Helping Kindergartners Experience the Thrill of Writing!

Molly Cochell
Laura Fullmer

Abstract

The authors share ideas from their experience helping kindergartners participate in writing before they can write. These involve writing notes, making lists, labeling, and writing class poems.

We've been told that sometimes when we write about early literacy we use too many exclamation points! But really, we love them because helping young children discover the joy of listening to stories, or finding facts in books, or writing something important is really exciting! Each day each month throughout the school year, we help kindergarten students unlock understandings that help them to become speakers and listeners, readers and writers.

To help kindergartners begin reading, we teach foundational skills for mastery, support their efforts at putting alphabetic knowledge into practice, and read to them every day. We ask and answer questions about the books we read, we discuss new words we come across, we compare and contrast ideas and styles, we discover and talk about concepts of print, and we learn about story components or interesting topics. Also we encourage children to read books independently or with peers. They learn by "reading" the pictures, by finding words they know, or by re-telling familiar stories. All of these tend to be accepted components of the typical kindergarten reading experience.

Unlike reading instruction, writing instruction in kindergarten seems to vary significantly. Students may spend a lot of time forming letters (which we do as well): copying letters, then words, and even sentences for their writing time. Yes, it seems difficult to have kindergarten students who do not know how to write start writing. But just as we would not withhold books from students because they don't know how to read, we do not want to withhold writing experiences from students because they do not know how to write. In fact, a recent study published in Developmental Psychology (Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017) found that having children listen to the sounds in words and write phonetically (invented spelling) is one of the most important strategies to help them become proficient readers. So how can teachers help young children become emerging writers?

We've found three strategies that have a great impact on developing writers: (a) validating the writing skills young children possess (allowing them to use invented spelling and pictures along with words they know), (b) modeling writing in the classroom, and (c) inviting them to participate in the writing process. At the beginning of the school year, we recognize students' abilities as we begin modeling writing. As our students become comfortable with our belief in them as writers, we ask them to participate with us.

We write messages to our students, and we involve them in writing messages to others. We deliberately make lists in front of the children, and we let them see us write down things we need to remember or label things to make our classroom more efficient. Eventually we involve them in writing class poems. By the end of the year our students are able to write independently, each at his or her own ability level, and they are on the path toward reading and writing with real purpose.

Messages

At the beginning of the year, we often model writing with messages. We may start by writing "Welcome to Kindergarten!" on the board to greet students the first day. Then we use messages to notify them about events or daily activities: "We have a visitor today. Fire Chief Tony is coming to our class." Or "We will have fun using the letter F." 

Sometimes we use adult writing conventions. But we include pictures and phonetic spelling in these messages so we can model ways for kindergartners to access writing on their own using the letter/sound knowledge they are developing. We might ask them to help write and deliver a message to another class: "Do you have a book about spiders that we can borrow?" Or they might write a note to take home: "Can I bring something that starts with the letter I to school tomorrow?"

We also like to use books to help model writing in our classrooms. The Max and Ruby book Bunny Cakes, by Rosemary Wells (1997), is a wonderful way to help children see how messages can be written in many different ways. In the story How Rocket Learned to Read, we might speculate with our students why the author, Tad Hills (2010), decided to use messages in his story. Then we ask our students engagement questions: "Could you also include a message in a story? What would the story be about? What might it say? Why use a message?"

Don't be surprised if this discussion encourages children to use messages in their own journal writing!

Lists

Also we model writing lists. In addition to lists of the names of children in our class, we have our daily schedule, names and duties of important adults in the school, centers for the week, free choice activities, behavior expectations in various parts of the school, things to do, sequence for taking turns, and more. Sometimes we make the lists ourselves and share them with our students. Other lists can be written with students. By the end of the year, children will be writing lists on their own!

One way to motivate children to make a list is to ask them to think of all of the words they can that begin with a specific letter of the alphabet. They can write words or draw pictures to make the list. You might take a picture of the list your class generates and print it for an alphabet book.

Another way we model and then encourage students to participate is by listing things we discover while reading. We might list characters in a story or facts on a topic recalled from a book we just read. We do this by first modeling for students and then asking them to add to the list or to make a list on their own. We also use books to help model list making. 

My Five Senses by Aliki (1962) includes a picture chart associating each object with the sense we could use to perceive it. We like to wonder with our students why this author decided to use pictures in this list. Do the pictures help the students understand the list? The book How to Teach a Slug to Read, by Susan Pearson (2011), is a humorous book written in list format to use as a mentor text and as information on learning to read!

Labeling

We also use labeling to encourage reading and writing. We label our classroom centers with pictures and words to help keep things organized AND to encourage reading. We set up centers such as a store or restaurant, then encourage children to label the contents. As we learn about various topics, we label pictures, either copied pictures or the children's drawings, to help with vocabulary and to encourage writing. For example, after learning about fire safety, we might label a picture of a firefighter with words such as ax, helmet, coat, air pack, and boots. You can find labeling in many beginning level information books or dictionaries. Authors Todd Parr, Donald Crews, and Gail Gibbons all feature various forms of labeling in their picture books. We like to share these books with our students to inspire them to label their own drawings.

Class Poems

In our new book, English Language Arts: The Kindergarten Way (2017), we outline many strategies and lessons we use throughout the year to teach early literacy. Our techniques are motivating, meaningful, and fun! We offer many lessons and activities to encourage writing, including printable pages needed for the lessons. Our lesson "Class Poem" validates young children's development, models writing, and invites them to participate. It merges kindergarten students' innate creativity and imagination with their ability to write using both words and drawings.

To begin writing a class poem, we show the children an interesting photo, print, or piece of artwork that represents a particular subject matter we are learning about. For example, we've used a wintry city scene when discussing the characteristics of the winter season. We encourage the students to discuss the picture, talking about what they see.

Then we give each child a sticky note and ask all to write down one word that comes to mind as they look at the picture. In our winter scene example, students wrote words like cold, winter, snow, white, red, branches, coats, and ice. Students  come up to the board where the picture is displayed and they stick their notes on or around the picture. After reading all of their words aloud, we tell them we'd like to use all of their words in a poem about the picture. We ask students to offer ideas for sentences or short phrases using the words. Using their feedback, we help put their sentences into a poem and write the final poem on the board. They are excited that they have collectively written a real poem, and they are eager to take copies home to share with their families!

Molly Cochell has been teaching pre-k, special education, or kindergarten for the past 28 years. She has been honored as Special Education Teacher of Year, a trainer for Best Practices in Early Childhood/Special Education, and twice as Teacher of the Year in Idaho schools. She has received multiple honors for bringing arts into schools, including two 21st Century Classroom awards for best practices in education, recognizing her work in the arts and technology.

Laura Fullmer developed a love of teaching young children working in pre-k and early elementary reading programs while at the University of Florida. Since 2004 she has been a kindergarten and first grade teacher, having also served as a reading intervention teacher and RtI lead in Idaho schools and working as a mentor to teachers new to the profession. The Idaho State Department of Education has recognized her with two 21st Century Classroom awards for best practices in visual arts and technology innovation.

References

Cochell, M., & Fullmer, L. (2017). English language arts: The kindergarten way. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishing.

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in Grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77-88.

Children's Literature References

Aliki. (1962). My five senses. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Hills, T. (2010). How Rocket learned to read. New York, NY: Schwartz & Wade.

Pearson, S. (2011). How to teach a slug to read. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.

Wells, R. (1997). Bunny cakes. New York, NY: Dial.