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Decoding and Encoding as “Two Sides of One Coin”

Implications of the science of reading on fostering emergent writing skills

Over the next few months, the Early and Family Literacy Committee will write about one of the ECRR early literacy practices and discuss the science of reading research that supports the development of that practice and the skills it engenders. Today’s practice is writing!

As noted in this series’ introductory post, the Science of Reading (SOR) refers to an approach instead of a curriculum or reading program, informed by over 50 years of interdisciplinary research supporting what works best in reading instruction. As the implications of SOR on reading instruction are discussed by relevant stakeholders, librarians can be reassured that in terms of how we foster early literacy skills, we can simply keep on keeping on! In turn, we can reassure families of young children to do the same. Every Child Ready to Read is based on SOR principles, and storytimes full of developmentally appropriate and engaging songs, rhymes, and stories, are not only fun, but promote skills that support foundational literacy.

Before focusing on how emergent writing skills contribute to literacy success from an SOR lens, here’s a brief refresher on basic SOR principles to provide us with context and terms with which to connect later in this post. Unlike oral language which babies’ brains are predisposed to acquire, reading is a skill typically mastered through explicit instruction. Learning to read involves making meaning from print. Per the research-supported Simple View of Reading, two processes form the foundation for reading: word recognition and language comprehension. Scarborough’s Reading Rope framework provides the sub-skills required for each process. Word recognition includes phonological awareness (recognizing individual sounds in spoken words), decoding (using the alphabetic principle–connecting letters with their corresponding sounds–to sound out words), and sight word recognition. Language comprehension includes background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures like syntax, verbal reasoning (inference, metaphor), and literacy knowledge like print concepts. Skilled reading happens when word recognition becomes increasingly automatic, and language comprehension becomes increasingly strategic.

How does writing and its foundational skills relate to SOR?

Like reading, writing is not a skill which we enter the world primed to master. Instead, most of us need to be explicitly taught to write. Before we dive into the relationship between writing and reading, here’s a quick recap of what emergent writing is, and why it’s important. Writing is critical for daily life in Euro-Western societies–to fill out forms, for work assignments, to communicate with loved ones, and to express feelings and 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 composition (Berninger et al., 2002; Hall et al., 2015; Strachan, Duke, & Teale, 2013). Handwriting, spelling, and composition develop together to help children connect the oral and written worlds (Schickedanz & Casbergue, 2009). Through practice, handwriting and spelling become more automatic, allowing children to focus on the higher-level demands of composing (Graham, 2010). One of the best ways to practice translating ideas into written language is through storytelling. From birth a child learns about effective narrative skills such as sequencing as they listen to parents describe events in their lives, and read them stories.

As with reading, writing development involves a complex process that begins at birth. Babies 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 required to later hold a pencil. By age 2, children begin to understand that marks they make can convey meaning, and explore ideas through drawings, and intentional scribbles and letter-like forms they come to distinguish as writing. PreK kids use letters to form strings (e.g., WRNFTS), and invented spelling reflecting phonemic awareness (ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in words), for purposes like telling stories. A mature pencil grasp, conventional spelling, and more complex and better organized stories, typify the elementary years (Beck, 2020; 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).

So, back to the relationship between writing and reading: they are integral to each other. Writing and reading are the two components of literacy, like “two sides of the same coin.” Both rely on an understanding that the alphabet is a code, one that allows us to translate the sounds of spoken language into written form via spelling and handwriting or typing (encoding), and conversely to translate written expression back into spoken language by matching letters in various combinations to their sounds (decoding). Studies show that fostering the development of one supports the other, and that early writing is one of the best predictors of reading success. Writing to learn, or writing as a way to process what one reads, helps with reading comprehension, and fosters the ability over time to express more complicated concepts in writing.

How can librarians foster early writing skills in concert with SOR?

Oral Language

As a robust command of literacy starts with well-developed oral language, there are so many things youth librarians are already doing, and encouraging caregivers to do, that foster oral language skills. These strategies include modeling rich conversations with lots of serve and return opportunities, sharing books via dialogic reading, and presenting engaging, interactive storytimes, filled with high-quality fiction and nonfiction books, lap bounces, action rhymes, and songs. Other ideas: 

  • Leading a sensory walk or nature play program that encourages questions
  • Promoting narrative activities. As noted earlier, one of the best ways to practice translating ideas into written language is through storytelling. 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 picture book at a local park in which patrons played characters from the story. Host a collaborative bookmaking party in which preschoolers dictate a story to their caregivers in any language, illustrate the action through drawing – a prewriting skill, and write their name to signify their author role. Dictation helps children connect speech and writing. 

These activities simultaneously promote other skills foundational for reading and writing, such as rich vocabulary, understanding of text structures such as sequencing (books with cumulative plots like The Very Hungry Caterpillar work well), verbal reasoning, and background knowledge.

Alphabetic Principle

As noted earlier, a child’s ability to decode requires a confident grasp of the alphabetic principle, or that spoken sounds can be mapped onto printed letters. The alphabetic principle is also required to encode. What are the foundational skills that contribute to the alphabetic principle and how can they be fostered in the preschool years? In order to be able to sound out a word, a child needs first to be able to comprehend that the word is represented on the page as a combination of letters, and in order to do that, they need to recognize what individual letters look like. Alphabet knowledge is the ability to name letters, identify the sounds they make, and their printed shapes. This ability develops as babies and toddlers experience letters in books and in their environment on things like cereal boxes and signs, and continues as preschoolers recognize, name, make the sounds associated with, and write printed letters. One of the first letters children learn is the letter that begins their name, as it’s especially meaningful to them. Knowing letter names is strongly linked to the ability to remember written word forms and to treat words as letter sequences. Children must have robust phonological awareness (ability to hear and manipulate units of sound in spoken language such as syllables and phonemes) to master the alphabetic principle. Phonological awareness is key to reading and spelling success.

Librarians and caregivers can foster alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness by:

Letter Formation

The marks and scribbles that develop into recognizable letters over the course of the preschool years are the critical building blocks of encoding: letters are used to create words and sentences in kindergarten and beyond. Letter formation practice fosters automaticity. Promoting developmentally appropriate ways to practice letter formation before kindergarten helps students when they are older focus more on how to express their ideas, and less on writing mechanics. Also, research shows that letter perception is facilitated by handwriting experience, and further suggests that handwriting experience is important for letter processing in the brain. Chicago-area preschool educator Paula Fink created an ingenious, developmentally appropriate resource for her students to practice letter formation that she calls Alphabet Stories. She and her colleagues have found that their students enjoy the approach and have become more adept in their skills.

Excerpt from Alphabet Stories, reproduced with permission of Paula Fink

Programs like Skokie (IL) Public Library’s Let’s Get Ready to Write, in which young children engage in sensory play with materials such as Play-Doh and shaving cream to promote fine motor development and letter formation practice in fun, tactile ways are also great ways to prepare for the physical mechanics of writing. And, nationally recognized literacy expert Margie Gillis advises that “even the earliest stages of encoding should not be happening in a vacuum,” but, rather, to “[tie] muscle movement and tactile kinetic letter formation with hearing the letter’s sound and associating it with its name.” To that end, a program like Let’s Get Ready to Write could also include games to encourage conversation about the letters being created and their correspondence to words representing objects in the environment and the sounds of the first letters in those words such as the game I-Spy First Sounds.

As Denver Public Librarian Amy Forrester eloquently said, “[S]erving developing readers and their families is…a natural extension of ECRR (Every Child Ready to Read).” I will add serving developing writers to this idea. It is helpful to view talk, sing, read, write, and play, and reading comprehension (i.e., word recognition x language comprehension) and increasingly sophisticated written expression on a continuum. SOR research shows us that the foundational skills librarians currently foster through ECRR, and encourage caregivers and parents to support, are key to helping children become fluent readers and writers. There are so many fun and engaging ways to promote emergent writing, such as collaborative book creation, developmentally appropriate letter formation practice through activities like Paula Fink’s Alphabet Stories, and making letter shapes with our bodies. And, these strategies naturally foster other interrelated early literacy skills. So take heart and forge ahead intrepid librarians, knowing that science is on our side, as we lay the critical groundwork for literacy through talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing!

Today’s blog post was written by Laura Partington, MILS, MS in Child Development, Community Engagement Librarian–Early Childhood, at Skokie (Illinois) Public Library, on behalf of the ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee. Laura can be reached at 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.

5. Understands current educational practices, especially those related to literacy and inquiry

III. Programming Skills

1. 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 Paula Fink  for granting permission to include Alphabet Stories. And, to Laura Didier of Fountaindale Public Library District (Bolingbrook, IL) for permission to share her reader’s theater program, June 2022.

Sources (other than those linked in post)

Beck, C. (2010-2023). The OT Toolbox.

Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Abbott, S.P., Graham, S., & Richards, T. (2002). Writing and reading: Connections between language by hand and language by eye. Journal of Learning Disabilities 35(1): 39-56. Cited in Hall, A.H. (November 2019). Preschool interactive writing instruction: Inviting emergent writers to share the pen. Young Children. 74(5).

Bissex, G.L. (1980). Gnys at wrk: A child learns to write and read. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Cited in Cabell, S.Q., Tortorelli, L.S., & Gerde, H.K. (2013). How do I write…? Scaffolding preschoolers’ early writing skills. The Reading Teacher, 66(8), 650-59. Published in Reading Rockets.

DeYoung, K. (n.d.). Pincer grasp simplified: What, when and how it’s used. 

Dinehart, L.H. 2015. Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 15(1), 97-118. Cited in Hall, A.H. (November 2019). Preschool interactive writing instruction: Inviting emergent writers to share the pen. Young Children. 74(5). 

Engel, S. (April 18, 2016). Storytelling in the first three years. Edited from the Zero To Three Journal, December 1996/January 1997. 

Graham, S. (2010). Want to improve children’s writing? Don’t neglect their handwriting. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review 76(1): 49-55. Cited in Hall, A.H. (November 2019). Preschool interactive writing instruction: Inviting emergent writers to share the pen. Young Children. 74(5).

Hall, A.H., Simpson, A., Guo, S., & Wang, S. (2015). “Examining the effects of preschool writing instruction on emergent literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature.” Literacy Research and Instruction 54(2): 115-34. Cited in Hall, A.H. (November 2019). Preschool interactive writing instruction: Inviting emergent writers to share the pen. Young Children. 74(5). 

Halsey, C.L. (2016). C425 Physical Growth & Development, Week 12, Erikson Institute. 

Lewsley, J. (n.d.). Developmental milestones: Grasping. BabyCenter, LLC.  

Moats, L., & Tolman, C. (2009). Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS): The Challenge of Learning to Read (Module 1). Boston: Sopris West.  

Nall, R. (November 13, 2018). Why a pincer grasp is crucial for a baby’s development. 

Prendergast, T. Understanding the Simple View of Reading. July 18, 2023. 

Reading Rockets. (n.d.). Phonological and phonemic awareness

Rowe, D.W., & Neitzel, C. (2010). Interest and agency in 2-and 3-year-olds’ participation in emergent writing. Reading Research Quarterly 45(2): 169-95. Cited in Hall, A.H. (November 2019). Preschool interactive writing instruction: Inviting emergent writers to share the pen. Young Children. 74(5). 

Schwartz, S., & Tomko, G., How to integrate writing throughout your elementary reading program. January 20, 2023).

Schickedanz, J.A., & Casbergue, R.M. (2009). Writing in Preschool: Learning to Orchestrate Meaning and Marks. 2nd ed. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Cited in Hall, A.H. (November 2019). Preschool interactive writing instruction: Inviting emergent writers to share the pen. Young Children. 74(5). 

Strachan, S.L., Duke, N.K., & Teale, W.H. (2013). Developing Preschool Children’s Writing. White paper. New York: McGraw-Hill Education. Cited in Hall, A.H. (November 2019). Preschool interactive writing instruction: Inviting emergent writers to share the pen. Young Children. 74(5).

U.S. Department of Education (n.d.). Adapted by !Colorin Colorado! (n.d.). Helping young children develop strong writing skills.

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