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Teacher question:

What are your thoughts about writing in kindergarten? Is there a scientifically-researched instructional methodology that we should implement. We’ve been trying to embed writing opportunities within the literacy block related to the whole group listening comprehension text. Should students draw in relation to the prompt or question and then label, dictate, and/or write? Should teachers model phonetic spelling of words or the correct spelling? Any help would be appreciated.

Shanahan’s response:

Indeed, kindergartners should be writing, and kindergarten teachers should be facilitating and teaching writing.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a particularly rich scientific-research base on beginning writing instruction. There are many observational studies that give us a sense of what may be possible (that is what kinds of instructional routines and environments have successfully existed in at least some kindergartens). And, there are a number of correlational studies that suggest what may be valuable (because of the relationship of certain early writing skills and students’ later literacy development).

But there are not a slew of studies that have tried out various writing routines and compared their relative effects with each other. That means I can recommend some reasonable approaches, activities, and routines — but it is certainly possible that over the next few years someone might be able to prove that there could be better choices than what I am recommending.

Time and opportunities for writing

No matter how you go about teaching or facilitating early writing, it is essential that time be set aside on a daily basis for this kind of work. In my framework, I have long required teachers to devote 20-25% of the language arts time to writing, and that is true for kindergarten classes, too. Since I think the total time allocation for language arts should be 2-3 hours, that means 24-45 minutes of writing time per day in a kindergarten class.

The rest of the time should be aimed at teaching decoding (e.g., phonological awareness, phonics); oral reading fluency (if they are just starting out, then finger-point reading and choral reading); reading/listening comprehension; and, perhaps, oral language (e.g., vocabulary, listening comprehension, presentation, conversation).

The time for writing would include student-writing time, of course, but also the time spent preparing to write (prewriting) and the time spent sharing these compositions. It would also include any instruction aimed at fostering manuscript/printing skills or early spelling ability. But no matter what it includes, kids should be engaged in writing pretty much everyday in kindergarten.  

Oral composition

I have always begun children’s writing with oral composition. This was true when I was a first-grade teacher; it was true when I was working with my preschool daughters and grandchildren; and, it has been true over the years when I’ve consulted in kindergarten classrooms.

Oral writing tends to be easier for young kids than writing by hand is and it helps them to gain the concept of writing — which very quickly bears fruit in guiding them into creating their own writing by hand.

The so-called “language-experience approach” (LEA) has apparently fallen out of favor, which is a shame.

In a kindergarten, I would usually start language experience out on a whole class basis. The first step is a shared experience — some hands on activity or observational event in which everyone is engaged. That could be an art project or a science demonstration or a cooking experience or whatever.

Then gather kids around a chart and ask them to tell about the experience. Get them talking about the experience. Some of this can be “turn and talk,” some of it might be students responding individually to teacher questions. The idea is to help kids to see that language allows them to relive experiences and to think about them.

Now that you have them buzzing, tell them that you want to write an article about the experience. Ask who has something they would like to say about the experience. Then help that child construct a sentence about it. This might be simply transcribing what was said, or it might be helping the child to expand a thought (S: “Chocolate.” T: “The cake was chocolate?” S: “The cake was chocolate.”), and then transcribing.

Print the students’ ideas to get 4 or 5 sentences.

I continue with this kind of thing regularly until students are able to do it easily.

Once they can then I start doing the dictation and transcription part of the activity in small groups and sometimes even individually (the experience is still shared by the whole class). Small group dictation means that more kids get to dictate their sentences.

By the time you are done with language experience approach the children should have a clear idea of the nature of book sentences, that print (the ABCs) is used to record one’s words, that print moves from left-to-right and from top-to-bottom. They should know the difference between pictures and writing, too.

Writing environment

We often make a big deal about a supportive reading environment in which kids have lots of opportunity to see print and to get their hands on books and magazine — to pretend to read and to read.

It is just as important that there be a plethora of writing resources for kids, too. Many kindergartens, for example, have a writing center with different kinds of paper and writing implements. Back in the day, I had a typewriter (not even a bad idea now) in my classroom-writing center. You asked about labeling pictures, so having opportunities available for those kinds of labeling activity makes sense here.

It also makes sense to have writing components in other classroom centers, too. If you have a classroom restaurant, you want to have pencils and order pads. If you have a classroom post office, it is important to have paper, envelopes, and the like. Perhaps my writing center is too mundane; perhaps it would be better to have a book publishing company that allows kids to “publish” their work. Or maybe a sign making company would make sense.

Basically, the point is to create lots of opportunities for kids to write.

Pretend writing

When I start kids off writing on their own, I tend to start with individuals and small groups (just the opposite of what I did with dictation). You might sit down with two or three children at a table, providing each with a piece of paper and a pencil or crayon for writing.

I then talk to the group about writing something and we talk about their ideas. Similar to the earlier LEA stories, but now I’m not going to provide a shared experience, I’m going to ask questions about what is interesting them right now to try to get them to write about those personal ideas.

Sometimes kids launch right in and start writing; other times it takes greater amounts of support to get them started. I’ve had children laugh and tell me that I was crazy because they are only 5 and can’t write yet, too.

When that happens I encourage them to pretend to write. Those pretend writings range from pictures and scribbles, to random uses of letters, to actual attempts to write words or to try to make their combinations of letters look like words.

I accept it all.

Usually, when a few kids start writing like that — especially if you make a big deal about it — the other kids want to try their hands at it too.

Initially, I’m not too worried about things like spelling. I ask kids to spell words as they think they are spelled.

Initially, it might be difficult or even impossible to know what the children have written. I make my way around the group to transcribe what they have tried to write. I usually add a date, too, that can be useful when you are reviewing children’s folders of writing so that you can see what kind of progress they have made.

As a teacher you are always trying to salt the mine. That is, you are always suggesting directions to kids that they might not think of on their own. For instance, let’s say one of your students is using his letter sounds to try to figure out a spelling. That’s the kind of thing worth a bit of public attention. I might point out to everybody what a smart thing little Johnnie or Suzi did using his sounds like that. You’d be surprised how many students all of a sudden can use their sounds to write words.

Once you have a bunch of kids writing like this, the language-experience dictation goes away and your attention needs to be focused on encouraging more actual writing.

If you decide to do something like this, it is important to let parents in on the secret. Invented spelling — that is, kids trying to spell words based on what they know about letter sounds — is very helpful in building phonological awareness and in giving kids productive practice with their decoding skills. But some parents might think that your lack of initial concern about spelling means that you either can’t spell yourself or don’t care whether your students can. Neither is the case, so head off the problem.

Next week: More on kindergarten writing, including information on spelling and printing instruction; prewriting supports; the role of revision; peer interaction; and more.

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
February 21, 2018