Early Childhood Today: Leslie, how do you encourage writing in your classroom?

Leslie Oppenheimer: As we all know, a love for language precedes writing skills. In our classroom, we offer a print-rich environment so that children see words in almost every area of the classroom. For example, our meeting area is also our book center. As we talk, children see us creating charts, graphs, webs, and lists using their words. We also provide each student with a "journal," which they are free to write or draw in during certain times of the day. Their journals give them the opportunity to practice their pre-writing and drawing skills.

ECT: What materials and activities do you introduce to help children build writing skills in different learning centers?

Oppenheimer: The materials we provide are most typically found in our art center. There the children will find a wide assortment of materials, including markers and crayons that are thick and thin, regular pencils, colored pencils, Cray-Pas, colored chalk, pens, and long- and short-handled paintbrushes. All of these materials help children develop fine-motor skills in open-ended ways. At our easel, children know it is their responsibility to write their names (sign their artwork). We will help any child who needs help with this-but if we are busy, they sometimes get tired of waiting for a teacher to come over, and they will attempt it on their own!

In our other learning centers, we try to include writing in ways that contribute naturally to their play. For example, in our block area, we give children two ways to represent and save their work. When a block structure has been completed, we will offer to photograph the building and place the picture in our block-area photo album, or the children can choose to sketch their structures in our block-area sketchbook. Along with their sketch, there might be a written description by the teacher.

Our dramatic-play center includes small pads of paper on clipboards, which children have used to take orders in their "restaurants" or to write down a shopping list. The children know their classroom environment well and can easily find paper and writing tools to make maps, surveys, and diagrams that enhance their play ideas.

In our computer center, we use a sign-in system to determine who will have the next turn. We begin the year with a sheet that has long lines across the paper to write down names (one column). As the year progresses, we might see that the children are able to write their names in a smaller space and we will have a two-column sign-in sheet. Changing the space to a smaller dimension helps children make that adjustment.

ECT: How do you know when children are ready to move to the next stage of writing? What do you do to help them progress to new levels?

Oppenheimer: When we sit alongside children who are working at the art center, we keep careful anecdotal records of the types of instruments they prefer to use (thick or thin, long or short), which hand appears to be dominant most regularly, and the type of grip the student is using. We also observe to see who has an understanding of left-to-right progression and who is still developing in that area. These observations help us take their skills to the next level.

Again, we try to do this in a natural and noninvasive way. We might offer to demonstrate how to form letters (upper- and lowercase) and provide an example for them to copy (our alphabet chart is nearby for them to refer to). If children are already able to write the letters in the uppercase alphabet, we might provide them with another chart to practice their lowercase letters.

Ultimately, we observe them writing, keep track of who is able to form letters already, and then challenge them to do more for themselves.

ECT: How do you involve families in helping children develop writing skills?

Oppenheimer: We suggest that they have available at home a variety of drawing materials and other things that will help with fine-motor development. We encourage them to include their child whenever they are writing at home (grocery lists, phone messages, notes to other family members, calendar reminders), so that their child sees the purposes of writing things down.

Really, at this age we are just trying to give them as many different opportunities and materials as we can, to expose them to letters and words. And then we allow them the time to practice these developing skills. The more often children observe the adults in their lives using writing to make lists, take messages, create charts, and so on, the more they will begin to want to try to write for themselves. The position of letters on a paper (writing on lines), the actual formation of letters, and the proper sequence of letters are typically not yet part of a 4-year-old's growing list of abilities. The more we can expose them to print and the many purposes behind it, the more they will be willing to attempt writing on their own.