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J Is for Jamal: The Teacher's Role in Supporting Young Children's Writing
By Leslie Ross-Degnan, M.Ed.

Writing Situation #1

Mira’s teacher holds the squares of paper for her as she uses both hands to staple them together. On each page she has drawn a picture. “This book is about my fish,” she tells her teacher.

 

Miss Sylvia asks, “Would you like me to help you with some writing?” Mira nods. “This book will need a title, an author, and an illustrator. What’s the title?”

 

“Write MY FISH!” Mira points to a place on the front cover.“

 

And who wrote and illustrated this book?” asks Miss Sylvia.

 

“ME!” replies an enthusiastic Mira.

 

“I think you can write your own name Mira.” The teacher passes the marker and the book to Mira who is beginning to learn how to write her name.

 

Writing Situation #2

Rachel comes to the writing center and picks up a small clipboard with paper and pencil attached. She turns briskly towards the teacher and asks, “What do you want to eat? I’m taking orders.” Her teacher replies, “I’d like spaghetti and meatballs please.”

 

With the gestures of a busy waitress, Rachel pretends to write the order on her clipboard, starting at the left and moving to the right, in a long wavy line. Still writing, she returns to her small customers sitting in the restaurant.

 

Writing Situation #3

The teacher sits next to Jamal at the writing center. He is hunched over his paper, tongue sticking out in concentration as he carefully writes the letter J over and over again. Without interrupting him, the teacher pulls an index box forward, finds Jamal’s name card and places it next to his paper. When he is finished writing she points to the name card, and asks, “Whose name is this?” “That’s MY name!”

 

All of the children mentioned in the situations on the previous page are engaged in meaningful writing experiences. Whether it’s Rachel’s playful imitation of a waitress taking orders, or the concentrated effort of Jamal and Mira to form real letters, the teacher plays a supportive role.

 

The Teacher’s Role in Supporting Writing in the Early Childhood Classroom

The roles of the early childhood teacher are key to developing and sustaining children’s interest in writing. In fact it’s helpful to think of them in a rotating cycle of three major roles: provider, observer, and participant.

 

Teacher as Provider

Teacher-as-provider sets the stage for writing by organizing a writing center that is attractive to the children. Knowing that different materials encourage writing for different purposes, a teacher can provide a wide variety of paper, markers, and other useful tools that invite children to creatively explore writing. Rachel’s use of the clipboard demonstrates one way that writing can be an integral and portable part of children’s play. Having the materials easily accessible and well organized encourages independence in their use. Novel materials such as old manual typewriters or wipe boards also add to the attraction. To sustain interest in these materials, introduce them over time instead of all at once. Dwindling supplies can be replenished as needed.

 

Teacher as Observer

Teacher-as-observer takes careful note of the children’s use of these materials. Observation helps to gain an understanding of the current concepts and ideas children have about writing. Teachers are often amazed at how much children already know about the conventions of print. Rachel’s clipboard writing shows that she knows about print starting from the top of the page and ending at bottom of the page and that writing progresses from left to right. Though she never wrote a real word, her pretend writing behavior reveals her beginning understanding of the ways print works. To support this writing behavior, the teacher-as-observer looks for opportunities for children to use writing in purposeful ways. The following situation involves a teacher watching two children playing bus driver.

 

Child 1: “We need tickets to get on the bus.”

Child 2: “Teacher can we have some tickets?”

Teacher: “I don’t have any tickets. Maybe you could make some.”

Child 1:“Yeah! Let’s make tickets.”

 

Through her observation the teacher has made writing a meaningful part of play. The children head to the writing center eager to get started. Because it is well organized and conveniently located, they know exactly where to go for the needed supplies.

 

Teacher as Participator

The teacher-as-participator joins in the children’s play to extend it and assist in some problem-solving. Looking for ways to further integrate writing into their play, the teacher asks about the cost of the tickets to encourage number writing. She wonders out loud about how she will know which bus to take, guiding the children’s thinking toward making a destination sign for the bus. She might even pretend to get on the bus and discover that she’s on the wrong bus! What should she do now?

 

Bringing It All Together: Teacher as Provider, Observer, and Participator

The roles of teacher as provider, observer, and participator are cyclical and interactive. Instead of beginning with the teacher as provider of materials, the cycle can begin as the result of an observation. After watching Jamal write, the teacher decides to read a book to a small group of children, choosing one that repeats a particular word: “Jump.” As the teacher anticipated, Jamal becomes excited because he recognizes a letter from his name. He stands up and points to the word “Jump.”

 

Jamal: “That’s my name.”

Teacher: “This word says: Jump. But the beginning part of it sounds the same as your name. J---jump. J---Jamal.

Jamal: “J is for Jamal.”

Teacher: “That’s right. Jump and Jamal begin with the same sound! Who else has a name that sounds like J?”

 

Being able to recognize a letter or a word motivates a child to write, and the letters in their name are often the first ones they recognize. An interaction such as this planned book reading may have provided the motivation for a child to write the first letter of his name over and over again. It might also help to clear a common misconception of early readers that any word beginning with the first letter of their name, spells their name. The teacher is not requiring that children practice writing their names. Instead, she is providing the context and motivation for them to do so on their own, and supporting their efforts.

 

Conclusion

“Learning to write is a very long journey that begins in childhood” (Schickedanz, 1999). Before children can begin to string letters together to make words, they have much to learn. This learning begins to emerge in the early childhood classroom with the imitation of writing behaviors. Most children learn about writing through playing at writing. They need the tools and materials of writers as well as the gentle guidance of teachers to learn the usefulness of writing. The teacher’s active and ongoing roles as provider, observer, and participator are critical to ensure the child’s continued involvement and interest in writing with purpose and joy.

 

Leslie Ross-Degnan, M.Ed., is a senior associate at Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) in Newton, MA. Through the Center for Children and Families she has worked as a lead instructor for the Excellence in Teaching courses in Emergent Literacy. She also conducts curriculum seminars and workshops to Head Start programs in the New England region.

 

Resources

Literacy Environment Enrichment Program, LEEP (2001). Newton, MA: Education Development Center.

 

Neuman, S.B., Copple C., & Bredekamp, S. (2000). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

 

Schickedanz, J.A. (1999). Much more than ABC’s: The early stages of reading and writing. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

 

Weitzman, E. (1992). Learning language and loving it. Toronto: Hanen Center.

 

Materials to Include in the Writing Center

·        Large and small clipboards with pencil and paper firmly attached

 

·        Rectangular plastic baskets with paper and markers

 

·        Manual typewriters and lots of recycled paper

 

·        A mailbox, envelopes, stationary, and stamps/stickers

 

·        Post-it notes of different sizes and colors

 

·        Number and alphabet stamps and stamp pads

 

·        Stapler, scissors, hole punch, string, and tape

 

·        Small wipe boards and markers

 

·        Blank books or small notebooks

 

·        Blank index cards

 

More Teacher Roles that Encourage Writing*

·        Stay current in your knowledge of developmentally appropriate practice for teaching reading and writing to young children.

 

·        Model writing for different purposes throughout the classroom.

 

·        Take dictation frequently. It creates a bridge between the spoken word and the printed word for children.

 

·        Think out loud about print conventions when taking dictation.

 

·        Be responsive to children’s attempts at writing independently.

 

·        Celebrate all efforts at writing. Post writing samples at child’s eye level and talk about them.

 

·        Be available at the writing center on a regular basis to observe, replenish supplies, or assist children when needed.

 

·        Read and discuss children’s dictated stories back to them. These conversations help them to clarify their thoughts and ideas.

 

·        Integrate writing into the children’s play.

 

·        Use child-made classroom signs and labels whenever possible.

 

·        Draw attention to language and engage in frequent word play with rhymes, chants, and fingerplay.

 

·        Provide time and space for children to act out familiar stories as well as stories they have written themselves.

 

·        Remember that the development of writing is a lifelong process and young children are just at the beginning. Be realistic in what you expect from them.

 

*Suggestions adapted from Weitzman (1992) and the LEEP Project (2001).