Learning to Write – It IS Rocket Science!

Hedda SharapanAfter I wrote about high tech for last month’s newsletter, I had an interesting experience with low tech that I wanted to share with you. I walked into a preschool classroom to observe, and right away the 4 year olds clustered around me. They were so fascinated by what was in my hand that you would have thought I was holding an electronic high-tech device. But it was just a small ordinary notebook. I told them that I like to learn about children, and I showed them how I write down things they say and do, so I can remember.

They were so drawn to my notebook that every one of them asked if they could write in it -- so many that I offered to tear off pages for them so they wouldn’t have a long wait for a turn. And they brought their pages back, showing me what they wrote. There must be something special about lined notepaper because each of them used it to write their names – some scribbly, some with letters backwards and uneven, and they were pleased as can be.

No wonder they were proud! Think of what they’ve accomplished. For young children learning to write their name IS “rocket science." It’s a complex skill that requires memory, fine motor movements, hand-eye coordination, focus and persistence. As hard as it is to learn how to write, you can see how driven children are to master it. It was clear to me, too, that all through the year their teachers had been encouraging and supporting them to learn to spell their names and write them.

The children’s response that day was a great reminder to me that you don’t need fancy high-tech devices to motivate them to learn something as important as writing. But we’re still talking about “technology” which is just a fancy word for “tool.” Pens, pencils and markers are, in fact, low-tech “tools” for writing.

Here are some ways you can use those “tools” to encourage writing:

Model writing

Let the children see you writing notes or making lists or signs. Show them that you can read the words that you’ve written.When children see that writing is useful and valuable in our world, they’ll be more motivated to stick with the hard task of learning to write.

Offer props

Give children “grownup” writing tools to use in their play – a notebook, posty notes or a clipboard. Put writing materials in unusual places, like in the block corner to make signs for their buildings, in the science center to record observations, and in the housekeeping area to make shopping lists. You could also set up a writing center, with props like envelopes, lined tablets, catalogs, any kind of forms, stickers for stamps, old greeting cards.

Create a word box

Let’s ask children, “What words do YOU want to learn how to write?” Some might want to write names of people in their family, their pets or their street. Write those words on index cards or strips of paper to put in their own individual “word box.” From time to time, add new words. Doesn’t it make sense that children will be more motivated to write the words that are important to them?

Use writing to express feelings

I know a teacher who used writing to help a child who was so sad about missing her mother that she wouldn’t join in play with the others. Validating her feelings, the teacher asked the girl to dictate a message to her mother. Then she read it back to her and suggested that the girl “write” as many tears as she wanted. The teacher told me that knowing her thoughts could be put in writing gave the child a way to deal with her feelings, and then she was able to manage through the rest of the day.

These are just some of the many ways you can help children see that writing is useful, meaningful, and valuable. That’s what helps them want to do the hard work that it takes – and gives them such a good feeling when they’ve accomplished it. And when they share their writing attempts with you, your warm response will add immeasurably to their sense of “Look what I can do!”

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