire for written expression, it is crucial that early childhood educators focus their writing instruction primarily on content, process, and meaning (composition) and that families and community stakeholders understand and celebrate the phases of early writing development.

Handwriting instruction is only a small strand of writing development and that proximal stability (core and trunk strength) and distal mobility (coordinated movement of body parts farther from the core) are prerequisite foundations for formal handwriting instruction in the primary grades – two abilities that can be strengthened through play.

Policymakers who are interested in fostering writing skills must focus on more than just the existence of handwriting instruction and ensure that teachers have access to preparatory and in-service trainings to learn the full range of writing skills children should develop. Together, adults can help ensure that children develop the composition, handwriting, and spelling skills necessary to grow into life-long writers.

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