Real Language at Work

Writing Centers for Young Children
Collaborative ideas from a TAWL email conversation between Cara Urquhart, Lori Jackson, Nancy Creech, Diana Triplett, Alice Pickel, Ruby Clayton, Shirley Ernst, Renee Goularte, Lynne Remson, Jan Spohn, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens


Initial Question:

I'm rethinking the writing center in my Pre-K classroom. I'd like to hear your thoughts on establishing a meaningful writing center with young children (4 years old). I'm using this message to think out loud, as I have lots of thoughts and questions bouncing around. Currently I have paper and pens and pencils available. I have the children's names laminated on sentence strips, cut to size in a can on the table. Some use the center to write their names or their friend's names. I've noticed at the Art table, some ask me to write their words as they describe their artwork. My feeling is our writing center is kind of "blah". I think part of the reason I feel stuck is because I'm not sure what I want it to look like. I don't know how to introduce it without having their time at the writing center be overly teacher directed or focused on copying names and letters. I would like the kids to do more than write names and letters but I'm not sure how to move them in that direction. Maybe I'm struggling with the language to use.  Any thoughts?



Start by encouraging drawing, but using the language, "Read me your story" when interacting with the children. Try to link their stories to their drawings and encourage them to extend their 'stories' by adding details. If it is a picture of a cat, then ask them what color the cat is. Ask them if it would make their story better if they included that detail. Model for them how they can use the letters they know (or think they know) to begin to represent their stories.

A couple of things that might be helpful are Dave Matteson's book, Assessing and Teaching Beginning Writers, and this article by Elizabeth Sulzby.
For Christmas this year, I made a list of things for our classroom that I thought parents might have at home that would enhance my writing center. I got waitress checks, menus from local restaurants, tons of business forms,  all kinds of stationery and paper and a variety of pens, pencils and markers. I plan on adding a stapler, glue and lots of different kinds of tape for bookmaking. (Nancy)

Letter stamps, stickers, those stamps that come in the National Wildlife junk mail (animals), markers for those who don't yet have the fine motor skills for writing with a pencil...

I believe that young children want to "write" what they see their parents writing.  Shopping lists, checks, forms, cards and letters, check lists, etc.  How about taking digital pictures and printing them on the top portion of paper so the kids can write below them, ie. captions. Non-fiction writing, narrative is natural.  Letters to family who really do live far away.  Get well cards.  Birthday cards.  Signs for their block building projects.  My friend who teaches 4 year olds has writing supplies in all her other centers. 

Envelopes. And maybe a real mailbox.

Try letting the preschoolers tell their stories in pictures.  Provide pre-stapled books, plain papers, crayons, markers, colored pencils, and let them draw their stories out. Once the picture is made they can be encouraged to write the sentences in their own way, using whatever they know about writing.  The pictures will help them remember what they write.

And most important, share. Provide a time during the day when several of the kids can share what they wrote with the class, or when all of the kids can do a "short share" by showing their pictures and saying one thing about it, or you can strategically ask certain children to share that day when you notice that someone has used letters to tell about the drawings, or any kind of punctuation, or used beginning sounds, or is building stamina because s/he wrote lots (even if it can't be read by others) , or have each child share what they wrote with a small group or partner.  But do some type of sharing so all of the kids begin to understand that yes they are making progress towards doing writerly things. 

You can even be the one sharing by doing noticings -- I notice that Johnny had a great idea. He looked at the letter chart when he was trying to think of how to spell a word, or Mary did a neat thing today in writing. She was able to remember her whole story because she drew lots and lots of things in her picture to help her remember.  Mary would like to show you some of the things she drew and remembered.  Or, did anyone else try that in their writing today?  Or, Who used lots of letters and words in their writing today?  Did anyone use any of these marks in their writing?  . ? !  Did anyone use capital letters today?  Did anyone write something with color words or number words?  Who wrote something and used a classmate's name from the name chart?  Did anyone make a sign, menu today?

Of course this all works a little better if their is time in the day for a short 5 minute mini- lesson.  In preschool, the mini-lesson could come in the context of reading a big book, doing only one mini-lesson per day.  Some Mini-lessons for Reading The Three Bears 
1)   Writers use pictures to tell about the story
2)  Writers use words to tell about the story
3)  Writers use letters to make words
4)  Writers use spaces between words
5)  Sometimes words, phrases or sentences are repeated on the same page or on different pages
6)  Sentences end with some kind of a period ( or stop). 
      ?     !     . . .      are all periods with either a mark over them or they are repeated.
7)  Some pages have a lot of words and some pages have few or no words.
8)  Some words are written larger than others
9)  Some pictures have words on object

Writing centers can be wonderful  and are necessary, but I do think that having the writing materials in other centers as well gives the message that writing is woven throughout all we do,  The writing center itself needs to be where kids "fall over it" (Harste said something like this long ago) so that they know it's there and find it easy to use.  All the materials that people have suggested are wonderful, but don't forget to have some books so that there are writing models there too.  (You might have to remind them that they don't write in the books, however).

The paper is so important because it invites children to do different things and learn that writing has different purposes and forms. So in addition to the other types of paper one might add full sheets of paper with two - three lines drawn at the bottom for printing, long narrow paper with lots of lines for making lists or menus, paper with a large box drawn for a picture and two - three lines for writing, letter writing paper with friendly letter lines drawn ( k/2) for date, greeting, body, etc, book cover paper with a a line drawn for title and illustrator, and a few lines drawn on each paper for writing after the picture is made, note paper, and cardstock of various sizes for making signs.

Too many choices at one time may overwhelm, so one might introduce one kind of paper at a time, demonstrate ways it can be used, and then leave it in the writing center, gradually building up to more and more choices, while at the same time removing some paper types that the children are not using well, and reintroducing later.

The younger the child the larger the paper they tend to need.  My first graders write more with book paper that is a full unfolded sheet wide, or a folded legal sheet wide.

Sample checks from banks (they're free if you tell them it's for educational purposes), old typewriters or word processors, chalk, lined and unlined paper, newspapers, magazines...

scotch tape to do early revision and additions and ask for some POST IT white out tape - great way for kids to start to edit.

In Reggio Emilia they have a writing center which includes a set of pigeonholes (mailboxes) for each child and adult in the room.   Each child goes through the 3 years with a symbol, which is put next to his/her name on the pigeonhole, so that those who can't make out the names yet can find  the right mailbox by searchging the symbols. 

Adults "provoke" responses by putting pretty little drawings or things (a fancy button?) in the mailboxes, and make a bit of a big deal over responses.  Children write/draw for each other.  When friendships are happening, the mailboxes can be used for another expression of caring.  Children use drawings at first (age 3) but eventually want words to add in, to make their meanings known, and those words are supplied, for the children to copy. The Reggio adults also keep sheets of small photos (black and white xeroxes; were "proof sheets" before electronic photos came in) of all the children in the room, so it's possible for a child to "sign" with his or her photo, and the children can also use each others' images as part of what they make.  There's probably much more to this, but that's what I picked up.

The above is an actual 'conversation' posted on the 'Teachers Applying Whole Language' TAWL listserve, which generates conversations among teachers about implementing Whole Language in the classroom. Browse the archives or join the list at


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