Early Years · Language and literacy skills · Skills for school

Early Spelling and Writing

As with all aspects of development, most children will come to spelling and writing at different stages (more on pre-writing here). In countries where formal academic education begins later, children will likely have developed their hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills through self-selected play and craft activities such as LEGO, small world toys, play-doh, cutting and sticking, and use of chalks and crayons. In countries where the educational system expects pupils to have pencil skills adequate for writing by the age of 5, teachers can find themselves having to plan and run parallel production lines in clay work and letter recognition/formation (or making letters from clay, which may be more appropriate than writing, but still takes much of the fun and creativity out of a craft activity).

As previously discussed, in the past, it was often the case that delayed literacy development was given the ‘wait and see’ treatment, with pupils only receiving support after reaching secondary school. With increased focus on early, measurable literacy attainment over past decades, teachers and parents are only too aware when expected standards are not met. What is perhaps surprising, is the inconsistency in response to this across Britain, with some Local Authorities routinely screening all pupils for risk of learning difficulties at the end of Reception Year (e.g. Hampshire), and others only considering assessment for specific learning difficulties following transition to secondary school (e.g. Durham).

Early writing, approx ages 4- 6

Early writing from Emma (aged 3-4)

Over the first years of writing, children typically develop a growing knowledge of letter-sound (grapheme-phoneme) correspondence, that is, they begin to use the letters they know to make representations in writing. For some, their first efforts will be around age 5, in Reception Year (UK school system), for others, this may begin as early as age 3, though this would be most likely in a nursery setting with significant phonics input, and there is no compelling evidence to suggest that such early compulsory exposure to formal literacy instruction is beneficial. Dr Angela Webb (National Handwriting Association) suggests that children are ready to start writing at the point when they are able to write/draw the diagonally crossed strokes required for the letter ‘x’, typically around age 5. At this stage, children may regularly omit letters or whole syllables from words, letters will not yet be evenly formed, but gradually, a bank of high frequency words begins to grow that can be written from memory.

Consolidation of phonetic/alphabetic stage up to approx age 7

James '04
Next stage writing from James (aged 5-6)

As writing develops, more words are spelt correctly, and others are phonetically plausible. Letters are mostly lower case, with some reversals and the occasional use of capitals mid-sentence or mid-word. Words may not always be separated from one another, or there may be spaces within words. Letter formation is still developing.

Early signs of learning difficulties

Always bear in mind the following:

  • Children are all individual and develop at different rates with different strengths and needs
  • A single observation is only a snapshot: a detailed history is needed to sufficiently inform practice/intervention etc.

In addition to those mentioned before possible signs include:

  • inconsistent memory of letters and sounds
  • inconsistent memory of high frequency words
  • difficulties with pencil control and remembering starting points, shape and orientation of letters
  • difficulty/reluctance to record independently

The presence or absence of any of these indicators should not be taken as confirmation either way.

A few ideas for classroom/home support

  • Don’t stop the creative ‘early years’ activities – multisensory input can be vital, and can be developed to suit any age/stage of development.
  • Make sure that there are clear routines and explicit, stepped and/or illustrated instructions for all tasks, especially new or more complex activities.
  • Provide opportunities for a variety of recording methods, including voice recording and other uses of technology or more simply dictation to a peer or adult ‘secretary’
  • Minimise unnecessary copying by e.g. providing handouts, using a date stamp, sticking titles etc. into books

And, most importantly:

  • Value all contributions

Many so-called ‘intervention’ techniques can be employed in the everyday mainstream classroom and will support all learners, including those whose difficulties in that lesson may be due to any number of reasons such as their mood or health on the day in question, or schooling missed due to e.g. long term illness, or English as an additional language. Always be familiar with available pupil information so that the most appropriate help can be given, but there is no need to wait for a diagnosis, in fact, it would be wrong to wait before employing simple strategies that can promote independence in pupils for whom the tasks come easily, and give teaching staff more time to support those who need it.

This article is based on lectures presented online and to undergraduate students.

More blogs on reading and writing can be found here:
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