Supporting Emergent Writing in Preschool

Written by Alexandria Pistilli, MA student in Child Studies at Concordia University

Montreal, Canada

Children’s capacity to develop writing skills, and their interest in exploring writing appear early in childhood (Puranik and Lonigan, 2011. Journal of Learning Disabilities; Rowe and Neitzel, 2010. Reading Research Quarterly), however very little opportunities for writing are present in the preschool classroom (Gerde et al. 2012. Early Childhood Education Journal) . In fact, although reading and writing skills develop simultaneously and are interdependent, some preschool teachers believe that reading takes precedence over writing (Mayer 2007. Young Children). Emergent writing activities have shown to help with later reading and writing abilities and overall school success (Fischel et al, 2007. Journal of Literacy Research; Lonigan et al. 2011, Reading and Writing). Despite its importance, preschool writing practices take place on average for only one minute per day (Pelatti et al. 2014. Early Childhood Research Quarterly). Here a few simple strategies for integrating writing in the preschool classroom routine.

What is environmental print and how can we integrate it into play?

Environmental print is text that children can see, create, and interact with (Neumann et al, 2012. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy) . The ability to recognize that written words and oral language are connected is referred to as print knowledge and is predictive of later literacy achievement such that children with more exposure to print are more successful writers (Gerde et al, 2016. The Reading Teacher). Educators can promote these emergent literacy skills by co-creating meaningful print with students. One way of doing this is to create a classroom mailbox and have the children make postcards for their peers. Similarly,  using poster board, children can create birthday cards and sign it for their peers’ and/or teachers’ birthdays as another interesting way of constructing meaningful print as a class. Writing can also be integrated into dramatic play by creating restaurant menus, grocery lists, doctor’s notes, or office play. When creating print with children, it is important to refer to existing print in the environment throughout the day (e.g alphabet charts, posters, classroom rules, etc.) so they can use them as a guide for their own writing (Gerde et al, 2016. The Reading Teacher).  When children are engaged in an activity that they enjoy, such as building structures using blocks, they are more likely to encode writing as a meaningful addition to the activity. It also allows them the opportunity to understand that there are various functions for writing.


What is a writing center and what are its benefits?

A writing center is a section of the classroom designated for writing activities and materials. The purpose of this center is to provide a variety of writing materials to children and allow them the opportunity to practice their writing in a supportive environment. Educators can guide/model children’s writing, motivate them in trying a range of activities, and explain to them the purpose of writing. Some activities that can be found in this center include writing postcards, creating storybooks, grocery lists, name-writing activities, drawing pictures with labels, sensory trays for sight words, and many more. Implementing a writing center encourages students to explore writings tools and improve fine motor skills. It is also associated with increased alphabet knowledge and name-writing ability in children, specifically when coupled with the proper instruction by educators (Guo et al, 2016. Journal of Research in Reading).

What is interactive writing and what are its benefits?

Interactive writing is a form of writing instruction where teachers share the pen with a group of students as they strive to collaboratively compose text (McCarrier et al, 2000) . This notion of “sharing the pen” can be taken literally whereby children with less experience will require hand-over-hand guidance. For more independent writers, this refers to the joint involvement of both the adult and children in co-creating text. This activity is usually conducted in small groups for a period of 10-15 minutes and reflects topics that the students are interested in. The key component of this writing activity is that it is interactive, so children are engaged and participating in creating meaningful text with an expert other alongside peers. It develops positive attitudes towards writing because it is an activity that engages children, promotes alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, conventional writing and reading skills (Hall et al, 2015. Literacy Research and Instruction; Craig 2006. Journal of Educational Psychology; Jones 2015. The Journal of Education Research; Jones et al. 2010. The Journal of Educational Research).

Figure 1. Preschool Interactive Writing Framework as described by Hall (2016).

Figure 1. Preschool Interactive Writing Framework as described by Hall (2016).

In sum, educators play an important role in supporting children’s emergent writing skills. By providing children with numerous opportunities to explore freely with writing materials and offering guidance based on their level of abilities, educators can cultivate children’s confidence in their writing abilities. An environment rich in writing materials and positive modelling allows for active learning to occur. Incorporating writing in the various sections of the classroom in addition to designating a given space to writing, children will learn about the multiple functions of writing and will begin to value writing early on.

As Graves eloquently stated: “Children want to write. They want to write the first day they attend school. This is no accident. Before they went to school, they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pencils…anything that makes a mark. The child’s marks say ‘I am.’” (Graves 1983).

How Can Play Promote Language Development?

Written by Alexandria Pistilli, M.Sc. Candidate Child Studies Concordia University.

Montreal, Canada.

The first few years of a child’s life are critical for language development. From birth to around 5 years of age, children’s brains are wired in such a way that it is easier for them to learn languages during this period. For this reason, the environment that we create for children can either promote or limit opportunities for language growth. Luckily, research shows that play can increase children’s language abilities.

1-    Ask wh-questions: Wh-questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) have shown to not only increase children’s vocabulary size, but also their verbal reasoning skills. This will allow you to encourage speech from your child while you both have lots of fun. Extend on what your child’s response (e.g. “What are you making?” “Toast” “Are you making toast for your dolly?” and have them question their actions (e.g. “What are you making?” “A tunnel” “Why do you need to make a tunnel?”). Point out objects and ask them about their properties, what they can be used for, etc. 

2-    Encourage a conversation. Allow your child the opportunity to respond to your questions. Our first instinct is to answer for them when they are taking time to respond, however, when we allow children time to think, they may surprise us! Even when their response doesn’t make much sense, go with the flow, and continue prompting them for more.

3-     Let your child take the lead. This will make sure they are engaged and that they are following their own interests. They are more likely to grasp onto language when they are immersed in their experience. Children have much shorter attention spans than adults do, so it is normal for them to switch activities rather quickly. As long as they are enjoying what they are doing, they will be more attuned to what you are telling them, making them more likely to pick up on new words. During play, it is important that you are supportive, attentive, and responsive. However, this is one of those situations where your child can benefit from being the boss!

children playing.jpeg

4-    Take play outside. During the warmer months, going outside can be refreshing for kids. Washable paint or sidewalk chalk is a great way to work on language in a creative way. By asking your child about what they are drawing, they will practice their language skills by responding to you in a situation that is different from what they are used to. It is important to generalize play to different contexts (so not just in the play room of your home). Practicing to write their name in sand, paint, dirt, etc will encourage your child to experiment with their writing skills too. This is a good opportunity to let them explore nature, see animals, and the changing on the seasons.

5-    Use familiar themes. It is easier for children to re-enact themes that they have scene before such as shopping, eating, playing doctor, teacher, restaurant, etc. You can add characters or plot twists to get your child thinking and practice their problem solving skills. This will extend their language and thinking skills. 

6-    Use props during story time. Interactive storybook reading and guided play are two great ways that parents can get involved in stimulating this growth in children. Accompanying books with props is a great way to engage your child while reading to them. For example: If the book is about farm animals, use toys or puppets to act out the story. Acting out parts of the story with your child will not only make reading fun, but it will get your child talking and allow them to be immersed while you teach them new concepts and words.

7-    Be present.  The best way to communicate with your child is when there are no interruptions- refrain from using your phone or watching tv in the background. Use this block of time to have some fun with your child while helping them build their language skills. Working together to complete a task such as a puzzle or building a tower or even playing princess involves both the effort of yourself and your child. Remember, you’re bonding with your child, practicing important skills with them, and most importantly, having fun!


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  2. Ribot, K., Hoff, E. & Burridge, A. (2017). Language use contributes to expressive language growth: Evidence from bilingual children. Child Development, 1-12.

  3. Massey, S. (2013). From the reading rug to the play center: Enhancing vocabulary and comprehensive language skills by connecting storybook reading and guided play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(2), 125–131. doi:10.1007/s10643-012-0524-y.

  4. Williams, M., & Rask, H. (2003). Literacy through play: How families with able children support their literacy development. Early Child Development and Care, 173(5), 527-533. doi: 10.1080/0300443032000088276

  5. Ginsburg KR. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics. 119, 182-191.