How to Approach Early Years Writing
in the EYFS

Sue Cowley explains how to set your expectations right
  • Early years author Sue Cowley talks us through the wonders of early years writing, and why it’s more than just sitting a child at a desk with a pen.
  • She explains how early years writing fits within the characteristics of effective learning and the areas of learning in the EYFS.
  • You’ll find fantastic examples to take back to your setting, from outdoors mark-making and shopping list games, to dinosaur Top Trumps and curious provocations.

To understand the power of early years mark-making and how it relates to developing strong early years writing in the EYFS, check out Sue’s first article for us on encouraging mark-making in the early years.

The development of writing is a fascinating aspect of early child development.

For one, it actually sits within all the areas of learning in the EYFS. But that can make it difficult to know what to expect and how to approach it. So where to start?

Well, early years writing requires the engagement, motivation and thinking that are such a key part of development at this age, principles which are perhaps best described within the characteristics of effective learning…

A template for writing

While Development Matters is a great document to set your expectations for writing in the early years and give practitioners insight into how this skill develops over time, the characteristics of effective learning instead offer an excellent template for thinking about how to approach early years writing.

Writing is not just about the technical aspects of the process. As a writer, you must also engage with the act of writing, be motivated to communicate your ideas, and think about what those ideas might be and how to share them.

All three of these are key areas of focus within the characteristics of effective learning.

1. The characteristics of effective learning: Playing and exploring (engagement)

In order to support engagement, it’s important to model being a writer for your children. Show them how you use writing as a form of communication and self-expression.

You could, for example, join in with play in a role-play shop, modelling how and why you might write a shopping list and encouraging the children to write their own. Talk about why you might need a list, modelling your thought processes as you do this – “I’ve got so many things I need to buy in this shop, I’d better make a list!”

Promoting engagement via interests

One way to do this is by making sure that you plan mark-making and literacy activities around the children’s interests, so that you capitalise on their engagement with a particular theme or topic.

If the children are interested in dinosaurs, you might share a book from the series ‘Harry and the Dinosaurs’. You could freeze dinosaur figures in a block of ice, and get the children to chip them out to build finger and hand strength.

You might create ‘Top Trump’ style dinosaur cards that include all the knowledge that the children have about the different features of herbivores, omnivores and carnivores. It always astonishes me how much knowledge small children can retain about an area of learning that fascinates them!

2. The characteristics of effective learning: Active learning (motivation)

We can sometimes communicate our own attitudes or worries about an area of learning, through subconscious ‘tells’ that suggest to the children that we are not sure they will enjoy an aspect of learning. This can often happen with early years writing especially, perhaps because of our own experiences around the subject from when we were children ourselves.

Be confident enough to see writing as something that children will choose to do, so long as you provide the inspiration, impetus, and an environment in which it happens as a matter of course during active play-based learning.

Help children to understand why they might want to use writing – for instance, how they can use it to make plans, working as a group to devise a response to a situation. Provocations work well for this, because they motivate children to come up with a response to a problem.

Promoting motivation via writing in the outdoors

Consider how you can motivate your children’s mark-making and writing outdoors as well as indoors. Try not to see writing outside as simply writing inside, transposed to your outdoor area (something I once saw described as ‘moving the writing desks outside’).

Think about the reasons why we might genuinely want or need to make marks outside – using outdoor chalks to create a ‘welcome mat’ at the entrance to your setting, or marking out an area in which to play hopscotch.

3. The characteristics of effective learning: Creating and thinking critically (thinking)

When you model writing for the children, talk about what is going on in your mind as you write, using the language of thinking and learning. This helps to promote the important skill of metacognition – the act of thinking about and becoming aware of our own thought processes. Help your children understand the thinking processes that happen when a writer works.

Talk about your choice of vocabulary and its impact on an audience – “I was wondering which word might help us persuade the wolf not to eat the three little pigs?” Talk also about the order in which ideas should appear in writing – “Which instruction do you think needs to come first in our recipe for a spell to make the wolf vanish?”

Play also offers children a great way to think creatively and flexibly, allowing children to develop their symbolic thinking. A stick becomes a ‘magic wand’ in a fantasy role play or a wooden block becomes a bar of chocolate in a home corner.

Promoting thinking via curiosity

Build curiosity and critical thinking by creating activities that promote them – a treasure hunt, a letter asking for help, a puzzle that needs to be solved.

A fun way to motivate your children to think is to create a letter asking for help from a character in a book that you are reading together. Another way to ensure lots of thinking is to introduce an object that is puzzling, or that has multiple uses – the questions “What could this be?” and “What could we do with this?” offer a lovely way to build lateral thinking.

Early years writing and the areas of learning

It’s not just about the characteristics of effective learning

When it comes to EYFS writing, it’s also important to think about how the different skills and knowledge your children are developing as writers fit within the prime and specific areas of learning. Remember, as is often the case in EYFS and the holistic view of the child it promotes, a single approach or activity can cover a number of these areas simultaneously.

The EYFS Statutory Framework points out that “all areas of learning and development are important and inter-connected”.

1. Communication and language

Communication and language sit at the heart of writing – everything you do around building language and supporting communication feeds into the writing that your children do, even at the very earliest stages of their mark-making.

Play around with language, using alliteration, nursery rhymes, and listening activities to build the phonological awareness that is so vital as a basis for learning phonics.

The more vocabulary your children have, the better placed they will be to become fluent writers. Look for every opportunity to introduce them to new words when they’re ready for them, by modelling new ways of describing the world in your interactions.

2. Physical development

The development of fine and gross motor skills is critical for the act of writing. Everything you do around physical development in your setting will feed into this aspect of writing, because when children are active they are developing core strength, dexterity, and eye-to-hand coordination.

It is tempting to view writing as something that is done in a static way, seated at a desk. However, it is often more useful for physical development to create opportunities for making marks that are not desk-based at all.

For instance, sticking paper on the underside of a desk so that the children can write upside-down, hidden in a den, or using easels and flipcharts so that the children can write standing up are just a few creative ways to develop shoulder, arm and wrist strength.

3. Personal, social and emotional development

Mark-making and writing offer a wonderful way of sharing how we feel, and they also require children to think about alternative perspectives.

Shared writing and storytelling are lovely ways to build empathy and to support even the very youngest children in sharing their thoughts and feelings. Remember that creating stories is not just about writing them down.

The ‘helicopter stories’ approach is a beautiful way to support children in telling and sharing their own stories. With the adult initially working as a scribe, the children then join together to act out and retell each other’s stories. You can find out more about this approach over here.

4. Literacy

Reading and writing act as dual strands within literacy, building on the vital skills of speaking and listening to allow us to communicate and explore ideas.

Stories play a crucial role in the development of thinking and writing, because they help children internalise the underlying rules and structures. Through listening to and sharing stories, your children pick up on the patterns of story language – “Once upon a time …”, “And they lived happily ever after …”, “He huffed and he puffed”.

Consider how you can encourage prediction and speculation, using prompts such as “What do you think might happen next?” during storytimes.

Pie Corbett’s ‘Talk for Writing’ approach offers a lovely way to model the creative process when exploring stories. The approach involves mapping stories by using diagrams and pictures, retelling stories together as a group, and then changing and innovating aspects of the original story to develop it.

5. Mathematics

Although we most commonly think about writing words when we talk about writing, maths also uses written symbols to represent ideas. Children’s earliest marks will often give an insight into their mathematical thinking, for instance when they use tally charts to note down ‘how many’ there are of something.

Encourage lots of mark-making around maths – as well as around writing – by setting up situations where the children need to make calculations, like using a tally chart to work out how many portions are needed for snack time.

6. Understanding the world

The world is full of fascinating information and the more we know about the world, the more knowledge we have to incorporate into our writing.

Some children are particularly drawn to non-fiction writing as a way of learning more about their environment. Ensure that you give opportunities for factual as well as fictional writing. A trip to somewhere new can be a great way to incorporate this, by writing about what you discovered on your visit.

7. Expressive arts and design

Many of the art and craft activities that you do in your setting will offer chances for mark-making. This might involve handling tools in order to paint, but also writing – for instance, writing a message inside a Christmas card that they have designed.

Graphic forms of writing are very appealing to young children, so think about your use of symbols and colours too. Something as simple as changing to silver pens on black paper is a lovely way to create striking graphic images.

Sue Cowley is an author, presenter and teacher educator. She has helped to run her local early years setting for ten years. Her latest book The Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years published by Bloomsbury.

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