Understanding and supporting young writers

This topic is one that I am often asked to talk about so I have combined the key messages in this post. I hope it is useful.

Message 1: Start with what children know and can do and build on. This means we need to know the children we are with – easy for families – but requires focused effort from educators.

Message 2: Early childhood literacy is “the single best investment for enabling children to develop skills that will likely benefit them for a lifetime.” (Dickinson & Neuman, 2006, p.1).

Early childhood literacy includes: talking, listening, singing, playing, role play, drawing, experimental writing and pretend reading.

Spoken language provides the foundations for reading and writing even though written language is different to spoken language. Talking with children about things that are happening in the ‘here and now’ is quite different to talking about things in abstract terms. It is important to help children talk about things that may have happened yesterday, or that morning, with someone who wasn’t there. For example, explaining to grandma what happened at the park yesterday when the dog ran away.

Reading books to young children is one of the most important gifts we can give them. Five books a day is recommended. Remember to also read the environmental print that we see when we are out and about. The stop signs introduce one of the first words that many children learn to recognise.

Message 3: Writing is more important than ever – Children who are actively encouraged and supported to draw, talk, write and share often become confident, flexible writers who create more complex texts than when they are restricted to just writing.

Image 10 at 300 dpi

Message 4: If children  see an advantage in being able to write, they will apply the same focused attention to learning how to write that they applied to learning to be oral language users.” (Mackenzie, 2010, p. 30).

Children copy what they see the people around them doing. If they see people reading they will want to read. If they see people writing they will want to write. We are modelling and demonstrating what we value whenever we are with children.

Message 5: A great deal of writing ‘capital’ can be developed through drawing and talking: Message making; Sense of story; Self-expression; Concentration; Fine motor skill development; Creative endeavour and Idea development.

Message 6: If we encourage children to add writing to existing modes of communication “writing becomes a parallel means of meaning making rather than a replacement for the drawing and talking they already do so well when they arrive at school” [or preschool/Kindergarten]. (Mackenzie, 2011, p. 338).

If given the models, opportunity, tools and encouragement, children spontaneously start to add writing to their drawings.
Drawing + Talking = 2 modes of expression
Drawing + Talking + Writing = 3 modes of expression

Message 7: Writing involves “complex perceptual-motor skill encompassing a blend of visual-motor coordination abilities, motor planning, cognitive, and perceptual skills, as well as tactile and kinaesthetic sensitivities” (Feder & Majnemer, 2007, p. 313) . . . requiring “sustained attention, sensory processing, and the presence of proper biomechanical components for posture and hand grip”. (Lust and Donica, 2011, p.560).

Early writing ‘milestones’ – Please remember that children experience these milestones differently. Some of the milestones overlap with one another. The process of learning to write is not linear and is greatly influenced by the environment and the opportunities children have to experiment and copy. For example, a child with older siblings may be experimenting with drawing and writing tools differently to an only child or first child in family.

If children have access to the right tools they will engage in ways that are appropriate. Have tubs available with paper, scrap books and a variety of textas, pens, pencils, crayons etc. The amount of supervision required will depend upon age and experience. Introduce scissors when you can see that the children can learn to manipulate these. provide appropriate scissors and help them learn this tricky process.

Somewhere between 0 and 1 children start to notice those around them drawing and/or writing. (Make sure they see what you would like them to copy)

Between 1 and 2 most children begin to engage with writing tools – pens, pencils, crayons, electronic devices and possibly mark making tools that are not necessarily designed as writing tools (e.g. Lipstick).

Between 1 and 3 children intentionally engage with writing tools in an exploratory way – this often resembles what we would call scribble. They like to draw with their finger on the foggy window in the shower,  chalk on the footpath, or stick in the sand. They also love finger paint (the bath paint is fun) or some shaving cream on the kitchen bench.

Between 4 and 5 many children learn to write their name and this first important word becomes a resource for exploring writing more specifically.  It is helpful if children can write and read their name before starting school. [Check with the school as to how they want children to write their names. Many schools will advise a capital letter for the first letter and the rest of the word in lower case letters (e.g. Simon). You might also like to ask what script the school uses. For example, in Victoria it will probably be Victorian script while in NSW it with be NSW Foundation (you can find both on the internet).]


Between 5 and 8 children learn to create messages with a combination of drawings and writing. Having a purpose for writing is important (e.g. letters to Santa or invitations to their birthday party). They will learn to hear the sounds in words and match them to appropriate letters. Invented spelling provides opportunities for children to explore how words are constructed.

Sample 2 - Punct

Message 8: Handwriting is still important in the 21st century. . . . handwriting activates motor, visual, and linguistic areas of the brain and has a direct relationship with improving math, spelling, and science outcomes in later years . . . poor handwriting skills and a lack of automaticity with handwriting increases the cognitive load of a child and consequently reduces his or her ability to draw on other cognitive capacities to improve the content of writing (Grissmer, Grimm, Aiyer, Murrah, & Steele, 2010; McCarney et al., 2013).

The benefits of handwriting to young learners include: Cognitive & Motor skills development; Learning letters, Spelling, Reading; Memory; Composition quality and Academic success.

Chapter 8 Figure 15 at 600 dpi

If you want to know more about teaching handwriting, there is a chapter in our new book (see details below) and a new article coming out in February  2018:  Mackenzie, N.M. & Spokes, R. (2018). The Why, Who, What, When and How of Handwriting Instruction. Practical Literacy: the early and primary years, 22 (1).

“There is a general agreement [in the research literature] that writing with digital devices (typewriting or writing with a stylus on a touchpad) has no consistent advantages compared with handwriting in educational settings. In contrast, there is evidence for a superiority of handwriting over typewriting with digital devices in several studies” (Kiefer & Velay, 2016  p. 80).

If you want to know more about the Australian handwriting and keyboarding survey conducted in 2016 you might like to read some of the earlier postings to this blog.

New book available from Jan 18, 2018: Mackenzie, N.M., & Scull, J.A. (Eds) (in press), Understanding and supporting young writers from birth to 8. Oxfordshire: Routledge, UK.


The Draw, Talk, Write resource is available at: http://artsed.csu.edu.au/schools/education/staff/profiles/lecturers/noellamackenzie


Dickinson, D. K., & Neuman, S. B. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2). New York: Guildford.

Feder, K., & Manjnemer, A. (2007). Handwriting development competency, and intervention. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49(4), 312-317.

Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1008-1017. doi:10.1037/a0020104

Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2012). Literacies. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Kiefer, M., & Velay, J. L. (2016). Writing in the digital age. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 5, 77-81.

Lust, C. A., & Donica, D. K. (2011). Effectiveness of a handwriting readiness program in head start: a two-group controlled trial. AJOT: American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(5), 560.

Mackenzie, N. M. (2010). Motivating young writers. In J. Fletcher, F. Parkhill, & G. Gillon (Eds.), Motivating literacy learners in today’s world (pp. 23-32). Auckland: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER).

Mackenzie, N. M. (2011). From drawing to writing: What happens when you shift teaching priorities in the first six months of school? Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 34(3), 322-340.

McCarney, D., Peters, L., Jackson, S., Thomas, M., & Kirby, A. (2013). Does Poor Handwriting Conceal Literacy Potential in Primary School Children? International Journal of Disability, Development & Education, 60(2), 105-118. doi:10.1080/1034912X.2013.786561

Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

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