Teaching writing and teaching handwriting are two very different things. Learn why!
Have you ever asked a question and immediately wished you could take it back?
I had one of those moments yesterday.
I sent out a note to my 26,000 e-mail subscribers and asked them to complete a simple survey.
Do you teach writing? Answer “Yes” or “No.”
As the answers flooded in, I quickly realized that I should have been more clear. Many of my readers thought I meant handwriting.
Writing and handwriting are not the same thing.
While some of us may use the words interchangeably, we need to understand the difference.
- Handwriting refers to letter formation. It is the act of learning to write the letters of the alphabet. It may involve writing letters in a salt tray, using manipulatives to form a letter, or doing traditional handwriting pages.
- Writing is the act of communicating an idea so that others understand your message. It may surprise you to learn that writing does not always involve handwriting.
Young children may write by scribbling, drawing, and using letter-like forms. Eventually, children learn to incorporate letters, words, and conventional spelling within sentences and paragraphs.
Why is it important to know the difference?
When preschool and kindergarten teachers spend all of “writing time” overseeing handwriting practice, their students are missing out.
Yes, children need to form letters, but they also need to be doing activities that fit their level of development. An endless parade of worksheets and drills – all focused on a set of correct answers – do not challenge our students to higher level thinking.
Wait. Are you saying that kids don’t need to practice handwriting?
Definitely not. The question is – how much and how often? And starting when? Some early childhood professionals believe that handwriting practice with pencil and paper should stay out of preschool entirely. Do I agree with that?
First of all, fine motor development must come first. Asking a child with weak hand muscles to complete a handwriting page is like asking someone who can’t catch a ball to play first base (ask me how I know that). It’s just not going to go well.
I believe that some preschoolers are ready for handwriting practice, which is why I created my Letters of All Sizes handwriting pages. I introduce them to my own kids at about age four and a little earlier if they want to do what an older sibling is doing. But I pull out the pages only rarely. It’s simply not a regular focus for us.
Older children need penmanship practice because even in this digital age, there is still a place for writing with paper and pencil. My caution is to balance your instructional time wisely. Ten minutes a few times a week? Sure. Twenty minutes a day? Way too much.
So if handwriting isn’t writing, how do preschoolers learn to write?
This is a great question! Last year, This Reading Mama and I co-authored a writing series about teaching writing to preschoolers and kindergartners. We wrote about the different stages of writing (yes, scribbling is a stage of writing!), sharing the pen, simple dictation, the do’s and don’ts of invented spelling, and more.
If you’re trying to make sense of writing instruction with young children, you’ll find that series exceptionally helpful.
Isn’t copywork a good idea?
Many homeschoolers sing the praises of copywork and begin using it with their children around first grade. According to its proponents, children should copy the work of other writers from an early age to internalize conventions of writing: spacing, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and grammar.
My opinion is that copywork is poor practice when it takes the place of authentic writing experiences.
When children are given the opportunity to write about their own topics, for real audiences, they begin to see themselves as real writers – which they are! Writing becomes something they choose to do – not something they have to do. I’m not denying that some children enjoy copywork. My own first grader actually loves to copy books and Bible passages all on his own.
But I don’t go so far as to call that teaching writing. Try as I might, I just can’t see how spending at least ten minutes a day copying someone else’s work promotes deep thinking and creativity.
Wait… don’t you think kids need to learn spelling and grammar?
Some fans of copywork think that those who oppose it “don’t worry” about conventions. They claim that people like me don’t value proper penmanship, grammar, and spelling. We just want children to love writing.
This is a gross mischaracterization and simply not a fair analysis. Through teacher modeling, shared writing, and independent writing supported by teacher conferences, children can and do learn the conventions of writing. At the same time, they write about meaningful topics for real audiences!
You can have both.
“I guess that daily or weekly writing prompts are the answer.”
Not so fast!
I’ll jump out on another controversial limb and tell you that I’m not a fan of writing prompts. While they may occasionally have their purpose (as a test question or as preparation for standardized tests, for example), they are so limiting. When I think of a child with a writing prompt, I think of a person sitting in a box. He can only stretch so far.
When children write to prompts, the focus is on finishing the assignment. It’s about writing for someone else’s purpose.
If you’re wondering why that’s a bad idea, let’s talk about reading for a minute. We all agree that teaching children to read isn’t enough. We want them to enjoy reading so they choose to read outside of the classroom. If children graduate school and never open another book, our teaching has failed them.
The same is true for writing. If our goal is to help children to love writing, to deepen their understanding of it, and to promote writing outside of the classroom, we must have a different approach than copywork and writing prompts.
So how do we help our children become writers?
The same way we help them become readers. By giving them a lot of time to do it.
We give them daily, sustained periods of writing time. Preschoolers and kindergartners may be drawing. Beginning first graders may write a single sentence. Eighth graders compose stories, persuasive essays, and poetry.
No matter the grade level, we support our young writers with teacher modeling, focused lessons, and individual conferences.
Check out our guide for teaching writing
Writing Workshop Guide K-8
Whether you’re new to the Writing Workshop or an experienced workshop teacher, you’ll love this giant handbook for teaching writing in grades K-8. In addition to this helpful guide, you’ll also receive over 150 pages of printable resources!