Supporting Early Writing in Centers: The Why and The How

If you are an elementary school administrator, you likely have the goal for your students to be reading at grade 3. And, if you have a PreK classroom in your school (or feeding into your school) you want these children getting ample exposure to reading—including book reading at home and school!

But, how intently are you focused on your PreK students doing early writing at age 4?

girl writing
Source: iStock/Liderina

Research tells us that it’s critical for children not to just get exposure to reading in PreK, but to start to learn writing as well.

“It’s really essential to teach early writing in preschool because it’s one of the top predictors of children’s later reading ability,” says literacy expert Dr. Sonia Cabell. (You may remember her from our October 2017 blog: Literacy: Fact or Fiction!)

How can this be?

Writing integrates children’s knowledge of both print and sound. Having children engaged in early writing facilitates literacy learning in print knowledge and phonological awareness. The more opportunities children have to write, the more they learn about print and sound and how to use those together to form words! This, in turn, also helps children read.

How children’s writing develops: The early writing framework

Just as children progress through stages of learning with math and reading, early writing follows a trajectory. When teachers can accurately assess where children are (overall, and child-specifically), they can meet children where they are and take them to the next level.

The Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite (full of free resources you’ll access at the end of this post!) delves into this trajectory, but essentially, there are 4 stages of writing in what is called the “Early Writing Framework.”

Early Writing Framework
Source: UVA-CASTL 2018

At stage 1, children are drawing and scribbling

At stage 2, children can write letters and letter-like forms. Letters don’t yet represent the sounds, but letters can be used to write words and even sentences.

Stage 3, salient and beginning sounds, is a critical milestone because children are putting together their knowledge of print and sound (representing sounds in words that are prominent).

At stage 4, beginning and ending sounds, children use multiple related letters to represent a word (but often miss the middle vowel sound) and their writing starts to look more conventional (as K/1 writing might).

Teachers of young children often see children at stages 1 and 2. The Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite goes into more detail about helping them move to the next level.

4 practices to support children’s writing in centers

A benefit of learning through play in centers (and games, like the math games shared last month) is that they draw on children’s natural interest in play.

A critical ingredient in rigorous center-based learning is the teacher.

It takes a teacher assessing where children’s writing skills lie and using the appropriate, content-specific instructional skills to make the learning fun, meaningful, and challenging.

Let’s watch a teacher promoting children’s writing during centers [0:47] (one of the video clips embedded in the suite presentation.)

As you watch, notice:

  • What practices do you see the teacher doing?
  • Why are children writing?
  • What might be the benefits of instructing through play in this manner?


Four practices to look for when you observe teachers supporting early writing:

#1) Teachers writing what children say

When teachers talk with children about their work, teachers can ask children permission to write about their work, either on or near it. Then teachers should say the words out loud as they write them. Teachers can encourage children to point to the words and read them aloud after or with, if ready.

#2) Teachers modeling writing

As teachers write, they say things like, “I am writing,” or “I am writing a word” and say each letter as they write it. This helps children begin to recognize that print carries meaning and that you can represent the words you say and hear with written symbols.

#3) Teachers encouraging writing for varied purposes like: making lists, signing in, writing stories or letters, and taking an order.

#4) Teachers pointing out print & sounds in children’s writing

This strategy works best for those children who are at the end of stage 2 as they’re transitioning into stage 3.

What Can I Do? Supporting Teachers to Use these Strategies

The professional development resources sampled above and shared below can help you support teachers to build children’s early writing and literacy skills. Go to our Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite to view and download our complete set of free teacher training and support resources (developed by UVA-CASTL and VDOE using early childhood research), including:

  • PowerPoint presentation with embedded videos (including those shared above)
  • Action planning form for teachers to use during planning (with coach/supervisor support)
  • Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up observations by administrators/coaches
  • Handout on early writing, that includes information on the 4 stages of writing and 4 key practices
  • Other key resource from literacy experts: How Do I Write? Scaffolding Preschoolers’ Early Writing Skills, by (Cabell, Tortorelli, & Gerde, 2013)

In the coming months, we will share more resources (including one more PD suite) to continue our theme of teaching rigorous content to young children (including PreK-3rd graders) in a playful, developmentally appropriate way.

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