Margaret Mallett says non-fiction is becoming as traditional story telling in the early years
The first words that children see usually give them information - the "way out" sign glimpsed over a parent's shoulder, the street name they notice from their pushchair and the advertising hoarding seen from a car seat. At home, too, young children see the written word used in strong contexts to inform and communicate, such as writing on food and drink packaging, names on greetings cards and labels and titles used in their television programmes.
Many early books - in both print and electronic forms - aim to inform, and the best do so in an entertaining way. As well as alphabet, number and concept books, there are information "stories" for the under 6s - examples here are "experience" books about familiar activities and "life cycle" books about a creature or plant. These celebrate the visual world of the modern child and can be playfully interactive, using pop-ups and flaps.
Until recently, only authors of children's fiction were familiar in school.
Now the best writers of children's non-fiction are also becoming known.
After reviewing hundreds of information books for very young children, I am convinced that writing a good one is a considerable challenge. Information picturebooks of the quality of Ruth Brown's Ten Seeds, Meredith Hooper's River Story and Malachy Doyle and Angelo Rinaldi's Cow (illustrated here) are rare and as worth sharing as a story. (All three titles have been winners of The English Association's English 4-11 Picture Book Award.) They each have the potential to enliven and extend the sort of themes - colour, living things, water, countryside - around which much early work is developed.
Their contribution to literacy is to help children begin to order and understand the things and the people in their expanding world in an enjoyable way. And children draw on their experience of these early texts and on the words they encounter in their environment as they begin to write.
Like reading, writing helps children order and organise their experience.
Two early learning goals put it in a nutshell: we need to help children write their own names, labels, captions and simple sentences and to write for different purposes. But it is the practitioner in the nursery and reception class who plans the contexts to help children reach out creatively to the principles of written language.
In a recent small-scale classroom-based study, I found much of the liveliest writing arose when teachers built their learning programme round three early years principles.
First, children under six are lively and active, so writing arises best from role play and practical activities where it serves a purpose they can understand. I saw five-year-olds in the home area of different classrooms absorbed in making rotas for their "firefighters' office", notices for the "baby clinic" and letters for the "Post Office". Outdoor play can also provide excellent opportunities for different kinds of writing. Boys particularly enjoy making notices, labels and till receipts for "builders'
yards", "plant nurseries" and "garages". Several teachers remarked that boys often integrated drawings and diagrams in their writing in creative ways - something that we may not always have reinforced and appreciated. We must remember that in our increasingly visual and multimedia culture we should reinforce both boys and girls in using the computer - for example, to make notices and posters to extend their role play.
Second, children are social creatures and enjoy collaborating with others.
Four-year-olds who had been helped to set up a "cafe" as part of a project on food enjoyed creating menus and notices together. There was much purposeful chat and this sort of shared activity reinforces the understanding that writing arises from a social need. Their writing helped these four-year-olds control the world they had created in the cafe.
Third, the right sort of teacher mediation is needed. Sometimes this might mean introducing a text at just the right point in role play or practical work. A child in a class enjoying a project on how living things, including young human beings, grow, brought in a Mothercare catalogue which the children used inventively in their role play and their attempts to write.
One of the things I noticed most during my classroom visits was how often a story was used to support factual learning. One teacher read Lisa Bruce and Rosalind Beardshaw's book Fran's Flowers during practical work on seeds, because "it helps children appreciate how much patience it takes to nurture plants and encourages them not to give in too easily". Using the book as inspiration, the children created their own written and illustrated records of the growth of their plants.
When it comes to supporting writing there is sometimes a case for "modelling" the different kinds. But as a reception teacher pointed out to me: "Sometimes we need to hold back and let the children create their own writing."
Those of us who teach older primary children can learn much from our early years colleagues. They know, for instance, that lively writing arises best from sustained activities in which children have much interest, even passion, invested.
Luckily, the thematic approach long central to best early years practice is compatible with official requirements. If projects are imaginatively planned and resourced, they provide an exciting setting for all kinds of writing. This includes writing to help children organise their world - naming, labelling, annotating, listing and summarising. Writing to communicate with others - posters, letters, notices and emails - is also important.
"Writing needs stamina, doesn't it?" commented a parent who was also a teacher. And children are most likely to muster and develop this "stamina" if they see the point of a writing task - how it fits in with their need and interest at a particular time. Children who have been helped to use writing and a variety of reading materials to enrich their role play, practical work and forays into the environment are more likely later on to understand the ways in which language can be organised under genres or types. If you grasp the social purposes of writing, you come to understand it and value it in a more profound way.
We cannot make writing easy for young children, but we can try to make it meaningful and, above all, enjoyable.
Margaret Mallett is visiting tutor in primary English at Goldsmiths College, London University. Her book Early Years Non-fiction: A Guide to Helping Young Researchers Use and Enjoy Information Texts (RoutledgeFalmer)