Use all the openings possible to encourage your children to express themselves through the written word, says Lynn Cousins.

Managing children’s writing is dependent on high-quality planning, assessment and evaluation. It is also about the way that young children learn. Theirs is still a world where practical experiences outweight theoretical thinking and they respond with the whole body as well as the mind. The life experiences of some may be limited, and their vocabulary and grammar under-developed. We need to keep this very much in mind.

What is writing?

It is a representational way of:

  • recording events in our lives
  • prompting us
  • informing others
  • recording our creative thoughts and the results of our imaginings

From a tally to show how many sacks the farmer sold over the day at market, to early drawings of the events of the battle of Hastings, man has always tried to represent the important elements of our lives.

Making links

Writing at this stage needs to be:

  • an inclusive part of the child’s play
  • based on real experiences
  • connected to other aspects of the curriculum.

Writing as an inclusive part of the child’s play

Most early years practitioners will assert the importance of play as being the best way for children to learn. The quality of play on offer to children will be affected by:

  • teachers’ assumptions
  • teachers’ roles in play activities
  • levels of classroom support. [Bennett and Kell (1989) p79]

It is relatively easy to provide the incentives to write within play:

  • lists, price tags and bills in the shop
  • letters, envelopes and postcards in the post office
  • diaries and appointment cards in the hospital
  • message pads by the telephones
  • birthday cards and invitations in the house.

It is more difficult to make sure that these are a part of the learning process. Be honest as you think about these questions:

  • Do you ever look at this play writing?
  • Do you assess what the children can or can’t do?
  • Do you know who writes in these situations and who never bothers?
  • Do you build on the skills the children have shown?

Involving the adults

Research shows that the adult presence ‘strikingly increases the richness and length of play’ (Bruner 1985). Sylva et al (1980) found that children in the age range 2.5 years to 5.5 years were ‘more likely to engage in complex play when in the company of adults who were interacting with them.’

Presenting new learning to the children through play

Towards the end of the Foundation Stage some practitioners may feel that a constraint to using play can be the demands of the literacy hour. But there is no reason why this should be. For example, when you want to introduce the children to writing lists, do this physically in the play shop that you have set up. Sit in there with the children, rather than in your usual ’round the teacher’s chair’ position. Talk about writing lists, what they look like, show them printed shopping list pads and let them see you complete one or two. Write some together. Then leave paper cut into strips in the shop for them to use the same way. Encourage children to add their name to the list  so that you can assess their efforts. An adult should be available to children in the shop to monitor what they are doing.

Using dramatic play to build the skills of story writing

‘Early dramatic play helps children to explore roles and themes, beginnings, endings, transitions, all of which are vital to the writing process.’ [Bruce 1987, p106]. But you can’t leave children to do their own thing in the house area and simply assume that they are learning anything to do with writing.

Have a focus on story making, reading and telling

  • Set up your role-play area so that it is quite spacious.
  • Put a table and chairs with writing materials half in/half out of this area, so that the children see a clear link between the two activities.
  • Get in there with the children retelling a story you have shared.
  • Remind them of how it started, how it ended.
  • Make up some alternative endings.

Create a new story to act out

  • Talk about characters, good and bad.
  • Think about where it will be set. Do we need to change the layout of the area?
  • Decide on a start that will let everyone know who’s who.
  • Talk about what exciting things might happen.
  • Let the children work out alternative events and then decide which was the most exciting.

What should the bad character wear so that we know he’s the bad one?

You have introduced the children to characters, themes, storylines, settings and so on. Now the children have a story of their own to write.

Writing based on real experiences

Bruner (cited in Bennett and Kell, ibid p80) said: ‘One of the most crucial ways in which culture provides aid in intellectual growth is through a dialogue between the more experienced and the less experienced.’

We can’t assume that the children we teach have had specific experiences. Some will never have seen the sea, or snow, or vitsited a zoo or a funfair. But we readily use these as themes around which to base our work. If we want children to write a poem about a snowy day or a description of the huge elephant we first of all need to provide them with some first-hand experience about these things.

Sharing experiences

Be prepared to abandon your planned activities the day that it snows, a hurricane happens or there is a frightening inident that directly affects your community. Prepare some plans for these unusual days or emergencies. Include stories and books and ideas for activities in different aspects of the curriculum.

Sharing an experience, or the aftermath of an experience, will:

  • generate much converstaion
  • develop vocabulary
  • allow the children to share their emotional response to something.

Out of this you may find opportunities for quality writing, writing that truly comes from the heart of the child.

Tactile experiences

If you want the children to describe something with more effective vocabulary let them handle it, smell it and, if appropriate, taste it. Feel the roughness of a pineapple or the smoothness of a soapstone sculpture. Generate the vocabulary needed for the writing, and help the children to assimilate those words into their personal vocabulary before you expect them to use them in their writing.

Start with a story

Take a well-known story as your theme for the weke and use it as a base for writing other stories. Many stories have a format which can easily be adapted by the children: stories such as Are You My Mother? or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, have strong structures which can be used for retelling the story in the first instance, and then for substituting with the children’s own ideas. Read other stories with a similar structure and point this out to the children. These approaches develop the children’s awareness of structure, drawing their attention to the way the story develops. They also provide a structure for them to use as a frame for their own writing. 

Developing oral language skills

‘We would hardly expect a child to do otherwise than to draw upon his speech resources when he wants to write.’ [Britton (1970) p165]

Children need to learn the skills of telling a story, recounting en event, constructing a report. They need time with adults to develop a story, for example, by telling the story in simple terms, organising the chronology, and then embellishing the parts. Questions such as the following are useful ways to encourage children to develop their story:

  • What would be a good way to start this off?
  • Can you think of a more interesting word?

Make story telling part of your plans for teaching writing.

Share and tell

When children take part in the familiar ‘share and tell’ sessions, encourage them. Ask leading questions, ‘Why did she do that?’ ‘Can you explain a bit more about…’ This will encourage them to sustain the telling, to eventually prompt themselves, so that what starts off as a dialogue with you or the children, becomes a personal account. This will help the children with their non-fiction writing.

And all the other parts of writing

There are other parts of writing which you will have to plan to teach in a planned and systematic way. Handwriting must be demonstrated and practised under the eye of an adult who will step in and correct bad habits. Letter knowledge, phonic awareness and spelling must all be taught systematically. There are many approaches, and you will have the one that you and your colleagues believe works well for your children. Monitor the effects of it:

  • Is it working for all?
  • Are some children struggling?
  • Do they need a different approach?

Whatever the answers to these questions reveal, be prepared to be flexible within your agreed framework. For example:

  • Make the learning fun. Do it in short but frequent bursts as children need constant repetition and many opportunities to practise so that the knowledge can be ‘hard-wired’ into their memories.
  • Show the children tricks to help them remember;  visual effects, rhymes and jokes all help the child.
  • Different children learn in different ways so aim to allow for all the differences that many be present in your class of children.
  • When you notice a child making the same error in their writing – perhaps they write the letter ‘l’ from the botton upwards, or keep spelling ‘was’ with an ‘o’ – have some practice sheets to hand so that the child, supported by an adult, can practise the right way. Sort out these problems early before they too are hard-wired into the child’s memory bank.


When you create your plans for the week, you will plan specific times within your communication, language and literacy times to teach those aspects of writing which have to be adult-led learning. But look through your plans for other areas of the curriculum that can usefully include opportunities to write and be specific about what aspects of writing you will be concentrating on. Use all the openings possible to encourage your children to express themselves through the written word.

This article is abridged by Lynn Cousins from an article she wrote in Literacy Coordinator’s File 24.


  • Bennett, N, and Kell, J (1989), A Good Start? Four Year Olds in Infant Schools, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd
  • Britton, J (1970), Language and Learning, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Bruner, J (1985), On Teaching Thinking: An Afterthought in Chipman, SF, Segal, JW and Glaser, R (eds), Thinking and Learning Skills Vol 2, Hillsdale NJ, Erlbaum Assoc.
  • Bruce, T (1987), Early Childhood Education, Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton Educational.
  • Sylva, K, Roy, C, and Painter, M (1980), Child Watching at Playgroup and Nursery School, London: Grant McIntyre