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Help young writers to bloom

From early mark-making to first words, children's writing is like a tender plant that needs care, writes Penny Tassoni

Watching a young child's early writing develop in pre-school is a magical experience. It is a bit like gardening. Careful preparation and nurturing brings spectacular results but, like the best gardeners, we have to learn to be patient.

Children begin their writing through making marks in their drawings or pretending to write. This is a lovely stage to watch. Like seeds that need water, children in this stage simply need opportunities to use pens, pencils or paint and to see adults around them writing.

Interestingly, this earliest stage of mark-making is sometimes dismissed as being "just scribble" while in reality it is the equivalent to seeds putting down their first roots.

In this stage, children are experimenting with pencil grip and learning how to control their hand movements. They are also developing the desire and confidence to write, which is an essential part of learning to be a writer.

Like different varieties of plants, children's writing grows at different rates. The first interest in mark-making can happen before a child reaches his or her second birthday, while for others it will not be a preferred activity until they are three or four.

The next step can be seen as the development of "first shoots". Just as we may not notice the beginnings of a plant's first shoot, in the case of children, we may initially miss some consistency in the way that they begin to form letter shapes. From rather random-looking mark-making, gradually appears strings of vertical and round shapes that increasingly begin to look like recognisable letters.

We can help children reach this stage by letting them see us write and by having plenty of print in the environment that has some meaning for them.

Name cards, magnetic letters, labels on equipment and even staff badges can all help children to notice the shape of letters.

Writing is often part of children's play, so plenty of mark-making materials should be available in areas where children play, including outside.

It is often in this stage that adults can come under pressure to intervene and to "hothouse" children's writing by trying tracing and doing worksheets. The danger of doing this when children may be only three or four years old is that their confidence can be damaged and, instead of promoting sturdy growth, children may become overly concerned about their writing and so produce less.

While letter formation is important, maybe the secret at this stage is to put in some background fertiliser. Playing with scarves, ribbons and tinsel, encouraging children to make anti-clockwise and vertical movements in the air, can give them the feel of how to produce letters without feeling under pressure to be accurate.

The next significant step comes when children begin to write their first word. Quite often this is their name because it has real meaning for them and the letter shapes have been visually absorbed. For many children, this happens when they are four, while other children may need longer.

Again, adults need to be patient at this stage. Just because a child can manage his or her name does not mean that every other word produced will be recognisable. The link between reading and writing means that until children are reading, they will find it hard to conjure up complete words.

This is a critical time for children, because if they come under pressure to write "properly" they will often associate writing with judgments and fear of failure. While this approach may produce some early flowering, the growth will not be sustainable. Far better to encourage children to expand their root system by making writing part of the play experience.

Introducing letter boxes, imaginary pen pals and writing back to children will support them as the writing buds begin to open. This approach, although slower, means that when the flowering season begins it will be perpetual.

Penny Tassoni, an education consultant, trainer and author, talks about Developing Children's Early Writing Skills at 1.30pm, November 14 HINTS AND TIPS

* Provide plenty of props to stimulate writing, for example, pens, pencils, paper, forms, diaries, envelopes.

* Provide a meaningful, print-rich environment and draw children's attention to words.

* Model writing by writing letters, notes and form filling yourself.

* Write back to children and pop messages in unexpected places.

* Encourage children to make anti-clockwise circles and vertical lines using gross motor movements, for example, painting with large brushes, moving scarves to music.

* Look for activities that will strengthen fine manipulative skills, for example, cutting dough with scissors.

* Avoid over zealous pruning by correcting children's work or passing judgment.

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