Teach Preschoolers to Write: The Evidence
By Shlomo Maital
“Preschoolers should be encouraged to write at a young age — even before they make their first step into a classroom.” This is the finding of a new study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, by Tel Aviv Univ. Professor Dorit Aram and her colleagues. According to a Tel Aviv U. Press Release:
“Parents in the U.S. are obsessed with teaching their kids the ABCs,” said Prof. Aram. “Probably because English is an ‘opaque’ language. Words do not sound the way they are spelled, unlike ‘transparent’ Spanish or Italian. Parents are using letters as their main resource of teaching early literacy, but what they should be doing is ‘scaffolding’ their children’s writing, helping their children relate sounds to letters on the page even though the letters are not transparent.”
According to the Press Release, Prof. Aram spent the last 15 years studying adult support of young children’s writing. A major component of this support is a method, in which a caregiver (i.e. parent) is actively involved in helping a child break down a word into segments to connect sounds to corresponding letters. For example, parents using a high level will assist their children by asking them to “sound out” a word as they put it to paper. This contradicts the traditional model of telling children precisely which letters to print on a page, spelling it out for them as they go.
“Early writing is an important but understudied skill set,” said Prof. Aram. “Adults tend to view writing as associated with school, as ‘torture.’ My experience in the field indicates that it’s quite the opposite — children are very interested in written language. Writing, unlike reading, is a real activity. Children watch their parents writing and typing, and they want to imitate them. It is my goal to assist adults in helping their children enter the world of writing by showing them all the lovely things they can communicate through writing, whether it’s ‘mommy, I love you’ or even just ‘I want chocolate.'”
In the study, 135 preschool children (72 girls and 63 boys) and their parents (primarily mothers) in an ethnically-diverse, middle-income US community were observed writing a semi-structured invitation for a birthday party. The researchers analyzed the degree of parental support and assessed the children’s phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, word decoding, vocabulary, and fine motor skills. Overall support was most positively linked to children’s decoding and fine motor skills.
Prof. Aram and her counterparts found that “scaffolding,” or parental support, was most useful in developing early literacy skills. “The thing is to encourage children to write, but to remember that in writing, there is a right and a wrong,” said Prof. Aram. “We have found that scaffolding is a particularly beneficial activity, because the parent guides the child. And, if that parent guides the child and also demands precision in a sensitive and thoughtful way — i.e. ‘what did you mean to write here? Let me help you’ — this definitely develops the child’s literary skill set.
So, bottom line: Sit down with your very young pre-schoolers as parents or grandparents. Work with them on writing. “Sound it out” is the message…not “Here is how you spell a word precisely”. It makes sense to me.