Updated: Sep 19, 2020
When talking about preschoolers, often the word writing is used to mean the fine motor skill of handwriting or penmanship. In this context, however, I am talking about writing in the sense of composition, translating complex ideas into written word.
Here are 6 tips for helping young children develop the skills they will need to be competent, successful future writers, whether they’re writing essays, novels, or business proposals.
1. Make Up Stories with Them
One of the ways we encourage early composition skills in our family is by doing dinnertime story-telling. We take turns making up parts of a story, each person building on whatever came before. Not only is this a fun bonding activity, it is also teaching our children the skills of description, narration, and sequencing of events – all of which are important parts of the writing process, both for creative writing and even for essays and reports. Because we treat these story sessions as improvisational (no one can negate what came before, only build on it), these sessions also teach our kids to brainstorm and sort through ideas in a low-pressure environment, where there is little fear of their ideas being rejected. Since many of the writing struggles I’ve seen in my students are fear-based (fear of the blank page, fear of it not being good enough, fear that people will think their paper is silly, and so on), I know that helping children build confidence in their ideas (and their ability to put their ideas into words) early on can be a huge benefit to their future writing.
2. Model It
One of the best ways to encourage your children in an activity is to let them see you doing it. Are you about to type an email, write a note to grandmother, or compose an entry in your journal? Let your child see you doing this. If possible, invite them in on it and let them add a few ideas or even type or write a few of the words for you. Even if you aren’t an avid writer, you can show your children that writing skills are important by letting them see you use your own.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that “Studies of very young children show that carefully formed scrawls have meaning to them, and that this writing actually helps them develop language skills. Research suggests that the best way to help children at this stage of their development as writers is to respond to the ideas they are trying to express” (What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning, second edition,1987).
The Princess at age 4. She said she was writing down “what the Bible says.”
Although your child’s writing may look like scribbling to you, if you take the time to ask them what it says, you might be surprised. Listening to and valuing their written ideas – even the illegible ones – is a great way to make writing a positive experience and encourage their development as young writers.
4. Give Them Fun “Assignments”
In the same report, the U.S. Department of Education stated that “Children who are encouraged to draw and scribble ‘stories’ at an early age will later learn to compose more easily, more effectively, and with greater confidence than children who do not have this encouragement” (What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning, second edition,1987).
Even if your child doesn’t yet have penmanship skills, the act of drawing and writing – on paper, in sidewalk chalk, on a dry erase board, etc. – helps them practice the skill of translating their internal thoughts into an external form. This skill will be vital to their future composition ability, and gaining proficiency early on increases the likelihood that more difficult writing assignments will be tackled with confidence rather than faced with dread.
Try giving your child fun writing “assignments”: provide a story idea (“Why don’t you write a story about going to the beach?”), a topic (“Would you like to write something about rainbows?”), a journaling prompt (“Can you write about your favorite part of today?”), or simply give them some paper and allow them free reign to write any story they would like. Encourage them to add pictures; you can even show them some books to demonstrate how pictures and words work together to tell a story. Stapling some blank pages together into a “book” they can draw and write on works well for this, too. Then let them have fun drawing and writing whatever comes to mind. As a bonus, this also helps familiarize very young children with what assignments are (or tasks, homework, whatever you decide to call them), and gives you a chance to build a fun association with assignments early on, encouraging a love of learning and diminishing apprehension toward academics.
These “assignments” can easily be tied in to whatever your family has been studying, talking about, or doing recently, and your child will probably enjoy sharing their story with the whole family once it’s done. You may just end up with some really cute keepsakes as a result of these projects, and the experience will help your child build confidence in their ability to translate their ideas into writing.
Here’s a story The Princess (now age 5) wrote just tonight. We didn’t even “assign” this to her! She just came running in with some blank paper Daddy gave her and the next thing we knew, she had made a book, folded together with several pages. She read her story out loud to us. It was very exciting and involved her sister and a dragon.
Confidence in composing thoughts on paper means that your child is more likely to view writing as something enjoyable rather than daunting, even as they get older and the writing assignments become more complex. Bonus: as they scribble and draw, they are also working on their fine motor skills, which will help them with future penmanship and reduce the risk of a handwriting struggle causing frustration during composition.
5. Reward Creativity
Rewarding your child’s creativity – whether it is in imaginative play, writing, fort-building, or otherwise – is more than just saying, “That is so creative! Good job!” It means being willing to join in with them, suspend disbelief, and enter their imagined world. Show them you value their ideas by playing pretend with them, listening to their made-up songs or stories (maybe even offering to help them write the words down), and treating their work as if it is valuable. For me, this means I frame a LOT of my children’s paintings and drawings. In fact, I created a small gallery in my hallway for this purpose, and also included some of my favorites of their paintings in my living room wall decor. (I do this not only to encourage them, but also because I want to. I love their artwork!) Maybe for you it will look different, but the point is to show your child that you value their ideas, and to help them develop confidence and enthusiasm for translating their ideas into something tangible, which is a vital skill for future writing.
6. Read. A lot.
Listening to the written word is an excellent way for your children to develop their writing skills. You can use audio books or read aloud to them; I like to do a combination of both, so that I can have close bonding time cuddled up reading with them and get in some extra listening time when they’re busy coloring and I need to clean or do other things. Even if they can’t yet read themselves, listening to books helps children to identify patterns in language, increases their vocabulary, familiarizes them with story structure (which is important to every type of writing, not just fiction), and exercises their imaginations as they visualize scenes in their minds or follow along with the pictures from page to page. It also helps them practice concentration and focus, two additional skills which are vital to successful writing.
While there are many additional ways to encourage a love of writing in young children, these 6 tips provide an excellent foundation for developing young writers and setting them up for success by making writing fun rather than intimidating.