Early Years · Language and literacy skills · Skills for school

Pre-writing and early literacy skills

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From around the age of 3 children begin to ‘map’ symbols to meaning, so they may e.g. recognise prominent high street signs such as the golden arches. They start to know that print conveys meaning and might ask for it to be read, or for words to be written. Over time, their mark-making begins to resemble letters, perhaps those in their own name.

At home or school, some will prefer toys or other creative activities, and when they are ready, children may draw pictures or make marks with intended meaning. They may narrate their intentions as or before they mark, or later explain what they meant to convey.


With thanks and apologies to my own children, whose early drawings and writing I borrow to illustrate my points. They are a source of wonder to me and I learn from them daily.

20th Century Methods

In the past, when children did not respond to classroom teaching techniques two of the common reactions were:

  1. “Wait and see” – an assumption was made that children would get there in their own time. Many would, and in a less fast-paced environment and without the pressure of ongoing formal assessment, there would likely be no damage to self-esteem for those who caught up later.
  2. When the catching up didn’t happen, and perhaps in preparation for the now long gone (and hopefully not soon to be reintroduced) 11+ testing that pupils sat before moving on to secondary education, some ‘remedial’ teaching might be sought. If that worked, all well and good, and many continued through compulsory education (almost) unscathed. This is not the forum to discuss what happened when things did not fall into place.

What has changed?

Many parents (and certainly grandparents) educated in British schools will have received discrete instruction in reading, under the assumption that writing would come ‘naturally’ as a result. Certainly, the teaching of reading took precedence over that of writing (Wyse and Jones, 2013).  In recent decades, thankfully, the relationship between speaking, listening, reading and writing has become better understood (Shanahan, 2006), and it is now recognised that the skills and knowledge underpinning writing can also support improved reading (Graham and Herbert, 2010).

The explicit teaching of writing and spelling occurs most frequently in early years of primary school, when phonics activities feature daily (Dockrell, Marshall and Wyse, 2016). At this stage, children’s still developing fine motor and executive function skills can mean they are not yet ready to master these tasks, so it’s essential to move at the learners’ pace, and to be aware of the stages children will likely pass through, and to recognise indications that more support is needed.


It’s important to always keep in mind that children all develop differently, and to avoid comparing them with classmates who may be almost a year older. Certain signs could indicate a need, but may pass with time and/or support. It is vital to be aware of the pupil’s history before considering a learning difficulty, for example, delays can be the result of missed opportunities due to illness. Nevertheless, if one or more of these indicators coincides with other difficulties in the classroom and at home, parents may choose to seek referral for assessment and possible therapy:

  • Immature speech for age not school year, including sound production and/or spoken sentence structure (Speech and Language Therapist, Audiology)
  • Poor aural comprehension and/or attention for age (Speech and Language Therapist, Audiology)
  • Difficulties with fine motor control for age, e.g. manipulating malleable materials, construction toys, mark making/art & craft activities (Occupational Therapy)

These are just three of the more common signs of learning difficulties that may be observed in an early years environment. 

What can we do to help?

Diagnosis of a particular need is, of course, helpful when planning support, but there is no need to wait for diagnosis before implementing strategies that can support literacy learning in the early years. These can be practised at home and school, and can benefit all pupils. Examples include:

  • Plenty of speaking and listening, where pupils can see the speaker’s face and watch for reaction to what they have said themselves. There are lots of fantastic small group and whole class activities in I Can’s Talk Boost programme.
  • Singing and chanting rhymes and alliterative ditties, with varied pitch and volume
  • Opportunities for a wide range of non-threatening mark-making on paper/whiteboard/blackboard/playground, in sand/dough, with crayons/chalk/water. The variations are almost limitless.
  • Clear routines and explicit instruction for all tasks – remember that working memory problems will impact on learners’ ability to follow instructions

Some of these support needs and techniques will be applicable to children who have English as an additional language, but I will write about that separately.

This post is related to lectures designed and delivered to undergraduates studying a module on inclusive practice in early years and to online training sessions forming part of a BDA accredited learning support assistant online training programme.

A collection of posts and infographics related to supporting children’s early academic and physical development can be found here.
More blogs on reading and writing can be found here.
More posts related to early years are here.
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Dockrell, J. Marshall, C. and Wyse, D. (2016) ‘Teachers’ reported practices for teaching writing in England’, Reading and Writing 29 (3) pp.409-434 [Online]. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11145-015-9605-9 (Accessed 4 July 2016)

Graham, S. and Herbert, M. (2010) Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report Washington DC: Alliance for Excellent Education [Online]. Available at: https://www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/9d/e2/9de20604-a055-42da-bc00-77da949b29d7/ccny_report_2010_writing.pdf  (Accessed 29 June 2016)

Shanahan, T. (2006) ‘Relations among Oral Language, Reading and Writing Development’ pp.171-183 in MacArthur C. and Graham, S. (ed.) Handbook of Writing Research. New York: The Guildford Press

Wyse, D. and Jones, R. (2013) Teaching English, Language and Literacy. London: RoutledgeFalmer

2 thoughts on “Pre-writing and early literacy skills

  1. Excellent collection of information! Children definitely learn to read at their own pace and need individual supports regardless of any diagnoses. For instance I teach a 3rd grader who just now has begun to read on grade level. All he needed was patience and the appropriate help.

    Liked by 1 person

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