We all know the current thinking regarding writing and reading in preschoolers - don’t do it!
They will be bored in school ! Focus on play!
There are those who are strong advocates of the complete “play only” curriculum and those who still quietly go about their mornings encouraging children to get ready for school by making numbers and letters a mandatory part of their morning routine, and then there are those of us who fall somewhere in the middle - we see the children who want to write and constantly pull pages and pencils from the drawer and ask for help to “write” their lists and stories down - we help them and then quickly move on to encouraging other heuristic free play and open ended learning.
But what if we are wrong?
What if these skills should be taught and even encouraged and our curriculum adapted to allow for writing?
What if our observations should focus a little more on the child who does not show any willingness or readiness towards writing?
What if we could significantly help children’s future academic success by ensuring that most of them leave our early years setting with a knowledge and confidence in writing skills?
I come to this from a personal perspective, which has led me down a surprising path - my son struggled in school, so much so that he finally buckled under anxiety and we went for assessments - he was eventually diagnosed with Dysgraphia (a specific learning disability that affects written expression).
I had never heard the term before and looked into it and ways I could support him and help him.
He was 12 when he was finally diagnosed.
He attended my own Montessori school and I, following a widely held belief, left him to play for the most part - I did not ask him to sit and work on tasks which he obviously found difficult or boring.
Bearing in mind my Montessori training and my willingness to look for sensitive periods and readiness of the child, and our further knowledge of child led play and learning via Aistear I thought I was doing the right thing! But was I?
Now let me share a little insight and research with you.
We are beginning to truly realise the importance of mark making and handwriting in preschool and their significant effect on the functional brain development in pre literate children (James & Engelhardt 2012)
Dinehart and Manfra (2013) examined the links between the fine motor skills of 3,000 preschool children (activities such as threading, cutting, copying and writing letters and numbers and drawing simple shapes) and their academic achievement two years after starting school.
All fine motor skills examined had some link with their achievements but writing skills were consistently the strongest predictors of reading and maths achievement.
Now you could argue that it was simply that the children who excelled at these skills in preschool were of a higher level of readiness and intelligence and therefore were the group who would obviously excel in school.
But what if we could alter this and make significant differences to the children who did not display this readiness, and therefore positively affect their future outcome in school achievements?
Is that even possible?
Why is it important to acquire writing skills early?
Remember that the development of writing skills is a sequential process that begins before children start school.
Writing activities stimulate the prefrontal cortex - attention, impulse control and working memory.
Early writing difficulties may be an early indicator of broader cognitive concerns, and if these can be highlighted in early years education then they can be addressed sooner.
When basic skills - such as writing - are automatic the brain can concentrate on higher order composition skills.
Certain activities can be introduced before children show any inclination towards pencil control - these will help to reinforce hand eye coordination, hand and finger strength, crossing the midline - where arms and legs cross the body, manipulating objects - using a spoon, using scissors, brushing teeth, tweezers, play dough etc.
All children should be encouraged to engage in these activities. Make sure you pay attention to children who struggle with any of the above - they may require extra support in order to build confidence and ability in fine motor skills - observations detailing their difficulties should be kept on file and monitored.
Once children have had plenty of opportunity for developing fine motor skills and have grasped the basic activities you can begin to introduce more advanced skills such as pre writing strokes, dot to dot sheets and letter formation.
I believe all children should be encouraged and supported to engage in activities that develop pre writing skills - particularly those that show less inclination or less ability.
Research has shown that children who are reluctant to draw - often boys - can be encouraged through play, large mark making and drawing, both indoors and outside. Make sure to provide continuous provision for drawing , accessible across various areas of learning.
If children (again particularly boys) see an activity as play it increases motivation and willingness to engage. If possible make drawing and writing a part of everyday play.
“Drawing and play should be preparatory stages in the development of children's written language” Vygotsky
Remember that research is showing that it is the actual act of writing - pencil on paper - that gets the brain working.
There are certain pre writing strokes which will help to build a child’s readiness for forming letters.
These incorporate all the shapes and lines that children need to practice before they start formal writing.
Rebecca Sherry Glennon
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