Learning and Development

The Road to Writing: Symbols & Stories

Sue Cowley explains how fostering an understanding of symbols and stories can help children learn to wield their pens with confidence…

Learning how to communicate their thoughts, ideas and feelings is a key aspect of children’s early development. At first they do this orally, but gradually they also learn to do it through the written word. In order to be able to write, children must of course master the physical skills required (these are explored in detail in my first article). But writing is a highly complex skill, and to master it, children must also acquire a number of key intellectual concepts. They must understand about the role that letters and words play in our society, how symbols can be used to convey meaning and how stories and non-fiction forms of writing are structured and created.

In the modern day world, children are surrounded by signs and symbols. Learning how to extract meaning from these signs and symbols is fundamental to learning how to read and write. You may not automatically think of letters and words (and indeed numbers) as being symbols, but that is what they are. Each letter ‘stands for’ or symbolises a sound. Sometimes two or more letters together (a phoneme) also make a single sound (for instance, the graphemes ‘ch’ and ‘igh’). Once a child understands these letter/sound correspondences, and how to blend them together, he unlocks the symbolic code of written language and can learn how to read and write.

Young children very quickly gain an awareness of symbols and what they mean. Try showing the golden ‘M’ symbol used by McDonalds, or the tick used by Nike, to your children, to see if they can already identify these commonly seen symbols. You can take advantage of young children’s visual awareness of symbols by incorporating them into your daily setting routine. You might use:

● A visual register, for instance, the children could put their names on the ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ sides of the board

● Signs giving key messages around the setting, for instance, a set of images in the toilets showing how to wash your hands properly

● Name tags (for registers, book trays, etc.) which include a picture, e.g. a train, that matches the first letter of the child’s name, e.g. Tommy

● Messages written in lots of different community languages.

Me and my name

Our names are such a key part of what makes us unique individuals. Right from when we are tiny babies, we hear our names over and over again, often spoken by our closest and most important carers. Parents are typically keen for early years settings to teach their children to write their names. Strike a balance between the child-initiated activities you know work best for early learning and the more formal activities that some parents may ask you to do. We introduce our preschoolers to more formal letter formation and name-tracing activities in the final couple of terms before they move on to their Reception classes.

Using marks to ‘write’ their names is one of the first pieces of symbolic writing that your children will do. Use creative approaches to inspire and engage them, so that they really want to practise this skill. They could:

● Make their name out of twigs n Write their name on plant labels, to stick into a pot of seeds that they’ve planted

● Ice cakes with the first letter of their names n Make their names out of slippery spaghetti n Write their names using gold or silver pens on black paper.

Children learn to write their names at different times. Some learn very early; others will still be learning in the Reception class. It’s very rare for a child never to learn to write his or her name, even those children who have special educational needs.

Graphic symbols

Your children will understand many of the graphic symbols you use around the setting – the cross on your first aid box, the arrows pointing to the fire exit, the girl/boy symbols on the toilets. Boys often seem particularly drawn to graphic representations and symbols, and enjoy using them in their own mark making. Chinese New Year offers a great chance to practise a picture-based form of writing. Show your children the Chinese characters for ‘Happy New Year’. Then offer them black paper and red, white or silver paint, so that they can create their own version of these symbols.

Road signs are another example of graphic symbols that are all around us – take your children on a walk to see which symbols they can identify, and what meaning they can gather. Make your own road signs, using broom handles, cardboard and paint. Then chalk out a series of roads in your outdoor area, so that the children can drive the ride-on toys around the town. Talk about why road signs use different shapes and colours – what do the children think these mean? (You’ll find a downloadable PDF of different road signs here.)

Using stories

As well as being great fun to read and share, stories also offer you plenty of ways in which to develop your children’s conceptual understanding in those areas a writer needs to acquire to be successful. Although children of this age can’t yet write a story, when they hear you read they are assimilating lots of information about what stories do, and how they do it. At a young age, children quickly learn that:

● Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end

● Books are read (in English) from front to back, and from the left side of the page to the right

● Stories are created by putting together a sequence of events, one after another

● There is a special kind of ‘story language’ – phrases such as ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’

● Certain types of characters (‘stock’ characters) appear in many stories – heroes, villains (in young children’s terminology, goodies and baddies).

Creating story maps

Help your children understand story structure and sequencing by drawing some story maps together with your group. Use large size paper – A1 size flipchart paper or a long roll of plain lining paper are great for this. Work together to draw out the main events from a story in the correct sequence, using arrows to show how the events link together. You can also retell the story, using a similar sequence of events, but with different characters (The Very Hungry Alligator, perhaps). The Story Making Project is a fabulous method for telling and retelling stories via graphic representations and dramatised re-enactments. This project has been used in our preschool and also in our local primary school for several years now: the children who have been involved with it have become accomplished storytellers.

Stories and concepts

Stories help your children acquire some vital concepts. These concepts are vital for their mark making and writing, and also for an understanding of who they are, and what their place is in the world. The concepts they will acquire through stories include:

● Words and meaning: hearing new or already known words in different contexts (two, too, to), and extracting meaning through the context in which a word is used

● Language and layers of meaning: the way that signs, symbolism and metaphor give depth and resonance to a story

● Playing with language: the use of alliteration, repetition, rhyme, and so on, to give spoken/written language vibrancy, rhythm and character

● New experiences: to see, hear, learn and become familiar with things and places they haven’t experienced in real life – other cultures, different types of lives

● Problem-solving, sequencing and prediction: how characters can overcome problems, and those ‘what happens next’ questions that help the children develop their imaginative powers.

Inspirational mark making

Where children feel inspired to use mark making to communicate, it is far more likely to come freely and easily to them. Inspire your young mark markers by offering them these exciting opportunities…

● Write in creative contexts – order pads in a cafe, passports in an airport, receipts in a shoe shop.

● Work together on an art project designed to communicate a message – a mosaic of your setting’s motto, a new logo for your uniform.

● Use exciting themes to inspire writing – under the sea, outer space, the Great Fire of London.

● Get hands-on with multisensory resources in your writing areas – offer lots of different materials with which to write, and a variety of papers and other surfaces on which to write.

● Get outdoors to do mark making whenever you can – boys will often do far more mark making outside than they ever choose to do inside.

● Try large-scale experiences to really capture the imagination – big paper, huge brushes, giant displays.

Sue Cowley is an experienced teacher, trainer and author. Her book The Road to Writing is a guide to developing mark making and writing skills with children aged 3–7 years.