A library colleague and mother of a preschooler, recently remarked that she feels confident about how to promote her son’s early literacy development through talking, singing, reading, and playing. Despite being familiar with ECRR2, however, she is unsure exactly how to nurture emergent writing. If my colleague, who is embedded in the public library world, is unsure about what it looks like to support early writing, she is likely not alone. Are we doing all we can to effectively convey and model what it means to foster early writing and why it’s so important?
What Is Early Writing and Why Is It Important?
Writing is critical for daily life in Euro-Western societies. We write via handwriting or type to fill out medical forms, for work assignments, to communicate with loved ones, to express feelings, and to convey a sense of identity (Engel, 2016; U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Writing is more than transcription (handwriting and spelling). It also involves meaning-making processes, such as learning the functions of writing, and composition (Berninger et al., 2002; Hall et al., 2015; Strachan, Duke, & Teale, 2013), or “translating ideas into text with purpose” (Quinn & Rohloff, 2023). Handwriting, spelling, and composition develop together to help young children connect the oral and written worlds (Schickedanz & Casbergue, 2009). Composing is challenging enough for older children and adults, so just imagine the hard work it takes to develop these skills while learning the writing mechanics and spelling conventions! Through practice, however, handwriting and spelling become more automatic, allowing children to focus on composing which demands higher-level cognitive skills (Graham, 2010).
As with reading, writing development involves a complex process that begins at birth. Babies are born with a grasping reflex, but do not intentionally reach for objects until around 4 months. Over the course of their first year, they become increasingly adept at grasping objects as they hone stronger hand and finger muscles, and hand-eye coordination. By 12–15 months, children typically master the pincer grasp (i.e., coordination of the thumb and index finger to hold an object), a skill required to later hold a pencil. Toddlers grip crayons with their fists as they try out writing tools. By age 2, children begin to understand that marks they make can convey meaning, and explore ideas through drawings, as well as intentional scribbles and letter-like forms they come to distinguish from drawing as “writing” (e.g., a tight scribble beneath a drawing is the caption according to the child). Preschool and kindergarten kids begin to use conventional letters to form strings (e.g., WRNFTS), and invented spellings (e.g., is crm for ice cream) reflecting phonemic awareness, to write for various purposes such as telling stories. A mature pencil grasp with the thumb and index finger, along with conventional spelling, and more complex and better organized stories, are hallmarks typical of the elementary years (Beck, 2010–2023; DeYoung, n.d.; Dinehart, 2015; Halsey, 2016; Lewsley, n.d.; Nall, 2018; Reading Rockets, n.d.; Rowe & Neitzel, 2010). Writing acts as a laboratory, allowing children to grow in their understanding of how print and sound work together (Bissex, 1980).
Healthy writing development is also associated with crossing the midline (i.e., the ability to reach across the imaginary line dividing the body to perform tasks on the opposite side). The ability to cross the midline evidences brain hemisphere coordination. Children typically master this skill by age 4. Just as reading in English demands crossing the midline to track left to right, writing requires this ability to write across an entire page with one hand. Otherwise, the writer stops at the midpoint and switches the writing implement from one hand to the other (Beck, 2010–2023).
Composition and Narrative Skills
Let’s take a closer look at the composition aspect of writing. One of the best ways to become adept at translating ideas into written language is through storytelling. From birth a child begins to learn about effective narrative skills as they listen to parents tell them about events in their lives, and read them stories. Telling a story involves the ability to sequence events, set the action in a time and place, and organize the narrative around characters (Akmese & Kanmaz, 2021; Engel, 2016; Laurion, n.d.). Not an easy ask of a little one, is it? A child is typically able to tell an effective story by age 5 or 6. By kindergarten in the U.S., children are expected “to write across genres and for different purposes” (NGA & CCSSO, 2010; Tortorelli et al., 2022). Although young children enter preschool classrooms eager to tell stories, research suggests that writing instruction focuses on transcription skills, rather than also on the meaning-making processes involved in writing (Hall et al. 2015).
How Can Libraries Best Support Early Writing?
To prepare children for the demands of kindergarten, it is essential that adults nurture the three aspects of writing–handwriting, spelling, and composition–simultaneously. Research shows that when teachers scaffold the written composition process, preschool children have stronger writing skills than when the focus is on transcription skills alone (Bingham, et al., 2017). This support often includes the teacher writing down children’s orally narrated stories. When adults transcribe stories, children can focus on being creative, and developing composition skills which require high-level thinking processes, rather than leveraging part of the cognitive load for handwriting and spelling. And, research shows that with such composition scaffolding experiences, preschool children develop stronger writing skills (Quinn & Rohloff, 2023). How can librarians support this effort?
- Let’s provide parents with a clearer picture of what the continuum of early writing development looks like, highlighting that it begins at birth in concert with talking, singing, playing, and reading development. Just like mouthing a book is an important step in a baby’s early reading development, reaching and grasping, and honing the pincer grasp, are critical steps on a baby’s early writing journey. Babies can practice their pincer grasp by grasping finger foods from a cupcake pan at mealtimes (Beck, 2010–2023). We can also share strategies through modeling, storytime asides, and on our early literacy pages, that parents can use to help children practice crossing the midline such as rolling arms during Wheels on the Bus, and dancing with scarves.
- We have a wonderful resource in ECRR2! This toolkit already includes accessible strategies to promote all three components of early writing. Let’s highlight the great ideas from ECRR2 and other resources (Byington & Kim, 2017; Laurion, n.d.; U.S. Department of Education, n.d.) that support composition development. Promote writing as a social process, instead of a solitary experience that only results in a product: Research suggests that adult modeling and guidance, in addition to accessible writing materials, are key to helping children learn how and when to apply writing skills (Hall, 2019; Quinn & Rohloff, 2023; Zero to Three, 2017).
- During storytime, identify a story’s beginning, middle, and end, and encourage parents to do the same when sharing books with their children.
- Promote narrative activities, such as storytelling and acting out stories. Encourage parents to ask open-ended questions that support their child’s ability to describe favorite events such as a birthday party. Parents and children together can retell favorite stories from picture books. Consider doing a library program like Laura Didier of Fountaindale Public Library District (Bolingbrook, IL) did in June 2022: A reader’s theater version of a select picture book at a local park in which patrons played characters from the story.
- Provide LOTS of authentic writing opportunities (e.g., shopping lists, blueprints, postcards to friends) for young children in passive and formal programming, and model through signage, verbal tips, and programs how parents can scaffold the experience at the library and at home.
- Encourage parents to engage in collaborative writing activities with their child, such as co-creating a simple book like the one pictured below. The child can contribute drawings and name writing, while narrating picture captions and stories for the adult to transcribe. This can be done in any or multiple languages that are most comfortable for the child and parent. Collaborative bookmaking would also make an inexpensive and fun family program.
What are YOU doing at your library to foster early writing beyond modeling fingerplays and providing access to art supplies, or what ideas do you have? Please share!
Before I conclude, a quick word about technology. Research has shown that young children’s use of technology negatively impacts their fine motor skills (Ling-Yi, 2019; Ling-Yi et al., 2017; Martzog & Suggate 2022). We can mitigate negative aspects by leveraging tablets that allow children to write with their fingers, and learning frameworks such as collaborative digital writing projects (Hall, 2019; Quinn & Rohloff, 2023).
Together with parents, teachers, and other caregivers, librarians serving young families can strengthen how they support early writing through clearer parent messaging and creative programming that addresses all aspects of writing development. Through such efforts, we can help our children be better prepared to meet the challenges of kindergarten and beyond!
Today’s blog post was written by Laura Partington, MS in Child Development, Community Engagement Librarian–Early Childhood, at Skokie Public Library in Illinois, on behalf of the ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee. Laura can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or @lhgpartington
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of:
I. Commitment to Client Group
4. Understands theories of infant, child, and adolescent learning, literacy development and brain development, and their implications for library service.
III. Programming Skills
- Designs, promotes, presents, and evaluates a variety of diverse programs for children, with consideration of equity, diversity, and inclusion; principles of child development; and the needs, interests, and goals of all children, their caregivers, and educators in the community.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Katie and Edwin Fox for sharing Edwin’s book project, and to Laura Didier for granting permission to include the Fountaindale Public Library District program
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