By Jessica Kelmon
It all begins with scribbles. Aside from decorative swirls, a few letters, and perhaps even their own names, most kindergartners start school not knowing how to write. That’s the point of school, after all… right?
In a word, yes. You may have heard that kindergarten is significantly more academic under the new Common Core State Standards — and it’s true: the kindergarten writing standards include scary terms like “research” and “publish.” But don’t panic. Kindergarten is still the year children first learn about writing, which includes honing listening, speaking, and thinking skills, along with physical writing, starting with the ABCs.
Teachers often start the year by introducing the letters of the alphabet — literally the building blocks of writing. Kindergartners learn how to form the shapes of letters, what sounds they’re associated with, and how to combine those letters to create words.
While the Common Core Standards are rigorous, they’re not unreasonable, so don’t worry if alphabet mastery isn’t realistic for your child. This year your kindergartner should learn to print “many” (yes, the new standards specify “many,” not “all”) upper and lowercase letters.
Part of understanding the ABCs is figuring out how letter sounds (or phonemes) combine to make words. At many schools, kindergartners are encouraged to spell words the way they sound, which is known as phonetic or “invented” spelling. For example, a student might spell the word water by writing “watr.” Children are often more comfortable using consonants and sounds at the beginning of words because they’re more distinct than vowels or sounds at the ends of words. Using invented spelling, children are demonstrating what they know. Research shows letting children use invented spelling (and not immediately correcting them) allows them to focus on the purpose of writing: communication. Typically, with daily writing practice kids learn the rules of spelling and transition to conventional spelling. (If a child’s spelling does not improve or their invented spelling is arbitrary rather than phonetic, it could be a sign of a learning issue.)
By the end of the year, kindergartners should be able to:
• Connect a letter or letters with most consonant and short-vowel sounds (aka phonemes).
• Phonetically or inventively write simple high-frequency words they often see or hear in books. (See our kindergarten snap words worksheets for examples of high-frequency words to practice, and check out this real-life example of what a kindergartner's invented spelling looks like.)
• Write many consonant-vowel-consonant words. (See our kindergarten rhyming words worksheets for examples.)
• Write their own names.
Listen, speak, and draw! Think of these skills as big steps toward writing. Teachers (Psst… including you, your child’s first and best teacher) will read books aloud and should ask questions along the way about the book itself — the title, author, illustrator, subject — and about what your child learns from a text, how new information is connected to your child's life, what happens in a story, and what your child notices about events and characters’ actions. Be sure to ask some questions that require your child to read between the lines, e.g. Who are the main characters in this story? Where was the frog sitting? Why do you think the dog is sad? Can you draw a picture to show something interesting that you learned? You can also ask questions about the illustrations.
When answering, your child should learn to use frequently occurring nouns (both singular and plural, i.e. dog and dogs) and verbs and correctly use the most common “connection words” or prepositions — such as to, from, in, out, on, off, for, of, by, and with — to express their thoughts. They should also learn to answer questions using simple, complete sentences. Kindergartners also need to understand and use “question words” (aka interrogatives), including who, what, where, when, why, and how, when they speak or dictate writing so they’re familiar with these words when they begin writing on their own.
Seeing visions of tiny kids in lab coats? More likely, your child’s first experience with research projects will be listening to a few books by the same author or on the same topic. Students will be asked to recall information like the author’s name, and what they learned from the reading. Then, with help and prompting from the teacher, they may draw pictures to accompany dictated sentences or write one to three sentences about what they learned from these books. In kindergarten, this is basic research — and the skill of gathering information from different sources and using it in drawing, dictating, and writing to answer a question will set your kindergartner up for the three types of writing kindergartners learn, and for more advanced writing next year.
Under the Common Core Standards, kindergartners should practice and learn three kinds of writing: opinion, informative, and narrative. All three will likely start with kids listening to books read aloud and responding to what they’ve learned. In an opinion piece, your child tells the reader his opinion or preference about a topic, such as a book, animal, activity, etc. (e.g. My favorite book is...). In an informative piece, your child names what he’s writing about and gives some information or details about it. (e.g. Dinosaurs lived on Earth a long time ago…) Writing a narrative is like writing a story. Your kindergartner will describe an event — or a few loosely linked events — putting the events in the order they happen and reacting to what happened. (e.g. Then Goldilocks tried the second bowl of porridge.)
By the end of the year, your child may be able to write a couple of sentences for each type of writing, but it’s important to remember that under the standards, drawing and dictating sentences to reflect their opinion, what they’ve learned, and to tell a story, all count as writing, too.
A big part of teaching kids to write well is helping them understand that writing is a multistep process. Before your child picks up a pencil, prewriting begins with reading and thinking. This may mean rereading a book, discussing what your child has read, or simply brainstorming ideas for a picture or story. Then, the teacher will likely to go over your child’s first draft drawing, dictation, or writing with your child. The teacher or other students might ask your child questions about the work — and suggest details that could be added or better ways to organize information. Then your child may be asked to do a revision. After one or more revisions, the teacher might help your child with the final edit — focusing on spelling, capitalizing proper nouns and the first word of a sentence, and adding a period at the end. These steps — preparing to write, doing a first draft, revising that draft, and editing the final piece — help kindergartners learn that gathering and recalling information, organizing their thoughts, strengthening and clarifying their ideas, and improving grammar and presentation are all important parts of writing.
Finally, the Common Core Standards are big on “publishing” students’ work. While this may mean posting it on the wall or in the hallway for others to see, the standards call for the use of “digital tools to produce and publish writing,” so don’t be surprised when you get an invite to read your child’s blog post! But don't worry: while your child may be quite adept at unlocking your smartphone, the standards spell out that this work is only to be done “with guidance and support from adults.”
All year long, whether they’re following along as adults read or starting to write, kindergartners start learning the basics of sentence structure — namely capitalizing I (when referring to themselves) and the first letter of the first word in a sentence, ending their sentences with a period (and knowing that it’s called a period), and ending their questions with a question mark (and knowing that it’s called a question mark).
Does this mean they’ll be expected to understand commas or apostrophes? No! This first year of grammar focuses on just these few simple ideas.
Despite what you may have heard, the Common Core Standards didn’t do away with handwriting. The standards acknowledge that your child still needs to know how to write legibly — and that means penmanship matters. In kindergarten the focus is on printing upper and lowercase letters. Because kindergartners’ motor skills are still developing, the teacher will introduce handwriting with a range of approaches — finger painting and other tactile techniques, like writing in the air with a finger or tracing letters. Kindergartners should learn how to hold a pencil and practice forming letters by writing their names, which gives them practice writing letters, shaping and spacing letters correctly, and writing from left to right.
Updated November 2013 to align with the Common Core Standards