Supporting Your Child’s Explosion into Writing – without worksheets or “academics”

Dylan’s explosion into writing was an exciting thing to behold. I had trusted that one day he would discover it for himself, so he would have the joy of realising he could write. As with everything else, like self-feeding or toileting,  the child deserved to own the achievement of writing, not me.

Monotype printing inspired by Eric Carle illustrations

Shortly after his fourth birthday it happened. I didn’t do any academics, worksheets or drilling of spelling with him. I merely prepared a literacy-rich environment, put art and writing tools at his disposal…. and waited.

You may get a hint or two that the child is on the cusp of a writing explosion, like when you observe that instead of polishing a vase, he is actually making little squiggles with his finger, or when his drawing becomes more representational.

Cotton buds on paint-covered transparency. You can distinguish the 2.5yo’s process art and the 4yo’s representational drawing of a house.

Otherwise, it really is an “explosion” in the sense that it is sudden and monumental.

I am trying to avoid sandpaper letters or anything else that Dylan might encounter in his Montessori school, so this was how I supported his explosion into writing:

1. A prepared environment for art

Anecdotally, my friends and I have found that shortly after introducing a writing/ art corner, the children have become avid writers with no other prompting from us.

A very popular work on our shelves is block printing. I have acrylic paint in a bottle with a flip-top lid for Dylan to control how much paint to pour out, sponge roller and stamps I cut out from a cardboard box.

Dylan recognised his name on the stamp (which was in mirror image) but asked, “why is it not the right way?” He found the answer himself:

Right way up and upside-down… so many concepts in writing that we don’t think twice about but the child has to grapple with.

The child may choose to erase or cover over his writing. That is ok. In fact, Montessori classrooms start by offering chalkboards and sand trays so mistakes can be erased and repeated without any pressure to “write right”

2. Working and writing alongside them

Robert Frost once said, “I am not a teacher but an awakener”. 

Resist painting with candle and watercolors

One thing that awakens their interest is when you do it yourself, modelling concentration and conscientiousness.

Drafting my floor plans for my interior design course while the children do resist painting

And after all this waiting patiently for the child to explode into writing, strike when the iron is hot. When the right material is introduced at just the right time, the absorbent mind of the child soaks it up. Something that would be considered “rote” if introduced earlier, is now perfect as the child is able to connect the letter sound to the letter symbol, which leads me to…

3. Some tactile ideas for learning how to write one’s name (bonus: they only take a few minutes to set up)

I started with the child’s name, because of the many opportunities (and thus successes) he would have to write this word, like signing off on cards or artwork.

Matching movable alphabet  to liquid chalk letters (why cursive, here). A rare instance where those alphabet fridge magnets might actually be better as you could capitalise the first letter of the child’s name and have the rest in lower case.

Think those tricolor pencils are fun? 

Image source: Getty Store

How about ten colors….

Or a Reggio-style invitation to write, with different media such as tikam-tikam (a Singaporean childhood game involving tiny plastic animals), ribbon, Stockmar modelling beeswax and glitter glue. Other malleable items you could use in place of beeswax: Wikki Stix, chenille wires, edible dough.

4. Environmental Print 

Montessori has a bottom-up approach to writing, where the specific sounds (phonemes) in each word are isolated, and consolidated through sound games, etc. (There seems to be a misconception that parents have to “push” a child into phonemic recognition. Click here for an excellent explanation of why Mars of Montessori on Mars waited for her child to discover phonemes.)

Outside of Montessori, there is also a whole language approach to writing, which is a top-down approach where children pick up entire words from their environment. Conflicting research exists on whether it is sufficient to just provide a print-rich environment without any further guidance, so I myself am still undecided on my home approach and winging it as I go.  We had been sensitising the children to road signs, and also pointing to words as we read storybooks. On our walks and bus rides, Dylan had also started recognising whole words like “Ocado” (grocery delivery app) and “hotel” from environmental print like street signs and advertisements.

Thus, I put together an Environmental Print Bingo featuring 20 brands/ institutions in the UK. Because Montessori breaks down words into phonemic sounds, I tried to avoid brands whose names were pronounced as letters, like H&M and AMI (sorry, heh). To my surprise Dylan recognised half of them before I went through them, and all of them on his first try. Click to download the free printable here.

5. Language acquisition is organic and authentic. Writing should be, too.

As alluded to in Point 2, nothing sparks off the child’s interest in writing more than seeing how writing is useful and applicable in daily contexts, for instance making a grocery list or putting a post-it reminder on the fridge (as opposed to say, labelling every shelf in your house).

Mail centre. Postcards, envelopes, stamps and a single pencil.

Therefore, I have been trying to write instead of type, such as penning a postcard instead of an email. For how will they learn to write beautifully unless they see examples of beautiful handwriting?

Handwritten books about our daily lives, dictated by my children and transcribed by me

For more:

Why I Make Things By Hand
A Montessori Art Space
Tips from AMI parenting course: the home is the child’s first learning space

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