Getting Kindergartners Started Writing When It Seems IMPOSSIBLE!

Getting young children started writing real sentences can seem more than difficult; it can seem completely IMPOSSIBLE, especially if you work with disadvantaged or low income students as I always have!  Yet year after year, my students have conquered this successfully, without any tears (on their part) or ulcers (on mine!)  Here is how I accomplish this, step by step.

My intention has always been to make the writing process a FUN AND EASY one, whether my little ones came to me with tons of advantages, or whether they arrived on day one with no preschool or literacy experiences to their name anywhere, ever.  When I started making up sight word spelling songs, I was just trying to make the writing process easier and more fun for all!  So, it was very natural for me to intentionally CONNECT THE SONGS TO THE WRITING PROCESS.  Of course, as many of you already know, the unintended consequence was that most of the children first learned to READ the words by singing and moving to the songs- and THEN they learned to spell them!  (What a surprise!)

However, I find that connecting the songs to the writing process is not always something that all teachers instinctively know that they should do.  Therefore, I am here to point this out to everyone right now.  Remind the children to use the spelling songs to help them write, and MODEL HOW TO USE THEM.  Then they will be able to write much more quickly and easily.  So here is exactly how I do that, from start to finish!

Now, before I begin telling you about the basic lesson format, I need to point out that this method of getting kids writing starts with teaching kids to write specific "Sentence Frames", such as "The (animal) is (color.)"  For example, the children might write, "The horse is brown," or  "The pig is pink."  It's not about teaching the kids to write anything they want, but it IS a way to get kindergartners STARTED writing.  After that, we move on from there.  Just one baby step at a time... one foot in front of the other.  Don't get overwhelmed!  If it seems like they aren't making it, just back up and model the process a few more times, and then try it again. Don't worry, because they WILL PROGRESS!  They ALL do!  I've only had two children in my twenty five years of teaching that were never able to write a sentence independently, and both were little sweethearts that were eventually placed in county classes for children severe developmental delays.  So what I'm saying is that 99% of the children (at least in my experience) will be able to master at least this much, and most will go much, much farther.

So this is how I get my kindergartners started writing.  This is what really works well with my student population, which is mostly from a low income area, with about 60% of the children on the free lunch program, and about half of them coming with no preschool experience.  About half of them speak another language at home, as well (usually Spanish.)

1. First, we learn to recognize some sight words by singing some of the Sing and Spell the Sight Words songs from HeidiSongs, and also practice writing these words individually on marker boards, etc.

2. Once we know at least two sight words, such as "the" and "is," THEN we can start writing!  We start out by teaching them to write "Sentence Frames" by teaching them to find and copy their new sight words on the word wall.

3. As the year goes along and their phonemic awareness skills improve, I begin teaching the kids to write words as they sound.  Then we combine those words  in sentences with the sight words that they already know how to write.

4. Then, later in the year when they have more skills, we start writing in their journals, and at that point, they can write anything they want.   So their journal entries will contain both sight words spelled correctly (having learned them from the sight word spelling songs,) and also words spelled with inventive phonetic spelling, using our Sounds Fun Phonics cards and poster as a spelling tool.

This works particularly well for my student population of low income English Language Learners, because it always seems to be difficult for them to try to write words phonetically right from the beginning of the year.  That's because most of them come to Kindergarten without knowing the letters or sounds.  Therefore, it's no surprise that if you give them a piece of paper and tell them to write a story and they can't do anything other than draw a picture and perhaps write their names, if we're lucky.

Check out this video below to see one child's writing progress from August to June in my Kindergarten Class!

The "traditional" order of instruction for teaching writing in kindergarten has been to have kids just start drawing pictures, and encourage them to label their pictures, with the expectation that writing will begin to naturally occur as they watch the teacher model it.  What I do is REVERSE that order of writing instruction by teaching them to write sight words first, and inventive spelling second.  This gives these children that struggle with English language skills, phonemic awareness, (and therefore inventive spelling) a way to approach it that usually produces success for them specifically- and also works well for everyone else.

To prepare for the lesson:

I make sure that my word wall has all of the words on it that the kids will need, adding the words as we learn them WHILE THE STUDENTS WATCH.  This helps them know where to find the words they need.  I also intentionally use lots of different flash card colors on the wall, so that if I have to direct a child to a certain word, I can always say something like, "It's the one in pink that starts with a T."  Sometimes I even put a star or a happy face on one or two of the cards to help them find the right one, such as to differentiate between "that" and "they" for my struggling learners.

Another thing to note is that I always add the words to the wall gradually as the children learn them, rather than fill it up with all of them at the beginning of the year, which is overwhelming to the young eye when they are trying to find a new word.  Many teachers fill up the word wall at the beginning of the year and leave it there all year long (and leave it up for years) because it saves time, but I think that this is not the best approach in terms of learning.  If the children only know five words, there should only be five words on the word wall!

Just a note:  You may wish to take some writing samples from your children BEFORE you begin this type of instruction, and DATE them!  I use a date stamp to make it easy, and try to date each sample that is done without help.  The progress that children show is usually ASTOUNDING!  Check out this writing sample below done at the beginning of the year from a Kindergarten boy before we began our writing instruction in August:

To Give the Lesson:

A. Tell the children what sentence we are going to write.

I start by telling the children what "kind of sentence" we will be working on today.  For example, I may say that we are going to write an "I see a ____" sentence, or a "The ____ is ____ " sentence.

Here is the same child's writing sample, after just one month of instruction on Sept. 26, 2012. This is an AMAZING transformation! (Parents (and administrators!) LOVE this sort of thing!)

My students learn that they will get to choose what goes in the blanks when they go to write their own sentences by choosing words off of the themed pocket chart word wall (see below) or using inventive spelling.  I always include the sight words that we are working on in the sentences, because that way they get more practice using the words that they have learned, and this reinforces their learning.  The more they use the words in their writing and see them in print, the better they remember them!

This is our "Pocket Chart Word Wall." I have a rolling pocket chart on a stand with a pocket chart on two sides. One side always has our themed word cards on it, as you see above. We were studying farm animals, so I had some simple farm animal drawings and words next to them up on the chart for reference.

B. Have the class repeat the sentence back to you, and count the number of words in the sentence.

It often helps to write one horizontal line on the whiteboard for each word that you will need to write.

C.  Ask the children what the first word in the sentence is, and then choose a child to find that word on the word wall.  I use my sticks to choose a child to make sure that all children eventually get a turn to do something over the course of the week, if not every couple of days.

I have always used sticks to choose names, and have used this very same Nestle's Quik Organizer that I made for about 20 YEARS! I put the names of the kids that have already had a turn in the side that has no stickers. The names of the children that are still waiting for a turn are in the side that does have stickers and has my name on it. I also write boys' names in blue and girls' names in red or magenta. That way, when we are playing a "boys against girls" game, I can easily choose a randomly selected boy or girl name.

D.  The rest of the class “helps” that child by singing that sight word song while the child tries to find it and point at it with my pointer. (We sing this without the CD during this activity, from memory.)

E.  Once that child has found the word, I have the children tell me how to spell the it. I show them how I can copy that word from the wall, or even write it from memory by using the song, if I can. I write the word on my white board easel.

F. I discuss the fact that I must have a space between my words, and I sing the “Spaces” song from Sing and Spell Vol. 2 with the kids a cappella (with no CD.) I put a magnet up on my white board easel to "hold" that space.

I give the children "One Finger Spacers" from Starting Blocks Plus at our writing table to help them remember to leave a space when they are writing.  (They also have two finger spacers if you prefer.)  I teach my kids to place them "upside down" as shown below because then it is not in the way of the letters that come next.  I think my spacers have lasted a good ten years!

G. I ask the children what the next word should be, and pick another child to find that word with my pointer while the class again sings that sight word song. Then I write the word as the class spells it for me. Then we again add the space with the Spaces song. Basically, I model this writing process from beginning to end, showing the children how I know what to write. I keep doing this until I get to the end of the sentence.

H. The child that gets picked to find the last word in the sentence gets to choose the themed word that I will put in my sentence, such as a farm, zoo, or sea life animal. (See the zoo word wall picture below.)

I prefer to put my "themed words" on a pocket chart rather than “clutter” up my permanent word wall, (as I mentioned above) which makes it hard for some of the little ones to find those sight words. Plus, there isn’t room to leave them up all year long on my word wall, so they will have to come down when we are done with the unit anyway.

I. When we get to the end of the sentence, I ask the children what we have to put at the end of the sentence, and then prompt them to sing the "I’m Done" song from Sing and Spell Vol. 1. Then I put a period at the end. Later in the year, I explain that an exclamation point is a “happy period” that you can put there instead, and we practice reading the sentences that we wrote in two different ways: once with a period, and once with a “happy period.” It’s fun!

I have a little video clip of this method that I took of my class several years ago when I was trying to make an instructional DVD. (See above.)  The instructional DVD never happened, since the quality of the video tape didn’t come out as it should have, but I have used the video clip in my workshops ever since! I am including it here so that you can get an idea of what teaching kids to write this way looks like. If a picture tells a thousand words, than a video tells a million!

Before you do this lesson for the first time, I recommend MODELING it:

- Once or twice with the kids just watching.
- Model it again a couple more times while the children write along with you on marker boards, if possible.
- When you are ready to actually have the children do, go model it AGAIN with the specific sentence you would like them to write on paper.

(For more information on how I do my rotation, see my blog entry on how to pull small groups in Kindergarten.)

When we write, I use paper that I made with lines on it that are an appropriate size for little Kindergarten hands and eyes.  I have included them as a free download here for you if you need them.

To differentiate this lesson:

My faster learners write more than one sentence if they want to, or make a longer sentence by writing the word "and" and writing more than one thing at the end.  Example:  "I see the brown cow and horse."  They could also write an adjective before the animal, such as “I see the soft sheep,” and sound out the adjective that they want to include.

My struggling students often need me to guide them through the writing process again from right from the beginning, going just as slowly as necessary.  I try to allow EXTRA TIME for this group if they need it.  With every step, I make sure that "no child is left behind" (HA!) because we are going too fast.  (Now if one of them seems to be stalling on purpose to try to get out of doing it at all... well then he or she and I will do it together at playtime!)

*A Suggestion To Make Small Group Rotations Go A Little Faster*

Children often REALLY enjoy drawing the pictures to go with their writing!  So sometimes we do guided drawing ahead of time right ON the writing paper, and then let them write about any of the things that they drew.  So this means that there is less to do at the writing table, because there is already a picture on the paper.  Children that finish with time to spare can always add more details or more animals to their papers.

You can find lots of free guided drawing lessons on my blog by putting the words "guided drawing" into the "Search This Blog" box in the side bar. Or, check my Guided Drawing Pinterest Board!


-Heidi :)

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