The building blocks of writing

Have you read Natalie Wexler’s excellent article ‘Writing and Cognitive Load Theory’ in the latest issue (No 4) of researchEd? If you haven’t, it’s well worth a careful look. Natalie is the co-author, with Dr Judith Hochman, of The Writing Revolution, of which I am a great fan.

In her researchEd piece, Wexler explains that although reading is hard because it places such a heavy cognitive load on human memory, writing is harder. Readers of this blog will know why: reading draws on recognition memory, i.e. when you’re reading, you have the cue in front of you to jog your memory; however, writing is far more difficult because it draws on retrieval memory, a much deeper kind of memory.

Wexler makes the important point that even when ‘producing a single sentence, inexperienced writers may be juggling things like letter formation, spelling, word choice, and sentence structure’. She goes on to suggest that the best place to start is with the sentence, ‘sentences being the building blocks of all good writing’.

However, although sentence writing is an aim we should aspire to reach quickly, the starting point for teaching children to become accomplished writers should be the writing of single words from the first moment the child enters school.

This is precisely where good phonics teaching comes in! As soon as a child enters the classroom and begins to be taught how to read, they should also be taught how to write. Reading and writing are two sides of the coin and should be taught simultaneously. In a top-quality phonics approach, the deliberate practice recommended by Wexler should begin with children building simple CVC words, reading them and then writing them.

Within the first couple of weeks on instruction, through the medium of dictation, children will be writing whole sentences, such as ‘A man sat on a map.’, which quickly broaden in their context as more and more sound-spellings are added to the repertoire.

Of course, as already indicated, the cognitive load imposed by writing is much greater than for reading, so time has to be allowed for children to absorb the sound-spelling correspondences they have already learnt before they are expected to remember how to write the spellings for the sounds in the words dictated in sentences.

In the case of four-year-olds, the ‘lag’ between learning the sound-spelling correspondences and writing short, properly-formed sentences, needs to be only about five or six weeks.

Here’s how:

In weeks 1 and 2, the children learn to word build and read words with the structure CVC and work with < a >, < i >, <m >, < s > and < t >. They word build them, learning that sounds in ordinary words can be represented by spellings. In two weeks, they are reading and writing words like ‘mat’, ‘sat’, ‘sit’, ‘at’ and so on. Over the following two weeks, having been introduced to < n >, < o > and < p >, they will be reading and writing more than thirty words. And, it is at this point that dictation becomes a powerful tool for establishing what a sentence looks like: it begins with a capital letter; it ends in a full stop. Much more importantly, dictation gives the kind of retrieval practice so vaunted by cognitive psychologists in getting information into long-term memory.

Words that contain sound-spelling correspondences that haven’t, as yet, been taught are modelled explicitly. So, the teacher will write occasional high frequency words, such as ‘I’, ‘the’, ‘of’ and so on, onto the whiteboard for children to copy. With everything else, the children are listening to the sounds they hear in the words dictated (one by one) and writing them. They are also saying the sounds as they write them, which helps further to deepen the relationship between the sound and the spelling in their long-term memories.

Of course, the role of the teacher is vital in knowing exactly the kinds of support and scaffolding each child needs and they need to be able to provide immediate feedback and feedforward when a child makes an error.

This is truly the point at which the writing revolution should begin.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

4 thoughts on “The building blocks of writing

  1. This is an excellent article and I appreciate many of the points. I often speak with parents about the executive skill load of writing, as well as the memory and motor demands (and the integration demands). The one piece I would add to this article is the consideration of motor development, particularly in early childhood, and adapting writing tools with that in mind. I see so many Kinder and preschool programs requiring small tool writing (pencils, markers, crayons) when a good chunk of their kids don’t have the fine motor control for those tools yet. Write with finger paint, chalk, shaving cream, big movements on a big board, etc. focus on practicing the sound/symbol association but not yet the specific took, and we will have fewer frustrated kids (as well as fewer bad motor habits for writing). Thanks for this!

    1. It’s a pleasure, Janice.
      You’re right, of course. I didn’t really want to talk about the fine motor control aspects in this post although we do encourage teachers to work on this in a time separate from the Sounds-Write phonics session.
      It is also important for teachers to be making sure that the implements the children are having to wield are suitable – not too thick and not too thin.
      I am going to publish a video of children in the last term of nursery at a London school who have been taught the triangular grip and even they are able to write very simple three-word sentences. What is even more exciting is that they’ve already learnt all the one-to-ones and are getting to grips with the four double consonants < ff >, < ll >, < ss > and < zz >. To build words like ‘hill’, ‘puff’, etc.
      Thanks for your comment.
      Best, John

  2. Hi, I’m so excited to read this. I do feel that short ‘formal’ (yes they need to sit down and listen carefully!) lessons are a must in order to deliver SSP and writing. Indeed the two cannot be and should not be separately taught (handwriting can also become a part of the process.) This approach certainly works in all the reception classes I have taught….those who are not ‘ready’ are told that they need to join in with the other children for x number of minutes (this increases as their confidence and interest does 🙂
    What does one respond when challenged about ‘readiness’? Surely a reception class can and must have a good balance I do struggle with those who say they successfully deliver a play based learning and cannot see how all those very important elements (SSP, Sentence/work building/handwriting) can be brought together in any other way??
    Yes, of course children can be playful with what they learn…..surely they need to learn it first!
    Thanks for your time,

    1. Thanks, Mabel, for your comment.
      You’re so right about getting children who might seem as though they are not ‘ready’ to join in with their peers.
      As you say, their confidence and interest grow. I don’t like the concept of ‘readiness’ at all because, in fact, children can do far more with the help and guidance of a more knowledgeable peer or adult than they are able to do on their own.
      The other point I’d make and one I’m sure you’d agree with is that, taught well, phonics activities are great games to play!
      Best regards, John

Comments are closed.