Writing to Become a Reader

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Throughout my years of working with struggling readers, I have become convinced that one of the factors that contribute to a child becoming a struggling reader is inadequate support for his early writing. I have often observed inappropriate activities and instruction in preschool and kindergarten classrooms which illustrate this point. I shudder when I see a teacher have the children copy words written on the board as a ‘writing’ assignment, when — at best — it may be a fine motor handwriting practice.  I become equally as concerned when I hear a teacher tell children to use ‘invented spelling’ or ‘kindergarten spelling,’ when it is evident from the blank stares that the children have not made solid connections between alphabet letters, words, and writing.

I recently read an article in The Reading Teacher, the journal of research for classroom practice from the International Reading Association (IRA), called, “How Do I Write…? Scaffolding Preschoolers’ Early Writing Skills’ (Cabell, Tortorelli, & Gerde, 2013).* I enjoyed the article because it articulated early writing skills and how teachers can support children on their developmental levels.  At one point in the article, the authors state, “Effectively incorporating support for children’s varying writing skills provides a gateway to developing other critical literacy skills.”  I was a kindergarten teacher for many years, and these early writing skills are an essential part of helping a child develop as a reader and a writer.  Those early skills can be of great benefit to the child as he is supported at every stage of development while he moves from drawing pictures to eventually writing words.  The research in the article indicates that there are four main stages of writing development a child goes through:

  • Drawing and Scribbling. The child usually doesn’t understand the connection between writing and speech.
  • Letters and Letter-Like Forms. The child makes attempts at writing letters, although at first they don’t necessarily resemble the actual letter.
  • Salient and Beginning Sounds. The child begins to make the connection between speech and writing and knows enough about letters that she begins to write a letter for a word (e.g., B for ‘baby,’ or V for ‘elevator’).
  • Beginning and Ending Sounds.  The child has enough phonemic awareness to attend to individual sounds and begins to use her knowledge of letters to use invented spelling (e.g., CT for ‘cat,’ or AT for ‘ate’).

Within a classroom of children, you may have students functioning at all four of these levels. Different support is needed at each stage for helping the child develop a strong foundation for writing.   Think about the two classroom scenarios I mentioned above. The first one — having children copy letters off the board — would not support any of the four stages above.  The second situation — telling the child to use invented spelling — would be very confusing for any child who was still in one of the first three stages.  She wouldn’t have enough skills to use invented spelling.

What does this have to do with reading?  Everything. As a child receives early reading instruction and begins to understand how the alphabet works on paper, each one of the four writing stages can assist the child in developing a foundation for reading. Having solid support at each one of the stages will help the child learn the connections between reading, writing, and speaking.  Without that solid support, he will be missing critical bricks in his reading foundation.  Although there may be numerous reasons why a child is a struggling reader, lack of support in writing is certainly a major factor.  Struggling readers are also struggling writers.

Teachers should support the child through all four stages of writing and not force him to write under unrealistic expectations.  I was visiting a kindergarten recently and the teacher was convinced the children could ‘edit’ the stories that they had written (or attempted to write).  Reading research tells us that a child should not be ‘editing’ writing until the latter part of first grade and only if he has been taught basic conventions of writing sentences and has been introduced to enough spelling words. He would also have enough reading skills at that point to make a strong connection.  This is the natural and developmentally appropriate progress of writing for young children.  Supporting the four writing stages will assist the child in becoming a writer as he becomes a reader.

*Cabell, S.Q, L.S. Tortorelli, and H.K. Gerde. How Do I Write…? Scaffolding preschoolers’ early writing skills.  The Reading Teacher, Vol. 66, Issue 8, International Reading Association, May 2013.

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