Welcome to the Pre-K – Kindergarten Mini-Lesson Page! Some might think: how can you teach writing to kids who may not even be able to write?! But I espouse the theory that it is essential to treat kids like writers from the earliest ages to build their confidence and love of writing. Writing a story isn’t just about putting words on a page after all. It’s about thinking and dreaming and observing like a writer. These are all things pre-K and kindergartners can do!
The following mini-lessons & activities are meant as a springboard for parents, home schoolers, or teachers. For more exhaustive daily and weekly lesson plans, check out the series of Writing Workshop books by Lucy Calkins or Already Readyby Katie Wood Ray & Matt Glover.
LESSON 1: WE ARE ALL WRITERS
I taught writing workshops to 4 and 5 year olds at Cottage Co-op in Pasadena for many years. I begin with this question: who is a writer? A few kids may raise their hands, but most think that the world of writing is closed to them because they don’t know how to write and spell yet.
My next question is: how old do you have to be to be a writer? This usually gets some funny responses. Then, I let them in on little secret: you can be any age to be a writer. And even more important: you don’t have to know how to write your letters to be a writer! These revelations dispel with a lot of stress kids can feel about learning to write.
Finally, I ask: who likes to tell stories? Most kids like to re-tell stories they have heard read to them. And they are certainly telling stories about things that happen to them all day long. Well…guess what? I say. That’s what writers do! They tell stories…just like you.
GOAL: The goal of this mini-lesson is to say: welcome into the Club of Writers–because being a writer isn’t just about writing a bunch of words on a page, it’s about being a storyteller. From this point forward, I address the kids as “writers” and talk about what “we writers” do.
ACTIVITY: Oral Storytelling. Trade telling stories about what happened…(on the way to school, at home yesterday, on a playdate, at the park, when you went on a plane, whatever). I model telling a story that will have elements we will learn about later. My story will have a who, what, and where. It will have a beginning, middle, and end. I usually tell a personal story, often about how I got this or that scar. Most kids love to tell stories about how they got hurt. As you listen to their stories, feel free to ask questions. We are showing them that stories give us information. We might ask about what a particular toy looked like. Or when exactly something happened. It may not seem like it, but we are practicing being writers already.
LESSON 2: I HAVE AN IDEA!
Ask your young writers this: What do writers need to write? In one of my pre-K workshops, a young writer shouted, “Pants!” True, pants are useful. What else? You’ll hear kids say: pencils, paper, crayons, a computer. I refer to these as our “tools”—just like other workers have tools.
There are two more things that I think writers need that I bring up early on in writing workshops no matter the age of my writers. Writers need: an idea and someplace quiet to work. I would never describe the pre-K classroom as “quiet” exactly, but the idea is to find a space that is separate enough from a friend so that they can do their own work.
Now…onto the idea. One of the great things about writing something down is that it helps you remember it. So before we find our quiet space to write, we want to think about: OUR IDEA. What am I going to write about? Holding onto an idea can be tricky at this age. (My current age too!) This is practice: coming up with an idea, remembering it long enough to draw and write, and then using the drawing to tell the story. That’s the magic of writing! Your idea has now been captured for all time!
GOAL: The goal of this lesson is to ACT like a writer by doing (and talking about) things that writers do: we think, we put pen to paper, and then we tell our story. In the same way kids practice their sports, writing workshop is practice at being a writer.
ACTIVITY: Today we are going to write about something you know a lot about. It could be a sport that you love to play. It could be about lizards. It could be about your dog. The first thing you need to do is: THINK about what you are going to write about. When you know what you are going to write, then you can take the I KNOW ABOUT… WORKSHEET, find a quiet spot, and draw everything you know about it.
A NOTE ON WRITING ACTUAL LETTERS & WORDS: I will say more below about a supportive approach to writing letters and words, but basically: I like to give the kids encouragement to write anything they might be able to. It might be a squiggle, a single letter, a whole word, the same word over and over again. All of these efforts are met with the same enthusiasm. In a writing workshop setting, I do not tell kids they have spelled something wrong. In fact, I refuse to talk about spelling at all. The goal now is to get kids to try being writers. The letters and the spelling…they’ll come when they’re ready.
LESSON 2: WHEN YOU’RE DONE, YOU’VE JUST BEGUN
One summer I attended the Writing Workshop Summer Institute at Columbia University's Teacher's College. I heard the refrain "when you're done, you've just begun" and loved it because my favorite part of writing is revising. I haven’t met a lot of kids who feel the same way though. And definitely not in the 4-5 year old set! Sometimes it’s hard for them to even sit through a short mini-lesson. But we are pretending to be writers and we do that by practicing what writers do.
So…last time: we had an idea and put it on the paper. This time, we’re going to get an idea, put it on the paper, then…we are going to see what we can ADD TO OUR DRAWING to make our story even better.
GOAL: The goal of this lesson is to have kids add detail to their drawing/story. Remember all those questions you asked your writer as they told their story? You wanted more detail. As they look at what they drew, ask them leading questions to give them ideas of things they can add.
ACTIVITY: Print out the MY FAMILY WORKSHEET. Ask kids to draw everyone in their family. Even the dogs and cats and lizards. The people may look like stick figures or even advanced stick figures with details. They could also just be rough circles or even shaky lines to symbolize people. When you ask kids to “add detail,” they might add something about how someone looks. Do they have long hair or short hair. Does the dog have a tail? That sort of thing. If it’s not going to stress them out, ask if they can add a label to some or even just one of the people. Can the child write his or her name? Or even the first letter? Ask if he can write the first letter of his name by his figurine. This is how we capture meaning. Then, when you go listen to him telling the story, you can notice how you know exactly who he is in the picture because it has a letter telling you it’s him.
NOTE: after hearing a story, I sometimes write quick notes on the back of a piece of paper to help me help the child remember what he or she was writing about later.
LESSON 4: BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END
Today we are going to talk about some basic building blocks of story: beginning, middle, and end. I like to pick a familiar book to kick-off this discussion. One of my personal favorites is The Carrot Seed because it’s nice and short and the sections are so clear. After I read it, I’ll ask, what the boy does at the beginning. He plants a carrot seed. What does he do in the middle. There may be a few answers here. But the upshot is that he waits and waits and it doesn’t come up and his family says it won’t come up. Then I ask: what happens at the end? The carrot comes up! This exercise can be repeated with other favorite books the kids know by heart.
GOAL: The goal here is to help our very young writers start to organize their ideas.
ACTIVITY: Have your young writers use the BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END WORKSHEET to tell their story. It can be something that happened to them. Or it can be a pretend story. Your writers may be making simple shapes that stand in for people and objects. This is fine! Your writers may be drawing stick figures and more representative shapes. That’s good too. Your writers may also be adding some letters to label what’s going on. Great! It doesn’t matter what the page looks like. At this point, it’s just a prop to help them in telling us their story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
LESSON 5: BOOKLETS
Writers write books, right? Well, today, we are going to write our own books. With a few lessons under their belt, making books can be pretty free-form. What do they write? Anything! A memory about something that happened. A story about a pirate bunny. Facts about lizards. The sky is the limit.
GOAL: the goal with booklets is to get your young writers writing independently. As they fill their books, ask them to “read” their books to you. They may copy the reading technique they see adults use even though there may not be words on a page. You can ask them to label things or add details. And you might write a few things on the back to remember what the book is about.
ACTIVITY: You can make booklets any size. I usually take 2-4 pieces of plain white paper, cut them in half horizontally, then fold those in half and staple them. (You might need one of those long staplers to do that.) You can have a stash of booklets on hand for when a story strikes. You can use fun paper or binders to make the book feel even more special. Sometimes we would even bind the pages together with yarn.
OTHER NOTES ABOUT VERY YOUNG WRITERS
WHAT DOES WRITING LOOK LIKE?
If you are a parent or teacher, you already know that every child develops differently. You might hear that some kids learned to write “early” or learned to read “late.” But guess what? When you’re “of a certain age,” no one knows or cares when you started to read or write. It will all come in time. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on the lookout for learning difficulties in these arenas and get assessments and help when needed. But it does mean that we (parents) shouldn’t freak out when Mimi starts reading later than Fifi.
In these early stages of writing, I like to be enthusiastic and supportive. In my Pre-K workshops, I NEVER spelled words for kids. Because guess what? If you do it once, they’ll ask you for it every time. If your rule is that you don’t spell things out in Writing Workshop, then they’ll stop asking you to do it. For older kids, I might say that we can talk about spelling in Spelling Workshop (or when we are “editing”)…but for Writing Workshop, I want us to focus on the storytelling part. “Just do your best…” is my mantra. And as long as you don’t freak out when they spell soccer “SKR,” then they will soon stop being stressed about their spelling too. (There will come a time when we want to correct spelling, but it doesn’t need to happen in Writing Workshop and it doesn’t need to happen when they are 4 and 5.) You can check out Words Their Way and Already Ready (among others) for chapters about invented spelling and the developmental milestones.
For my youngest writers, when they are ready, I ask them to try to label parts of their drawings. Just like drawing our picture, putting letters on the page helps us capture the meaning for all time. Sometimes, you will meet resistance. I had one pre-K student who did not want to write letters, including his name. Then one day, I pushed a tiny bit. I sat with him, pondering what the letters of his name looked like. How seeing those letters on his page would help me know it was his picture. And letter by shaky letter, he managed to write his name for the first time. That was magical. And letter by letter, they will start writing. It will be hard to read at first…but it will get there. Be enthusiastic. Be supportive. And have fun!
PLAYING WITH THE ALPHABET
On the topic of fun, remember to play with the alphabet. There are a million great alphabet books to enjoy. The ABC’s are good to sing. I’m also a fan of very basic ABC cards in the bedroom and classroom. (I’m not a fan of the ABC cards that look great with your furniture but have words kids may not know. Apple, Ball, and Cat work just fine. They don’t need to be Armadillo, Badger, and Cockatoo.)
Here are some fun things we did with the alphabet at Cottage Co-op:
ACTING OUT LETTERS
We had the kids form the letters with their bodies (alone, in groups, standing, lying on the floor, whatever it took). We took pictures and then made several flip books for the classroom. The goal here is to reduce the stress some kids may have with learning letters and associate letter recognition with a fun activity.
Another day, we had an alphabet scavenger hunt. We printed out page-sized letters and taped them all around the playground. This activity included a framing device of a story I made up about a goblin king who hated reading and stole the alphabet from his son (Goby the Goblin), so the kids were extra motivated to “steal them back.” But you can add “scavenger hunt” to just about anything and make it fun. The kids enjoyed finding the letters and then we put them in order, singing the alphabet song over and over again to make sure we got it right. Again, the goal here is to have fun…while we happened to be playing with the alphabet.
SOME OTHER WORKSHEETS:
Here is a variety of other prompts/worksheets you can use with your very young writers. They can be used with any of the mini-lessons above, or you can dream up your own ways to practice the things that writers do.
WANT TO KNOW MORE? CHECK OUT THESE RESOURCES
Already Ready, Nurturing Writers in Preschool and Kindergarten
by Katie Wood Ray & Matt Glover
Launching the Writing Workshop
by Lucy Calkins and Amanda Hartman
About the Authors, Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers
by Katie Wood Ray with Lisa B. Cleaveland
Talking, Drawing, Writing, Lessons for Our Youngest Writers
by Martha Horn & Mary Ellen Giacobbe
GNYS AT WRK, A Child Learns to Write and Read
by Glenda L. Bissex
Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction
by Donald R. Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton, Francine Johnston