5 Essential Routines for Developing Early Writers

5 Essential Routines for Developing Early Writers

Kindergartners come to school with a fear of writing, and we did it to them. When they show us their first attempts at writing we say, 

• “That’s great but let me show you how you really write that.”
• “Good job, when you get to school, you’ll learn so much.”
• “What is this supposed to say?”


These comments manifest themselves in the following comments:

• I can’t write. 
• I don’t know how to write.
• How do you spell…?


Elementary age girl writing with a pencilAs classroom teachers, we need to break down the insecurities and build their independence. It’s easy, if we start from the beginning. From the first day of school, providing clear and concise writing instruction with step-by-step supports, the fear will fall, and the student will soar. 


Essential Routines

All writing lessons should contain daily routines for instruction, penmanship, phonics, mechanics, and content. The right routines can include all these things and more without bombarding students. 


Kindergarten class sitting in a circle on a blue carpetRoutine #1: Instruction Space

Students should be taught where and when writing should take place and what materials they will need for the writing lesson. 

At the beginning of the school year, students will be instructed that writing time is carpet time, facing the easel and the sound chart and word wall should be visible. Students don’t need anything in their hands, as they will be sharing the pen and mimicking writing on the carpet. Students are engaged in writing during these lessons in multiple ways: 

   • some are chosen to write letters, patterns, or words
   • some are finders (locating words in the classroom to use in writing)
    • some are mimicking writing with their fingers on the carpet or in the air 


As the year progresses, students will know to grab a dry erase board, marker, and eraser and come to the carpet. A dry erase board might be kept in their desk, while a pen might be stored in a sock (to be used as an eraser) in a bucket by the carpet. Once the students have the board, marker, and sock, the writing lesson begins. 


After routines for penmanship and mechanics have been established, students will get out their writing folders, spacers, and pencils for instruction. As the instruction continues on the easel, students are writing at their tables.


Routine #2: Letter/Sound Connection Charts 

This one might sound easy, but we can’t overload the students with too many connections at one time. When looking for a letter/sound chart, make sure the chart has clear connections to the alphabet principle. Letter/sounds should be the most frequently used sounds (hard c and hard g and short vowels), easily recognized pictures, and consistent connections (not too many different pictures for the same letter). Using cat, car, circle, and clip on four different charts can create confusion with the initial “c.” Students who are struggling need a clear connection. 


A good sound chart could also be used for the word wall headers and alphabet tracing book. Once a sound chart is established, a daily routine of reciting the chart can help engrain the letter/sound connection for students. 


Routine #3: Penmanship Directions 

No matter the program, students need to hear the external language of creating the letter while they are making the letter. When you are writing in front of the class or interactively writing with them, you need to give oral directions each time. If we were writing the word “like,” the directions would include:

  • l – tall stick down (from the top)

  • i – short stick down, dot on the top

  • k – tall stick down, move out from the stick, in and out

  • e – out from the middle and all around


Elementary age girl practicing writing the alphabetWhile we are writing the letters, they are echoing or chorally describing the strokes. If the habit of penmanship is created in whole group, the students will continue this practice independently. Combining step-by-step strokes to the “writing talk,” students can combine what they know in their head to their developing motor skills and create habits in penmanship from the beginning. 


Routine #4: Phonics

Before each word is written, students stretch the sounds and discuss the patterns in the word. Using established anchor charts, students will match sounds they are making to sound connections on the anchor charts. They will discuss the vowel sounds and patterns as they appear in writing. 


Some patterns are repeated, like the silent e in like, and students quickly pick up on the pattern when the teacher reminds them during writing. “Students, I hear a long vowel sound in like. Our short vowels usually have one vowel and our long vowel words usually have two vowels. Let’s make sure we have two vowels.” After stretching and writing the l, i, and k, tell the students, “This word has a silent letter at the end of the word that makes the i a long vowel.” Students are quick to shout “e” after a few lessons with this pattern.


Some patterns are briefly discussed, but not elaborated on, such as the long vowel pattern “oa” in road. The teacher would ask students to match the letter to sound for the r and o, but might say, “Students, I hear the long vowel o in road. Sometimes the long o is written with two vowels, even though we only hear one. That’s the case in road. We hear the o, but the vowel pattern is an oa. I will write the a.” Then continue stretching the word to add the ending d. 


Phonetic writing is encouraged. “rod” for “road” is acceptable if students are stretching and writing what they hear. Parents are also asked to encourage this writing, as “perfect” writing isn’t necessary to convey their written message. 


Consequently, early writers are not held accountable for complex skills like long vowel patterns independently, but once a pattern is introduced and an anchor is displayed, the teacher should be asking students to use the anchor to “find” the pattern. In the example above, the interactive story written about a bus contained the word “road.” That story is displayed on the wall for independent reading and writing reference. If in a future story the word “float” is needed, the teacher could say, “Listen to the vowel sound in “float.” It sounds like the vowel sound in “road.” Can I have someone find the word road in the room (or on the bus story)? Who can tell me the vowel pattern in “road?” 


Elementary class practicing writingRoutine #5: Mechanics

From the first sentence that is composed by the class, students should be using sentence mechanics for the basics: capital at the beginning, spaces in between the words, and an end mark at the end. We call it The Big 3


We sing the song for the Big 3, practice for the Big 3, and check for the Big 3. We will count each word as we write it, make sure to add a spacer as we go, and emphasize the end mark.


When systematic instruction is provided and routines are established in whole group from the beginning, students use the routines as part of their independent routine. Writing should be scheduled and routines practiced daily. Consistent instruction and time to practice are crucial. 


Coffee ChatWhat’s Next? 

I invite you to join my free on-demand webinar where I will discuss my new book, The Road to Independent Reading and Writing. Students need clear and explicit directions in writing, but setting up the routines in the classroom and their materials is key. When students aren't afraid to write and have appropriate writing anchors in the room, the students are able to write independently with ease. I will give step-by-step ideas for independent writing lessons. 


In this session, participants will:

   • Discover what routines are essential for early learners.
   • Explore what materials can easily be accessed by students.
   • Identify what supports are provided by the teacher that helps maintain independence.


Register Now: 

Watch the on-demand webinar at your own pace. 


Author bio

Cathy Collier

Cathy Collier, Author

Cathy Collier has been an educator for more than 30 years, with a variety of roles, most notedly as a kindergarten teacher and reading specialist for K-2 Title 1 and non-Title 1 schools with Chesapeake Public Schools. Cathy has spoken at numerous state and national conferences and is a member of several leading literacy associations. Cathy has received numerous accolades for her work, most recently as a Darden Fellow at Old Dominion University (her alma mater) for her contributions to literacy.