How Young Children Evolve as Writers

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By Mimi Tang

Mimi Tang

My father fondly recalls a period of a few months in my third year when I stopped greeting him at the door with my usual “Hi, Daddy!” or a big, wide-eyed grin on my shy days. Instead, I met him daily with outstretched arms accompanied by the phrase “Once ’pon a time, in a land fah, fah ’way. . . .” which I always left hanging as an invitation . . . an invitation to invent, to create, to write a story together.

When do we begin our evolution as writers? I believe we begin writing the moment we begin to make meaning out of the world around us. Our youngest writers point and utter words, labeling the things they notice. They are researching and gathering material that they quickly begin to string together into phrases, sentences, and eventually stories. Young children engage deeply with the task of writing long before they are able to form letters and words on paper. They retell their experiences with admirable detail and tenacity, they invent worlds of fancy in which familiar people often play the heroes and heroines, they constantly collect material from their experiences and others’ stories that then become a part of their own narratives. Many of us adults, however, might not consider them as writers because they cannot yet engage in the physical act of writing. But good writing is so much more than correct letter formation.

With precious little time for us adults to devote to pleasure reading, how do we choose the writers we read? We choose the wonderful storytellers—the ones who invent fantastical places and events to help us escape the mundane; we choose thorough researchers—the ones who ask great questions and have the tenacity to pursue their answers on our behalf; we choose the entertaining and the familiar—the ones we have read time and time again and who continue to stand the test of time. Young children are these writers. They just don’t necessarily have the handwriting and spelling skills to put pencil to paper—yet.

Handwriting and spelling continue, of course, to be important skills, even in this day and age of quickly advancing technology. I pay close attention to how 1st graders spell words and customize my instruction based on the child’s understanding of the written word. At the same time, I find ways to support this child’s sense of story and writing fluency (taking dictation, inviting stories to be told in a combination of words and pictures, encouraging stories to be told orally in elaborate detail), all ways to support that natural storytelling ability children have been cultivating since early childhood.

I believe that writing is the single most complex academic task we ask of children during their time in school. However, beginning with the first time you respond with a smile in response to your child’s exclamation of “Mommy, look at me!” your little writer is hooked. The reward bestowed upon a child by a sense of audience has initiated your child on his path as a writer. Young children come to us with so many gifts that they began to hone—“once ‘pon a time”—in their earliest days of communication. It is our duty and our great honor to help them extend and refine their natural gifts as writers.

Mimi Tang teaches Catlin Gabel’s 1st grade. She has been at Catlin Gabel since 2005.