Putting the power in action: Teaching young children “how
by Rebecca M. Giles and Karyn Wellhousen Tunks
To become writers, children need to understand the purpose and benefits of
print as a means of communicating. With this understanding comes the realization
that writing has two important functions.
First, it provides a way to share thoughts, ideas, and stories with others. When
children draw and write about an event, they like to share it with others and
enjoy the reaction of friends and family.
Second, a recorded event can be revisited and enjoyed at a later time. When children
return to journal entries made days, weeks, or months earlier, they are reminded
of past events that were significant to them at the time.
Once children begin to experience firsthand the pleasure of writing, their efforts
are rewarded, and they are motivated to write more.
One way to introduce children to writing is to provide strong support initially
and gradually encourage more independence as they gain the basic skills. Teachers
accomplish this through the “I do, we do, you do” model.
The teacher models writing (“I do”), children are encouraged to experiment
with written language with support (“we do”), and their early attempts
to write are accepted as they continue to apply what they learn (“you do”).
Teachers model when, why, and how adults use writing by demonstrating
what writing looks like as well as purposes for writing. Teachers
write for a variety of reasons, always emphasizing why and
how writing will be used.
There are many authentic opportunities for modeling writing throughout
the school day. For example, a voice on the intercom informs
the prekindergarten classes that lunch is delayed 10 minutes
and the children should wait before coming to the cafeteria.
The teacher writes on the chalkboard: “Lunch is 10 minutes
late. Leave the classroom at 12:10.” As she writes, she
explains why she is writing the message: “I’m writing
this down so we can remember what time to go to lunch today.”
After lunch, the teacher composes a letter to parents on the
computer that she projects onto the wall. She explains the purpose
is to convey important details for an upcoming field trip. She
pronounces each word as she types it on the keyboard, and the
children watch as the letters appear on the wall. Then she prints
the letter and makes copies for each child to take home.
Before children leave for the day, the teacher writes individual “Happy
Notes” for one or two children complimenting their behavior,
an accomplishment, or a kind deed they did for another person.
She invites the selected child to watch as she writes the note
on stationery and places it inside a matching envelope. “Happy
Notes” are a valued treasure that children take home to
share with their families.
These are just three examples of ways teachers model writing
and the purpose of writing in the classroom.
A popular method of “I do” writing is composing the
morning message. Students who are learning to read and write
make connections between spoken and written words as they observe
the teacher write. In this activity, children are exposed to
the following concepts:
Print is written (and read) from left to right and top to bottom
of the page.
Print carries a message.
Punctuation is used at the end of a sentence or question.
Space appears between words.
There is a consistent correspondence between sounds in words
and the letters used to represent them.
The morning message may follow a consistent pattern every day.
The repetition assists children in learning basic concepts and
sight words they can eventually use when they write.
For example, the teacher may use the following pattern:
Today is Friday, November 13, 2009. Our leader is Macalah. Her
favorite food is pizza.
In this example, the pattern remains the same every day, while
the date, leader’s name, and favorite food change. This
gives the teacher the opportunity to introduce new words and
letter sounds while giving the children confidence in their ability
to read the message.
Another approach is writing a message that does not follow a
pattern. This approach can be introduced after the class has
clearly learned the previous pattern and is beginning to learn
new words. The teacher can write on any topic that may be of
interest to the children. For example, the teacher may write:
Friday, May 14, 2010
Last night, my son had a baseball game. Our team won with a score
of 6-4. It was fun!
From this more advanced message, the children are exposed to
punctuation, such as commas and exclamation points, as well as
numerals incorporated into the text. For more ideas, including
links to sites providing suggestions for extensions and variations,
visit “Mrs. Hubbard’s Morning Message” at www.hubbardscupboard.org/morning_message.html.
Children composing with the teacher is known as a “we do.” In
this writing experience, the teacher asks children to suggest
ideas or specific words that the teacher then records.
This type of writing includes interactive writing (Button, Johnson,
and Furgerson 1996), sharing the pen (Tompkins and Collom 2004),
and creating cooperative chronicles (Tunks and Giles 2007). All
of these evolved from the language experience approach (LEA)
introduced in the 1970s. Regardless of the terminology or specific
strategy, writing with children is an effective tool for teaching
young children how to write.
When teachers and children write together, children begin to
see themselves as capable writers. They observe peers participating
in the writing activity and are rewarded by seeing their own
contributions added to the story. Children observe the process
of transferring oral language to written words.
They take part in problem solving, such as sequencing the order
of events and deciding which details to include. Finally, they
see a finished product they can enjoy later and share with others
who weren’t present when it was written. Pride from their
accomplishment as writers serves as a motivator for writing independently.
Guidelines have been suggested to provide important and meaningful
elements of teaching children how to write (McCarrier, Pinnell,
and Fountas 2000; Tompkins 2005; Tunks and Giles 2007).
1. Provide an engaging and meaningful background
experience to inspire children to write. The experience can be planned such
as a field trip, a talk by an invited visitor, an upcoming holiday,
a unique object, or a quality children’s book read aloud.
Or the experience can be an unexpected occurrence such as a bad
storm or an escaped classroom pet scampering across the floor!
2. Talk about the experience to generate ideas. After the experience,
the teacher leads children in a discussion, encouraging the use
of oral language. The teacher can promote discussion by asking
open-ended questions, such as “What can we write about
this? What can we say about this in a story?” As children
share suggestions and sequence the order of events, the group
begins to organize ideas.
3. Compose the text on chart paper. During the actual writing,
children and the teacher negotiate the text by making cooperative
decisions about what will be written. While writing, the teacher
may refer to the ideas children presented. In some cases, the
teacher may ask individual children to “share the pen” by
writing an individual letter or whole word.
4. Revisit the text and make changes. The teacher assists during
the composition of the story by going back to the beginning and
rereading what has already been written. This provides reinforcement
and momentum for determining what will be included next. Once
the story is finished, the teacher uses a pointer to point to
text as she and the children read it aloud. Depending upon the
children’s skill level, the story can be revised and edited
for sequence, content, and word choice.
5. Publish the finished piece of writing. After the piece has
been read aloud and deemed finished, it is published to allow
for repeated reading and sharing. Publishing can take many forms,
such as individual word-processed copies, class books, wall charts,
bulletin board displays, or Web postings.
In the “we do” strategy, teachers serve as a scaffold
for emerging writers by providing varying degrees of support.
This support ranges from the teacher writing children’s
suggestions to observing as children do the writing themselves.
“You do” opportunities provide children with the
chance to write independently on topics of their own interest
and choosing. Although the teacher may still play a vital role
in recording their writing, children experience the satisfaction
that comes from creating their own messages. As children gain
confidence in their abilities as writers, they continue writing
throughout their elementary school years and become less dependent
on adults for support.
Young children are encouraged to engage in “you do” writing
while playing in learning centers. Pretend play, in particular,
holds significant implications for children’s literacy
development as children write grocery lists, address party invitations,
make appointments, record food orders, and take messages over
Simply adding literacy props to play areas greatly increases
the amount of time children engage in literacy behaviors during
play periods (Stroud 1995; Vukelich and Valentine 1990; Strickland
and Morrow 1989). Materials such as markers, small spiral notepads,
recipe cards, coupons, envelopes, tape, adhesive notes, and stamps
with ink pads all stimulate interest in writing. Print-rich environments
with signs, symbols, and labels posted throughout the classroom
provide students with models for copying or including in their
Young children also engage in “you do” writing through
the use of daily journals. Recording individual experiences in
a journal format appeals to their egocentric nature as well as
provides a chronological record of their writing development.
Time is set aside for children to write in journals every day.
Children are encouraged to record their own experiences or ideas
rather than respond to a topic provided by the teacher. This
prevents children from becoming dependent on others for topics
Journals can take many forms. The recommended form consists of
blank paper bound together in a book format. The cover is cut
from a wallpaper sample book, and the child’s name is written
on it in bold, black marker. Each journal contains an appropriate
number of pages for a designated period, such as a month.
Children draw and write in journals by turning to a new page
every day in sequential order. A date stamp records the month,
day, and year on each page. Journals are kept in a designated
location, distributed to children, and collected daily. They
are shared with parents during teacher-parent conferences and
are given to students to take home and share with others.
When journals are first introduced, children draw their ideas
and messages. Drawing is an appropriate means for emerging writers
to convey a message on paper. When children use pictures to share
their story, the teacher becomes a scribe, taking dictation as
the child describes the drawing.
Taking dictation in this way is pivotal to introducing the purpose
of writing. As the teacher takes dictation, the child observes
the marks made and listens as the teacher reads the story back.
This practice enhances the child’s awareness of the speech-to-text
connection (what you say, you can write). It helps the child
understand basic sound-symbol relationships and introduces print
conventions, including capitalization and punctuation (Tunks
and Giles 2009). As a result, the child becomes more aware of
print and how it’s used and is motivated to attempt writing
Eventually, children want to experiment with writing in some
form to accompany the pictures they draw. The confidence gained
from repeated experiences with an adult’s taking dictation
increases children’s own attempts to write. The writing
that first appears, though it may resemble print-like forms,
is much different from the writing of adults and older peers.
Using the term kid
writing to designate these spontaneous forms
of print validates them as acceptable for young children. In
addition, it reinforces children’s early attempts at writing
and lets them know that it’s customary for their writing
method to look different from that of adults (Tunks and Giles
Kid writing may take several different forms. These include drawing,
scribbles, letter-like forms, letter strings, conventional spelling,
and invented spelling (Sulzby 1992; Sulzby, Barnhart, and Heishima
1989; Sulzby 1985). An additional form, appearing in young children’s
journals, is environmental printing (Tunks and Giles 2007).
These spontaneous forms of writing do not occur in any particular
order and are not stages through which the writers progress.
Children will use different forms for different purposes and
may combine different types of kid writing in a single journal
entry (Morrow 1996). (See “Forms of kid writing” for
When children begin using spontaneous forms of print, teachers
use “under writing” to make children’s writing
readable to others. As with taking dictation, translating kid
writing in this way reinforces skills, such as sound-symbol relationships
and punctuation, that children are learning (Tunks and Giles
2009; Tunks and Giles 2007).
For example, 4-year-old Samuel uses letter strings to write about
his birthday party that took place the previous day. There is
no sound-symbol correspondence between what is written and the
story Samuel tells. Every time Samuel comes to the word birthday,
the teacher asks him to help her with the beginning letter. As
the teacher repeats the word, Samuel listens and says, “That
is a B sound, I think.” The teacher acknowledges the correct
response and Samuel watches as the teacher writes “b” and
the remaining letters for the word birthday.
In reading through children’s journals at the end of the
month, the teacher can use a simple rating scale, like the one
shown below, to record the frequency with which children use
the different forms of writing.
A powerful foundation
The period in which young children begin to express their thoughts
and ideas on paper is an exciting and rewarding time for teachers.
Children learn to write by observing others, writing alongside
their teacher and peers, and writing independently.
The simple “I do, we do, you do” model serves as
a reminder that children need various encounters with writing
as they are introduced to the craft. As children learn new information
about print and how it works, they incorporate these skills into
their own writing.
Providing opportunities for these three different types of writing
experiences, along with other appropriate literacy events, gives
children the foundation they need to be successful writers in
elementary school and beyond.
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