Helping Your Child With Early Writing

The thing my kids like most about helping with the grocery shopping is writing the list before we go. They both write their own list and are responsible for finding those items on our trip. Mr 5 was very proud of his last shopping list – and I was too. Here is his list. Can you read it?

early writing list

His list says bananas, muesli bars, watermelon and butter. You might notice that he has used only consonants and no vowels (a e i o u) at all. This is perfectly normal for an emergent writer and I did not correct his work.

Parents often ask me about how to help their child with early writing attempts. Should you correct their work? Should you give them praise if the word isn’t right? What should you say when they ask how to spell something? Here’s my advice.

In the early stages of learning to write, the focus should be on hearing sounds, identifying sounds, and representing those sounds. If the sounds are correctly identified and represented, the work will be “readable” even if an actual word isn’t written. Here’s what that looks like in practice:

Mr 5: Watermelon! I want to put watermelon on the list.

Me: Excellent idea. We can get watermelon this week if you write it on your list.

Mr 5: How do I write watermelon?

Me: What can you hear?

Mr 5: War-Ta-Me-Lun (four sounds)

Me: So what was the first sound?

Mr 5: War-

Me: And how do you write War-?

Mr 5: (draws a W)

Me: Good job! What can you hear next?

Mr 5: War-TA- I can hear a ta and I know how to write a ta!

Me: Great, write it down. You’ve got wa-ta- what comes next?

Mr 5: War-ta-Mmmmm… Mm for Mummy. 

Me: You are such a good writer! Watermelon is a big word to write. Can you hear anything else?

Mr 5: (Whispers to himself Wa-ta-me-) Lllllll. I can hear L.

Me: Well done! Let’s read your word. (Point to letters written and say corresponding sound) War-Ta-Me-Lun. Watermelon!! Great writing mate.

*   *  *

Here are some things I didn’t do during our conversation.

  • I didn’t give him any answers. When your child asks how to spell or write a word, ask a question back. “What can you hear?” is a good one to start with.
  • I didn’t make him write sounds he didn’t identify. For example, if I had forced the issue, he probably could have identified the sound Nn at the end of watermelon. At this early stage, identifying 4 sounds in a word is brilliant! No need to push harder.
  • I didn’t add in the vowels. He is still a pre-reader, and has plenty of time yet to learn about what words look like, and what else is needed to make up a sound (t + a = ta). This comes later.
  • I didn’t add in any other sounds he missed. If I had gone back over his list and added everything he left out, he would feel less capable as a writer. Getting the word “right” isn’t the goal of early writing. The goal is to effectively communicate. (Again, “rightness” comes later.)
  • I didn’t correct his handwriting. Sure, he has a mix of upper and lower case letters but at this stage it’s not a big deal. It’s best to focus on one thing at a time.

I hope this encourages you as a parent, and helps you to feel more equipped to help your pre-schooler with their emerging writing skills. Writing a shopping list together is a simple, purposeful, and achievable activity.


2 thoughts on “Helping Your Child With Early Writing

  1. I said bread, milk,watermelon and butter. Two out four is good right !
    This advice is good for even when they get older. I say to my seven year old now when he struggles with a word
    “Sound the word out.”
    Then when he has the sounds he writes it down and we go back and correct each part.

    Thanks for your post.

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