Working on writing with children who don’t yet write

Letters, words, and text everywhere… The world our children live in is literate. Words are everywhere, communicating something. So to learn to read these words is to learn to read the world. And learning to write is learning to communicate.

When children are young and can’t read or write, adults take on the role of making sense of these symbols in the world. This learning starts from the moment a child is born and mother or father reads them a book for the first time. At this stage of a child’s life, the most important thing to learn about writing is to understand its social function.

“Why do we write? How do we write? Who do we write for?  These questions make up a very important part of the work we do in early childhood education: writing with children who don’t write,” says Camila Maia, be.Living’s pedagogical coordinator.

Camila explains that the children in Yellow Orange are surrounded by the written word from the moment they enter the school. This includes marking an event in the class calendar, writing on cards the knowledge that the group has gained through research, or using this written knowledge to communicate what they have learned to people outside the group, such as when families are invited to participate in a sharing circle and the teachers use these materials to share the children’s learning journeys.

“In everyday school life, children understand that these words communicate and that writing is essential to learning. So working on writing with children who don’t write is very much related to this understanding of the social function of writing. When we work with different genres of text, such as a letter, a list, a photo caption, or a memoir, each genre has a function and brings this learning to the children. This is already a literacy process,” says Camila.

According to Camila, in early childhood education, teachers are like scribes; children learn all the time through their example. “When they write, educators hold the pen correctly and show the children that there is a correct way to write, that we write from left to right, that one line comes after another, that each word is a group of letters, that each letter has a sound, that words also have a sound and represent something.”

Through a variety of activities, educators bridge the gap so that the children can learn to write. “When we read aloud here at school, the teachers show what they are reading by pointing to the words that are being read. At Red, the teachers write the nursery rhymes on a poster, word by word. For some words they draw a picture to go with it. The child ‘reads’ the nursery rhyme on the poster with their finger, imitating how the text was presented to them. By repeating the rhyme, they learn to recite and understand that the order of these words is the same as the order of what they are saying.”

Camila explains that two fundamental pillars for developing this writing work with children who don’t write are phonological awareness and a stable repertoire. “As children begin to understand the sounds of certain letters, they begin to recognize and vocalize them, understanding that each letter has a sound and that this sound makes up a word. Once they have this keen sense of hearing, they begin to experiment more in their writing. Let me give an example from Blue’s class. Every day, Blue’s teachers write the class schedule on the board. This is a stable repertoire, which means that the same words are seen by the children on a daily basis. This helps children remember the spelling of these words. They understand that the word circle starts with a C, and then comes an I, an R, a C, an L, and an E. They can’t read or write, but they understand that these symbols represent a word they already know. A stable repertoire is very important for this early stage of literacy. Once they know the spelling of a word, teachers remove the first letter of the word. This is where phonological awareness comes in. The children begin to understand that circle is represented by the sound of the letter C. They notice that the letter C is missing from the word because they already know how to spell and pronounce it.”

Camila explains that this teaching-learning process makes children think about reading and writing instead of just learning by rote repetition. “The children don’t learn by rote repetition, but they understand how these words are composed through the sounds, the recall of the stable repertoire, and the questions that the teachers ask during this journey, a journey that begins in the early years and concretizes in the last years of early childhood education. When they enter Blue, children begin to experiment with writing what they say. They begin to understand that for everything we say, there is a way to write it. This literacy process is already underway and is completed in the first two years of elementary school.”

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