toddler writing with his mom toddler writing with his mom Studies show that incorporating writing into toddlers' everyday life has far-reaching benefits. (Photo: Nadezhda1906 / Shutterstock)

Get your toddler writing – it's not too early

Short, simple writing exercises make a world of difference for children's development.

Toddlers are a fairly simple type of human. 

They want to have fun. All the time. Sometimes that involves throwing a ball, or building a snowman, or splashing around in the bathtub, or painting a picture.

The one thing these activities have in common – other than their ability to wreck Mom and Dad's house – is that they're all great examples of children using their hands to express themselves. 

Knowing this, a group of early-childhood education researchers from the University of Michigan, Tel Aviv University and several smaller institutions around the world decided to test how preschoolers would respond to a series of short writing exercises that were designed to help them develop literacy skills, while also turning writing into a fun, playful activity.

The results, they said, were promising, and suggest that teaching children to write at a young age – perhaps before they enter elementary school – could have lasting benefits.

Findings of the research, led by Professor Dorit Aram of Tel Aviv University and conducted at the University of Michigan, were published recently in Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

"If we can give parents ideas of how they can integrate writing into their everyday life, whether it's writing a name of who they want to invite over tomorrow, or what they would like in their sandwich, or if they want to add something to their grocery list, then those children are likely to do better in school," Aram, who traveled to Michigan from Israel to conduct the research, told From The Grapevine. 

The key is a technique known as "scaffolding," which essentially means the child thinks about the sounds that make up a word and, with parental guidance, writes the word. For example, if a child wants to write her name, the parent might say, "What sound do you hear at the beginning of 'Sssssarah?' What letter makes the 's' sound?" It's a common technique in schools, but many parents aren't aware of it.

“Writing is a fun activity that happens spontaneously in everyday family life. It's just as important for children’s reading development as reading storybooks.” Samantha Bindman, Ph.D.

In the study, researchers asked 135 American, middle-class preschool children to write a birthday party invitation, with their parents' supervision, using the scaffolding method. They observed how each parent guided the children through the sounds in order to form words, and used encouraging language if the child made a mistake – such as "what did you mean to write here? Say the word slowly" – so that the child learns how the sounds relate to each letter. What they found was that children of parents who used the scaffolding method performed better in later school settings than their peers who were not a part of the study.

"Parents should be responsive to their child’s skills and abilities, and there are plenty of reasons why parents might have chosen to write for their children," Professor Samantha Bindman, who collaborated with Aram for the Michigan study, told From The Grapevine. "But our research suggests that writing activities are fun opportunities for parents to involve children in all of the steps that go into producing writing on paper, and that such activities are perfectly appropriate for preschool children."

The scaffolding technique was a primary tool in the published research, and it's part of an ongoing, yet-to-be-published study Aram is conducting in Israel that tracks children from preschool to first grade and monitors their writing progress.

And for folks who think teaching children to write before they enter kindergarten is asking too much, both Aram and Bindman emphasize that the method does not force young children to perform tasks that are beyond their maturity level. Rather, the "scaffolding" method simply allows children to freely explore writing without pressure to come up with correct spelling or punctuation. 

"Through our research and experience, we have observed that writing is a fun activity that happens spontaneously in everyday family life," said Bindman, who's now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Children want to express their ideas in writing and they want to be a part of everyday routines that involve writing, like making a to-do list. Writing is just as important for children’s reading development as reading storybooks."

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