“What can I write about?” If you’ve ever done writing with young children, you’ve probably heard this question more than a few times! It’s this very question that leads many parents and teachers to hunt for daily writing prompts. Each day they put a prompt on the board and expect each child to complete it.
But helping kids find their own journal topics in preschool and kindergarten is easier than you might think!
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Before we talk about how to help children find writing topics, it’s important to make sure we know what it means to have young children keep journals.
What is journal writing in preschool and kindergarten?
(Yes, he’s wearing a hat and sunglasses indoors.)
1. Journal writing is a brief but regular writing time — Initially, preschoolers may write for just ten minutes. Over time they will write longer. However long the writing period is, the important thing is that children write often. Aim for at least three times a week if you want your children to grow as writers.
2. Journal writing is open-ended. “My favorite food is…” or “I like to…” are writing prompts. These are not open-ended. While they may be useful on occasion, please, please don’t give your child a daily writing prompt. You want to give your child the freedom to choose his own topics for writing. Giving your child a writing prompt every day is like putting him in a box. He can only stretch so far. Kids really can choose their own topics when we show them how.
3. Journal writing looks different for each child. Some children will scribble, some will write random letters, and some will attempt to spell (see above). Check out my post about the early writing stages to see how journal writing looks for kids at different levels of development.
How can we help young children find journal topics in preschool?
1. We model first. If you’re a classroom teacher, kids will be fascinated by the mundane details of your life. “Today I had oatmeal and buttered toast for breakfast.” It also helps them see that the little details of their lives are important too! Be sure to check out the first post in this writing series to see many examples of modeling writing for kids.
2. We let children know that it’s okay to start with a picture. Most kids can start drawing without too much thought. As their picture takes shape, they have a writing topic. When my Three draws a picture I say, “What can you tell me about your picture?” Sometimes I let him dictate and I show him how writing is “talk written down.” See this post to learn more about dictation with kids.
3. We give children drawing prompts as needed. My Three wanted to write about Pete the Cat, but after trying to draw a cat he scribbled over the picture and wanted to quit. So I showed him, step by step, how to draw a cat’s head.
4. We give suggestions for writing based on recent experiences. This is different from a prompt because we’re not giving a sentence starter or a very narrow topic. Here’s how this might sound:
“I don’t know what to write about!”
“Hmmm… what’s something that’s happened lately that you could write about?”
“I don’t know.”
“You helped Daddy plant in the garden.”
“I don’t want to write about that.”
“How about your sister’s birthday party?”
“I don’t want to write about that either.”
“I’ll give you one more idea. If you don’t like it, you’ll have to find your own. How about you write about our vacation to California?”
“(Sigh.) I guess I’ll write about the garden.”
(Yes, that is a rough transcript of a recent writing lesson at our house!)
3. We give children a resource for finding topics. I created this printable to give my preschool boys (ages 5 1/2 and almost 4) a kick-start when it’s time to write. The chart doesn’t tell them what to write. It just helps them see all the things they have to write about.
Get this free printable chart HERE.
How can you use this chart at your house?
Here’s how it sounded at our house:
1. Model how to use the chart.
“Look at all these pictures! They can give me all kinds of ideas of things to write about. I see a family, books, animals, grandparents…” I’m going to use this to help me think of something to write about. Hmmm. I think I’ll write about my family. I’ll write about our baby.”
We have a sweet baby. She smiles a lot.
She likes her swing.
Be careful not to write too much when modeling for young children; you might intimidate them. You might choose to model in the way that your child would write — with scribbles, single letters, or a few letters per word. You know your child best.
2. Help your child choose a journal topic from the chart and get started.
Right away, my Three decided he wanted to write about a song. “Pete the Cat and his white shoes!”
“Great!” I said. “Will you draw Pete the Cat?” He tried, became immediately frustrated, and scribbled out his picture. I turned to a new page. “Let’s try again. Look, I’ll show you how to draw a cat.” Step by step he drew the cat’s face and then added the rest of his picture.
3. Encourage your child to do as much as he is able to do.
Even though my Three was ready to stop at a picture, I know he can do more than that. So I prompted him.
“What can you tell me about your picture?”
“Pete the Cat.”
“Great! Would you like to write that?”
Here’s the final product. “PT” for Pete. He spelled the correctly because this is a word he’s been reading a long time through our preschool reading curriculum. For cat he chose to just make a C. I knew we could stretch it out and write it all, but he was tired.
This was what my older preschooler ended up writing after choosing the topic “birthday.” He drew the picture first, and I encouraged him to write about it. As for his spellings, he copied “birthday” from the chart and got the rest from his head. Thankfully we’ve been learning Heidi Songs Sing & Spell in the car. Check out this video of the song he recalled to help him spell “there”!
I hope this post has given you several ways to help your preschooler or kindergartener find his own topics for writing! For more posts in this series, click on the image below:
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