How to Teach Writing in Kindergarten

  • 17 February, 2018

Teacher question:

What are your thoughts about writing in Kindergarten? Is there a scientifically-researched instructional methodology that we should implement. We’ve been trying to embed writing opportunities within the literacy block related to the whole group listening comprehension text. Should students draw in relation to the prompt or question and then label, dictate, and/or write? Should teachers model phonetic spelling of words or the correct spelling? Any help would be appreciated.

Shanahan response:

Indeed, kindergartners should be writing, and kindergarten teachers should be facilitating and teaching writing.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a particularly rich scientific-research base on beginning writing instruction. There are many observational studies that give us a sense of what may be possible (that is what kinds of instructional routines and environments have successfully existed in at least some kindergartens). And, there are a number of correlational studies that suggest what may be valuable (because of the relationship of certain early writing skills and students’ later literacy development).

But there are not a slew of studies that have tried out various writing routines and compared their relative effects with each other. That means I can recommend some reasonable approaches, activities, and routines—but it is certainly possible that over the next few years someone might be able to prove that there could be better choices than what I am recommending.

Time/Opportunities for Writing

No matter how you go about teaching or facilitating early writing, it is essential that time be set aside on a daily basis for this kind of work. In my framework, I have long required teachers to devote 20-25% of the language arts time to writing, and that is true for kindergarten classes, too. Since I think the total time allocation for language arts should be 2-3 hours, that means 24-45 minutes of writing time per day in a kindergarten class.

The rest of the time should be aimed at teaching decoding (e.g., phonological awareness, phonics); oral reading fluency (if they are just starting out, then finger-point reading and choral reading); reading/listening comprehension; and, perhaps, oral language (e.g., vocabulary, listening comprehension, presentation, conversation).

The time for writing would include student-writing time, of course, but also the time spent preparing to write (prewriting) and the time spent sharing these compositions. It would also include any instruction aimed at fostering manuscript/printing skills or early spelling ability. But no matter what it includes, kids should be engaged in writing pretty much everyday in kindergarten.  

Oral Composition

I have always begun children’s writing with oral composition. This was true when I was a first-grade teacher; it was true when I was working with my preschool daughters and grandchildren; and, it has been true over the years when I’ve consulted in kindergarten classrooms.

Oral writing tends to be easier for young kids than writing by hand is and it helps them to gain the concept of writing—which very quickly bears fruit in guiding them into creating their own writing by hand.

The so-called “language-experience approach” (LEA) has apparently fallen out of favor, which is a shame.

In a kindergarten, I would usually start language experience out on a whole class basis. The first step is a shared experience… some hands on activity or observational event in which everyone is engaged. That could be an art project or a science demonstration or a cooking experience or whatever.

Then gather kids around a chart and ask them to tell about the experience. Get them talking about the experience. Some of this can be “turn and talk,” some of it might be students responding individually to teacher questions. The idea is to help kids to see that language allows them to relive experiences and to think about them.

Now that you have them buzzing, tell them that you want to write an article about the experience. Ask who has something they would like to say about the experience. Then help that child construct a sentence about it. This might be simply transcribing what was said, or it might be helping the child to expand a thought (S: “Chocolate.” T: “The cake was chocolate?” S: “The cake was chocolate.”), and then transcribing.

Print the students’ ideas to get 4 or 5 sentences.

I continue with this kind of thing regularly until students are able to do it easily.

Once they can then I start doing the dictation and transcription part of the activity in small groups and sometimes even individually (the experience is still shared by the whole class). Small group dictation means that more kids get to dictate their sentences.

By the time you are done with language experience approach the children should have a clear idea of the nature of book sentences, that print (the ABCs) is used to record one’s words, that print moves from left-to-right and from top-to-bottom. They should know the difference between pictures and writing, too.

Writing Environment

We often make a big deal about a supportive reading environment in which kids have lots of opportunity to see print and to get their hands on books and magazine… to pretend to read and to read.

It is just as important that there be a plethora of writing resources for kids, too. Many kindergartens, for example, have a writing center… with different kinds of paper and writing implements. Back in the day, I had a typewriter (not even a bad idea now) in my classroom-writing center. You asked about labeling pictures, so having opportunities available for those kinds of labeling activity makes sense here.

It also makes sense to have writing components in other classroom centers, too. If you have a classroom restaurant, you want to have pencils and order pads. If you have a classroom post office, it is important to have paper, envelopes, and the like. Perhaps my writing center is too mundane; perhaps it would be better to have a book publishing company that allows kids to “publish” their work. Or maybe a sign making company would make sense.

Basically, the point is to create lots of opportunities for kids to write.

Pretend Writing

When I start kids off writing on their own, I tend to start with individuals and small groups (just the opposite of what I did with dictation). You might sit down with two or three children at a table, providing each with a piece of paper and a pencil or crayon for writing.

I then talk to the group about writing something and we talk about their ideas. Similar to the earlier LEA stories, but now I’m not going to provide a shared experience, I’m going to ask questions about what is interesting them right now to try to get them to write about those personal ideas.

Sometimes kids launch right in and start writing… other times it takes greater amounts of support to get them started. I’ve had children laugh and tell me that I was crazy because they are only 5 and can’t write yet, too.

When that happens I encourage them to pretend to write. Those pretend writings range from pictures and scribbles, to random uses of letters, to actual attempts to write words or to try to make their combinations of letters look like words.

I accept it all.

Usually, when a few kids start writing like that—especially if you make a big deal about it—the other kids want to try their hands at it too.

Initially, I’m not too worried about things like spelling. I ask kids to spell words as they think they are spelled.

Initially, it might be difficult or even impossible to know what the children have written. I make my way around the group to transcribe what they have tried to write. I usually add a date, too, that can be useful when you are reviewing children’s folders of writing so that you can see what kind of progress they have made.

As a teacher you are always trying to salt the mine. That is, you are always suggesting directions to kids that they might not think of on their own. For instance, let’s say one of your students is using his letter sounds to try to figure out a spelling. That’s the kind of thing worth a bit of public attention. I might point out to everybody what a smart thing little Johnnie or Suzi did using his sounds like that. You’d be surprised how many students all of a sudden can use their sounds to write words.

Once you have a bunch of kids writing like this, the language-experience dictation goes away and your attention needs to be focused on encouraging more actual writing.

If you decide to do something like this, it is important to let parents in on the secret. Invented spelling—that is, kids trying to spell words based on what they know about letter sounds—is very helpful in building phonological awareness and in giving kids productive practice with their decoding skills. But some parents might think that your lack of initial concern about spelling means that you either can't spell yourself or don't care whether your students can. Neither is the case, so head off the problem.


Next week:  More on kindergarten writing… including information on spelling and printing instruction; prewriting supports; the role of revision; peer interaction; and more.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Kim Raginia Feb 19, 2018 12:26 AM

What are your thoughts about using voice to text technology to show kindergarteners that their words can become print?

Tim Shanahan Feb 20, 2018 03:25 PM

I’ve never used that, but it sounds cool. Have you tried it?

Harriett Janetos Feb 20, 2018 07:16 PM

Your statement that "invented spelling—that is, kids trying to spell words based on what they know about letter sounds—is very helpful in building phonological awareness and in giving kids productive practice with their decoding skills" is supported by recent research.

From: Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1: A New Pathway to Literacy, or Just the Same Road, Less Known? Ouellette, Gene; Sénéchal, Monique, Developmental Psychology, v53 n1 p77-88 Jan 2017

"Results supported a model in which invented spelling contributed directly to concurrent reading along with alphabetic knowledge and phonological awareness. Longitudinally, invented spelling influenced subsequent reading, along with alphabetic knowledge while mediating the connection between phonological awareness and early reading. Invented spelling also influenced subsequent conventional spelling along with phonological awareness, while mediating the influence of alphabetic knowledge. Invented spelling thus adds explanatory variance to literacy outcomes not entirely captured by well-studied code and language-related skills."

Tim Shanahan Feb 21, 2018 01:54 AM

Indeed, Harriet, indeed. Actually I think a typical writing episode usually gives children more individual PA practice than a typical PA lesson (you need both of course).

Julie Lewis Mar 01, 2018 10:40 PM

Thank you for promoting the Language Experience Approach. A comprehensive early literacy program must recognize the role of oral language as a basis for written language.

Emily Mar 31, 2018 11:16 PM

I am interested in learning more about the Language-Experience Approach (LEA) described in the post. Allowing students to write orally is a great way for them to grasp the basic concepts of writing and to develop their ideas. I am a third grade special education teacher, and written expression is an area of weakness for many of my students. Some struggle with developing and organizing, others with sentence construction and spelling. Some of my students still employ some inventive spelling and spell phonetically rather than correctly. While we are always trying to move away from this I try to encourage them and provide positive feedback for their writing attempts and ideas.

Many of my students dread writing time. Their writing is often short and lacks description. They don’t write to tell a story, rather write to be “done” writing. Shanahan explains that the simplest way to get kids excited about writing is to create opportunities for writing. Writing does not have to involve students sitting in a desk, pen to paper, writing about a given topic. It can involve journaling, letter writing, emailing, drawing pictures, creating comic strips, etc. I think that incorporating different types and purposes for writing into daily writing instruction will keep students engaged and motivated. If we have students start writing at an early age, they are more likely to develop the writing and literacy skills necessary to be successful in the older grades and beyond.

Alba Apr 01, 2018 12:49 AM

THANK YOU for this Tim. As a first grade teacher, I receive many kindergartners in the fall who do not have the confidence to write anything down on their own. I will begin the school year this way and move forward towards more independent writing.

Debora nix Feb 14, 2020 12:01 AM

I think kindergarten is unique in that the teacher has the power to introduce the love of writing to a young student and watch them grow exponentially in both their oral and writing skills.
Students must be taught that their very lives hold the seeds to so many stories which like a garden needs attention To really show its potential.
I love love love teaching writing to my kindergarten EL students.

Diane Welch Oct 07, 2020 03:13 PM

What are your thoughts on teachers themselves using inventive spelling when they are modeling for the class?

Lorraine Yamin Oct 06, 2023 12:41 AM

Thank you so much for providing us with this description of what writing time can look and sound like in kindergarten! As we enter this potentially exciting era of putting structured literacy into practice, I get quite concerned that administrators will pressure preschool and kindergarten teachers to reduce free play. Since we know unstructured, free play is valuable and precious, do you have any thoughts about balancing structured literacy with lots of free play?

Lorraine Yamin Oct 06, 2023 12:41 AM

Thank you so much for providing us with this description of what writing time can look and sound like in kindergarten! As we enter this potentially exciting era of putting structured literacy into practice, I get quite concerned that administrators will pressure preschool and kindergarten teachers to reduce free play. Since we know unstructured, free play is valuable and precious, do you have any thoughts about balancing structured literacy with lots of free play?

Timothy Shanahan Oct 25, 2023 06:52 PM


I think that Susan Neuman's research is pertinent here. She (nd her colleagues) created opportuniites for students to engage in literacy play -- creating spaces for restaurants, post offices, libraries and the like. That gives kids opportunity for play, but channels some of that effort towards getting preschoolers to think about the role of literacy in life. Likewise, I think early writing opportunities tend to be playful in nature -- engaging kids in trying to communicate through invention.


Stephanie duncan Mar 25, 2024 12:59 AM

This is the way I have successfully taught writing for years and have always had students excited about it. Unfortunately, now we have a reading program that greatly diminishes the time for writing and the writing that is built into the program is mindless, filling in blanks and copying words. In short, it’s awful and my students are nowhere near where they have been in the past. It’s sad, heart-breaking, and has sucked the fun out of writing. What was once fun is now boring and dreaded.

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How to Teach Writing in Kindergarten


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