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Letters from home

Kathryn Kohl describes how she encouraged her reception classes to write by building on what they already knew

Four and five-year-olds in my reception classes have impressed me with their knowledge of language. So when the mother of a five-year-old boy told me, "You won't believe this, but my son has been writing a novel", I answered honestly, "Oh yes, I do believe it."

Children who arrive at school already have a history as readers and writers, so when I began working as a reception teacher, I was keen to make my classroom open to their out-of-school literacy experiences.

There were two problems. First, I found most children were reluctant to write independently at the "work table" in spite of their confidence in doing so in play areas. Second, I could not see a practical way to receive detailed information from parents about their children's writing and reading activities at home.

In 1991 I conducted, through Sheffield University, a study into the literacy experiences of 18 children making the transition from home to full-time schooling at a school in the north of England. I met children whose home literacy activities demonstrated highly personal blends of independence, real-life activities and social interaction. Their parents were interested and involved in helping them learn to read and write, but seldom by direct teaching. Instead, they read to their children, provided paper, pencils and crayons and gave them the chance to participate in real, everyday literacy events such as making shopping lists, going to the library to choose books, or writing a birthday card.

These vignettes were collected in the months before the children started reception class: u Rachel, aged four years and five months, routinely woke up early and fetched her 18-month-old sister's bottle before returning to bed in their shared room. There she would "teach Harriet to read" by sharing picture books and having Harriet point to the words. Using their alphabet chart, the girls would practise one letter at a time, with Harriet repeating after Rachel.

u Danny, aged four years and four months, got a new desk for Christmas. His father suggested he write a list of places he would like to visit in the holiday. Danny listed four places with his father's help, and over the next few days he returned to his desk to extend the list on his own.

u Tom, aged four years and five months, was crazy about the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. He made a Turtles board game with five small cards on which he wrote Tom, D, L, R, and M (the turtles' initials). He then played the game with his parents according to his rules.

When the children went to school, teacher-directed activities seldom allowed them to use their personal literacy strategies, though they continued to develop them at home. These strategies included dictating to an adult (the main option at school), but also copying writing from parents, siblings, friends and print in the environment (toys, clothes, books, cereal boxes); making marks or pretend writing; writing their name or letters from it; writing letter and number shapes; "collecting" favourite words; and invented spellings (guessing at phonetic approximations of words). I learned of these achievements by asking parents to make notes about their children's literacy experiences and to save drawings and writings to share with me on fortnightly home visits.

Later, in my own reception class, I pressed on, encouraging children to "write any way you like", praising their achievements at whatever level, and using their emergent writing as a springboard for talk about language. In addition to maintaining play areas saturated with literacy materials (offices, cafes, travel agents), I gave each child an exercise book which I titled "Writing All By Myself" to use during free time, and set up a chalkboard and an easel with paper and crayons. We made books for the story corner, and I made sure paper and pencils were available for more and more activities.

But writing as a "work" activity remained a problem. Children still seemed inhibited when it came to "work", though I routinely saw their rich, "emergent writing" (children's developing forms of writing) at the end of the day when I re-stocked the play areas.

Then last year I tried something new, and finally things took off. I began to use a two-page system in writing books. Children wrote independently on one side (from making marks, or just writing their name, to more sophisticated invented spellings), and on the facing page I helped them by writing their dictated news or story. I made notes about strategies used and, of course, praised their efforts. At first, children were hesitant, so I talked to the whole class about the different kinds of writing they might do, asking them for suggestions and making a list. Was it really OK to do "scribble writing" in their writing books? We agreed it was, as one of a range of strategies.

I created a writer's chair where children sat to read the class things they had written in the play area, at the book-making table, or writing books, and we looked at both pages. We made a display of environmental print, the children bringing in sweet wrappers and food boxes from home to copy. We also turned a large display board into a permanent but evolving display entitled "We Have Been Busy Writing and Drawing at Home".

It was clear that children possessed varying degrees of competence and awareness of sound-letter relations. I recalled children's writing researcher Donald Graves's finding that children could take control of their own writing, rather than relying on adult models, when they knew about six consonants. So we began to use an old-fashioned "sounds table" - introducing a consonant every two weeks or so - to support our writing work.

The children began to lose their inhibitions, so I gained a truer picture of their capabilities. I devoted time at our termly talk for new parents to explaining how I worked and why, showing them examples from the play areas and writing books to demonstrate the range and evolution of children's emergent writing, as well as their assisted writing on the facing page. I said, "I know they're writing at home. Bring it in! Tell me about it, and ask questions if you're worried your child isn't making progress." But parents had access to their children's writing books, and I believe most of them could see the confidence increasing as children took control of their own writing.

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