How to teach writing without using a formal curriculum is much easier than it sounds!
Reading & Writing are like peas & carrots, they go together!
Create writing lessons to parallel your child’s reading lessons.
Notice what spelling patterns they are learning & encourage them in their writing. Also notice simple features that are in the books they are reading that they can apply to their writing.
NOTE: Keep in mind spelling and grammar are windows looking their understanding of phonics, phonemes & language development. Writing is process oriented (just like reading) and takes a great deal of time to practice in order to master.
Why teach writing without curriculum?
There are several reasons why teaching writing without a formal writing curriculum makes sense.
- Bring your child’s writing level up
- Deepen or solidify the understanding of phonics, phonemics & phonemics for example if a second grader is learning to read that “ph” makes the /f/ sound then their writing should reflect that.
- Creating your own writing lesson for the year to make writing more enjoyable
Writing doesn’t need its own separate formal program, it should parallel what your child is learning for reading and provide an opportunity for them to demonstrate understanding of conventions and one day the craft of writing (voice, structure, etc.). Focus on what they can do and gently encourage them to “stretch” themselves as a writer.
How to teach writing
The single most important thing to consider when teaching young kids to read and write is to keep it engaging. This is true whether or not you are using a formal program to teach writing.
One great way to keep writing engaging is relevancy.
Even at a very young age kids are highly observant. Kids notice when they are being given “busy” or irrelevant work and make assumptions about why they are doing it.
Giving kids meaningful writing tasks & projects helps kids get a better understanding of the purpose of writing and its function in everyday life and with the right projects it’s enjoyable!
- Your child is learning about story structure, their writing assignments should reflect that.
- They are just beginning to learn their letter sounds but aren’t able to write yet they can still participate in the writing process and the purpose of writing. Engage them in prewriting activities (see below for more specific examples).
- My son HATES writing, or he used to. It’s still his least favorite subject but he tolerates it more now that we’ve started writing to some good friends we moved away from.
For very early writing activities parents & teachers should focus on providing prewriting activities (like fine motor work- again see below for examples) have kids draw and labeling their writing. They should independently add letters to their work (correct or not) and the effort they present as a writing should be encouraged & supported.
When kids are reading and writing more fluently they show you mastery of langauage skills & concepts or if kids are making spelling mistakes on vowel teams, for example, they just haven’t mastered it, yet.*
Where do I begin?
Good instruction always begins with meeting children where they are at developmentally & academically. This can be done with assessment.
You do not need an exhaustive test for writing. You can give a writing prompt and check-in on spelling, grammar & all of the other goodies (see below) that make up good writing.
If there are issues with spelling it may be helpful to give a nonsense word spelling test(grade 2 & up) to go along with your writing sample. Nonsense words are not real words but they do follow real spelling patterns. Some kids have impeccable memories and are able to memorize words but do not have a complete grasp of the phonoligcal pattern of the word.
Keep it Real!
Writing for real life (pen pal letters, post cards, Thank you or Birthday cards, etc.) is more engaging way to reinforce writing lessons. This helps teach kids to write for an audience (which is what real world authors do).
- Align writing lessons with what they are learning as readers
- Keep your writing sessions short and focused on one skill or concept at a time.
- Allow plenty of opportunities for your child to write about topics they care about!
- Understand that their independent spelling reflects their understanding/mastery of the English language (grammar, syntax, phonics, phonemics, etc.)
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Components of Writing
When teaching writing there are several components to consider. Each component should be explored and developed one by one and practiced with guidance. Each school year will have a particular focus within the 7 traits of writing to help break down the learning into manageable chunks from K- to grade 12.
There are 7 traditional traits of writing for PRE K through Grade 8. They are:
- ideas (how the ideas in the story come together to make meaning for the reader)
- word choice (vocabulary & word use)
- voice (author’s tone)
- sentence fluency (sentence flow)
- conventions (spelling)
- presentation (legibility and overall presentation of the work itself. This takes a time for kids to develop)
Developmentally Appropriate Writing
It is helpful to look into writing expectations per grade level before you begin writing (Common Core).
If you are using state standards or CCSS note that those are END of the year goals and for some they seem pretty far fetched. That doesn’t mean kids cannot achieve them in an academic year, it means they will need A LOT of support and guidance throughout the year. Meet kids where they are at, not what is expected of them by the room full of strangers who came up with Common Core. Find a balance between learning goals & exoectatuibs and their individual level
Celebrate successes, even the little ones and work towards independence. Young kids need a lot of play-based hand strength building activities to accompany their writing. They will also need help realizing how weird the spelling rules are in English from Grade 1 on. By second grade they begin to realize there are groups of spelling words that follow a different set of rules.
Kindergarten students first learn to spell phonetically by matching letter sounds to words or parts of words. In the beginning of your child’s Kinder school year they may spell single letter words. When they produce independently spelled phonetic words (that may be incorrect) honor the effort it took for them to spell it phonetically. Proper English spelling is far too overwhelming for most Kinders and will greatly influence their interest in writing in a negative way.
After they learn about correct spelling patterns (word families & long vowel patterns) give them some time to notice for themselves that there is a difference between long & short vowel pronunciation for example, hop and hope.
Kindergarten Writing Sample
Every child comes into a new grade level with different levels of knowledge with respect to reading and writing. Letter-sound correspondence is super important when learning to write conventionally HOWEVER pre writing lessons should begin in preschool (or as soon as possible) with pictures and oral telling of stories or processing daily events.
For example the sentence “The dog has a ball.” would be correctly demonstrated(for Kinder students in the beginning or middle of the year) as TDHAB (with or without spaces). In this sentence is a grade level appropriate idea (which should match the picture they drew), word choice, fluency and conventions. Voice and word choice are related but deeper understanding of these concepts don’t generally develop until children are older.
Presentation (neatness & overall presentation) in Kindergarten is hit or miss. It is important to tell your child to do their best work but enforcing neat handwriting when a child’s hand strength is still developing is not the best use of your efforts. Each year you can up the anti. For example teach appropriate Kindergarten writing skills like “1 finger space” for appropriate space between words, proper letter formation and other pre-presentation skills but don’t knit pick about every little thing they don’t do 100% correct.
Use Mentor Texts
In my blog post Teaching Reading without Curriculum we talked about using high quality texts that lend themselves to a variety of learning opportunities. Teaching writing works the same way. I consider writing to be an extension of what your child is learning as a reader. That is why I often extend a reading lesson and practice writing that same skill. In the older grades (2nd grade and up) whatever literary topics we learn about in our reading: quotations, authors message, voice, problem/solution, etc. we also practice in our writing, at our own pace.
Choosing high quality books can do double duty and support your child’s writing as well.
Early Childhood Writing–
The easiest point of entry for teaching writing is to keep it child centered. Meaning keep it simple, developmentally appropriate and at the child’s individual level.
The best way I have found to do this is to integrate their hobbies into writing. For example most kids really enjoy drawing & coloring. Start there, with a simple mommy or daddy & me drawing day. Draw & color pictures and then talk about them. The next time come back and draw & talk about them but this time jot down what they are saying about their illustration & date it.
Free (unstructured) drawing is really important for kids (especially for Preschool and Kindergarten) & generally comes natural. Kids need LOTS of practice (years really) getting comfortable drawing. It helps build fine motor skills and helps kids take abstract ideas (things from their imagination) and make them concrete (a 2D drawing).
Easy Open-Ended Writing Activity
A really simple way to have one type of writing “lessons” prepared throughout the year is to have pre-printed “How to Draw” cards ready to go. Laminate them so they last longer. They teach you how to draw various animals & things like a birthday cake or a house. These are great if you do thank you cards too! Talk about your illustrations as you draw and it if they’re not yet writing (jot down a sentence or two about what they say. I do this until their writing becomes more legible). Label it together if they’re just beginning to write or write a sentence or two if they have had some writing instruction and are “writers”.
An excellent series that you can purchase is) is the Draw Then Write series. They have a very simple Grades 1-3 one and a more detailed Grades 4-6 book. Ignore the writing prompts and directions, they are not great. The step-by-step drawing instructions are wonderful though. Cut out the step by step drawing part, glue it to colored construction paper or card stock & laminate it. I would keep these in a basket or envelope near blank writing paper and a well stocked writing caddy (organizer with pencils, erasers, crayons & or washable markers, etc.).
Another really good beginning how to draw book is Follow the Directions; Draw then Write. This may be my favorite of the three, especially for younger grades. It has all of the step by step instructions in a linear fashion and as you’re child is learning how to draw “step-by-step” you can read the steps with them.
The Deep End
Lets use a swimming analogy.
Learning to write a complete sentence, for a kid is like jumping in the deep end of the pool. There are a number of prerequisite skills you need in order to even attempt to jump in.
- You need to be able to hold your breath(as you’re underwater)
- swim or float to the surface
- take a breath
- swim to the side of the pool
- & pull yourself out.
If you do not have all of these skills you might drown.
The same is true for writing.
A lot of kids think writing is “too hard” because they do not have the prerequisite skills to feel successful as a writer. Sensory play and fine motor practice activities are non-negotiable activities in my book.
Fine Motor Mechanics
Most Preschool & Kindergarteners do not yet have the strength in their hand muscles nor the stamina to do worksheets or other handwriting activities. If you feel like you “should” be doing them in Kindergarten wait until the middle of the year to begin them and make sure they have had plenty of play dough and sensory bin play first.
Before time is spent learning to form letters it is important to developing the muscles for writing. This can be done through playdough, fine motor and other sensory activities. The muscles in your child’s hands are not fully developed until the third grade. I highly recommend sensory activities to build strength and stamina until then.
Sensory play in general is messy play. To help make the messes more manageable have an outdoor or garage space dedicated to messy play (sensory, arts & crafts, etc,) we have a small Ikea kiddy table that we use for our sensory play and I move it to the backyard when the weather is good and the garage when it’s raining. On super hot days I put a sheet or painting tarp down (when have one) inside.
Fine Motor Skills Products & Sensory Toys:
Fine Motor tool set age 3 and up. Pair these tools with your choice of sensory bin.
Cut & Paste Practice ages 4 and up. Pair cut and paste practice for additional fine motor work for Preschool through grade 1.
Lacing practice is another fun fine motor practice. Start this skill in preschool & continue until children have mastered it (Kindergarten/ Grade 1).
Playdough is another important pre-writing activity. It builds up strength in the child’s hand muscles and inspires open ended play.
A Playdogh Tool Set is a must have for most households. It helps kids develop different hand muscles and provides hours of fun prewriting practice.
Have you ever tried pairing scissors with play dough? It is a great alternative pre-writing practice to help mix things up.
Sensory Play for Bigger Kids:
Kinetic Sand is ok for younger kids as well (3 & up if they’re good about not putting things in their mouth anymore) but I like to reserve Kinetic Sand for kids when they’re older. It pairs well with regular sand toys. Play- doh is still interesting to some kids even as they age but it’s nice to try a new sensation. I like this brand or the kind Lakeshore sells. I do not buy the colored ones (as pretty as they are) because the dye can stain & makes a bigger mess than need be.
Building with LEGOs is another great “big kid” fine motor practice. I prefer the open ended sets so kids can use their imaginations as they build but any LEGO bricks will do. (I recommend the brand LEGO specifically because they are easier to build with that most of the competitors).
Importance of Early Childhood Writing Practice
When the child shows an interest to begin to draw, indulge it!
Each year I take advantage of the back to school sales to stock up on writing & drawing supplies for the year. Early learners can communicate an entire story through a drawing (if you show them how. We do tandem drawings & discuss our illustrations).
This builds verbal, vocabulary & visualization skills that will later be used & communicated through writing. It also helps train the writing muscles.
Children should continue to build their writing muscles through hands-on sensory & fine motor activities up until the end of 2nd grade, or longer if necessary.
NOTE: I keep giving early writing examples because it is the most difficult level to teach. Early writers are building skills & hand strength and at the same time trying to coordinate that with all of the other prerequisite skills that are necessary.
Progression of Early Writing: (PreK- Kindergarten)
- Scribbles & doodles (random)
- Scribbles & scribble writing (ziz-zags &/or symbols to represent print) doodles that represent objects, people or things
- Letter like scribbles & life-like doodles (easy to distinguish)
- Distinguishable (one or more) drawings & letters (one or more) that make up a scene or story
- Letter strings
- Letter Groups 1 (initial letter is correct but the rest seem random)
- Letter Groups 2 (initial letter & final letters are correct but rest are random)
- Letter Groups 3 (initial, final & middle sounds are represented, even if not spelled correctly)
- Environmental print (sight words, prints words the see around them)
- Early Inventive Spelling (may or may not include spacing, simple sentences to express an idea or ideas).
- Inventive Spelling (includes spacing, all or most sounds are represented even if not spelled correctly. May include conventional spelling patterns).
- Transitional Spelling (spaces between words, more complex spelling like digraphs, blends & silent letters, initial capital letter & punctuation begin to appear
Teach Reading, Writing & Spelling at the Same Time!
We support writing at the same time we are learning to read by re-reading a high quality text and noticing the skill or trait the author used to make their story interesting (or funny or whatever trait we admire, want to try in our own writing).
As we learn about phonics (letter sounds) and phoemics (blends & segments) we also write them down. We write them in the sand or dirt, we write them in the air and we write them on paper.
Read Mrs. Wishy Washy or Mrs. Wishy Washy’s Farm by Joy Cowley, as a reader.
- Notice aloud (kids say) /teaching (guided support) points :
- This story is about Mrs. Wishy Washy.
- It’s a rhyming story
- I see a (sight) word I know
- It follows a pattern, etc.
- I think this original book title is out of print but there are several others to choose an alternative Mrs. Wishy Washy’s Farm is a good one too).
Example Questions & Teaching Points:
- Who are the characters?
- What is the story about?
- Your new reading strategy (sound it out, etc.)
- Review reading strategy (look at the picture)
- Readers make a personal connection to the story (have they been to a farm before? have they seen or read about farm animals).
Read Mrs. Wish Washy’s Farm as a writer.
Why did the Author write this book?
Prompt: Do you notice anything special about the words the author chose for this book? (they rhyme)
(Tell, if they don’t understand or guess the special words in the book rhyme) Why do you think the author picked words that rhyme for this book?
Example Teaching Points:
- Narrative Text:
- Noticing details (breaking the story down into big & small moments)
- Notice how the details (small & big) make the story interesting for the reader.
- Kids search for their favorite part of the story, how did they feel?
You can read a book as a reader then go back another time and re-read the book as a writer. Reading it to learn, observe or wonder why the author write it that way.
Try that style in your own writing or think about how you want your readers to feel when they read your work.
Now you Try!
For us right now we are still drawing stories together and writing sentences about them. We also are writing letters to friends and family we have missed during this past year. Our writing is done a few days per week but is enjoyable and meaningful to us! I also make sure it is aligned with Common Core standards but do not put the most emphasis on that to keep it fun.
What are some fun writing activities you have tried?