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The WHY, WHEN, and HOW of Learning to Write

Unlike learning to talk, children need to be taught to write.  It's not enough to see you writing for your child to learn all they need to know.  They not only need to be taught how to write, but also need to understand when and why we write, and all the many forms that writing takes.  How do printed words "work"?  What are the "rules" or concepts of print?  It will take your child several years to learn all of this, and of course, they will continue the learning well into the elementary school years and beyond.  However, there are many things you can do to help them get a head-start and be ready for kindergarten.


Your child needs to understand that writing is a way of saying on paper the things we otherwise think to ourselves or say out loud.  Letters on a page mean the same thing as words they have heard spoken.  As we rely more and more on our smartphones and tablets for simple writing tasks, we are no longer modelling writing as we once did.  More than ever, we need to make an effort to teach our children the why of writing.


The when very much depends on the why.  The form our writing takes depends on our purpose for writing something down.  For example, the form our writing takes differs widely depending on whether we're writing a grocery list, a reminder on a post-it note, a legal document or business report, a poem or a short story, and so forth.  The "rules" very much depend on what it is we're writing.  For example, stories typically have a title; the sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a period, a question, or exclamation mark, and the sentences that talk about the same subject tend to be grouped together in paragraphs.  The more formal the writing, the less flexible the "rules" tend to be.


Besides learning how to write the letters of the alphabet, your child has lots to learn about how writing "works" - concepts of print:
  • Print has a message.
  • The message stays the same over time.
  • Groups of letters make words.
  • Groups of words make sentences.
  • The spaces between words mark the end of one word and the beginning of another.
  • Sentences have end marks (punctuation). There are different kinds (.,!?) for different purposes.
  • In English, print goes from left to right, top to bottom.
  • Books have special features such as a front and back cover, a title, text and/or pictures. We handle them in a certain way to use them (start right-side up at the front cover, turn pages in order, etc.).

The Importance of  a Regular Reading Habit 

Reading and writing development are closely linked.  The more you read to your child, the earlier they begin to understand about how writing works.  And as they get older, and are given opportunities to "write," they begin to understand more about what it means to "be reading."  Early reading and writing experiences are very important for developing the foundation skills needed to start kindergarten ready to learn.  BEGIN WITH BOOKS and the Imagination Library make it easy to build a home library by delivering high-quality books right to your home every month.

From Squiggles to Letters - A Natural Progression

The kind of writing your child does will change over time.  They will start by making up their own writing by scribbling with squiggles and marks on the page.  You, of course, won't be able to make sense of these scribbles, but they are very important and show you that your child is trying to copy the writing that they have seen you do.  It tells you that your child knows that writing means putting down marks on a page - and that those marks stand for words.  They just have not yet learned how to make the marks - or letters - that make sense to you.

Over time, your child's scribbles will begin to look more and more like printing or writing. Children learn there is a "right way" to make letters - but are still quite happy to make up any letters that they don' t know how to print correctly.  They learn that by putting certain letters together they can print words.  Most children love to learn to print their own name.

Look for Ways to Practice Fine Motor Skills

Your child needs to develop the hand muscles that they will use to write.  One of the best ways to improve their fine motor skills is turning the pages of a book.  They get all the benefits of storytime while improving control of their hands at the same time.

Give them lots of opportunities to color and draw.  And remember that holding a marker or pencil correctly needs guidance and modelling.  Drawing is a way for your child to put down on paper their thoughts and ideas.  In that way, drawing is much like printing - drawing can tell stories.  It's a good idea to always have pencils, markers and crayons at the ready.  And importantly, you can never have too many picture books on hand for inspiration.

Activities to Encourage and Develop Writing Skills with your Toddler or Preschooler

  • Look for ways in your daily activities that involve writing (making a grocery list, writing a note) and include your child in what you're doing.
  • Use pen and paper more often to model, rather than using your smartphone.
  • Include your child in observing, discussing, and creating (drawing, scribbling, writing).
  • Use craft materials to make letters and words.
  • Use your child's own name to model activities:
    • Help your child trace stencils to print their name; cut out letters and decorate them with crayons, glitter etc.
    • Have your child follow the shape of the stencilled letters to make their name with modelling clay.
    • Have your child practice spelling their name out loud.
    • With hand-over-hand modelling, help your child to practice printing their name, thinking aloud as you guide their hand.  For example, for upper case T, you might say, "T is long and skinny (as you make the stroke downward) and wears a flat hat" (as you make the stroke across the top). 

-- Caron Bell, PhD, Early Childhood Development and volunteer

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