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By TRACI PEDERSEN Associate News Editor

Parents should encourage their preschoolers to begin writing very early, even before they enter a classroom setting, according to new research published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly. The study reveals how early writing — especially when it occurs before any formal education — plays a significant role in improving a child’s literacy level, vocabulary, and fine motor skills.

“Parents in the U.S. are obsessed with teaching their kids the ABCs,” said Professor Dorit Aram of TAU’s Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education. “Probably because English is an ‘opaque’ language. Words do not sound the way they are spelled, unlike ‘transparent’ Spanish or Italian.”

“Parents are using letters as their main resource of teaching early literacy, but what they should be doing is ‘scaffolding’ their children’s writing, helping their children relate sounds to letters on the page even though the letters are not transparent.”

Scaffolding is using a supportive, step-by-step instruction process to help the student slowly gain understanding and independence.

Aram has spent the last 15 years studying adult support of young children’s writing. A major factor of this support is using what she calls “grapho-phonemic mediation,” in which a caregiver actively helps a child break down a word into segments to connect sounds to corresponding letters. For example, parents are using this method when they ask their child to “sound out” a word as they put it to paper. This is different from the traditional model of telling children precisely which letters to print on a page, spelling it out for them as they go.

“Early writing is an important but understudied skill set,” said Aram. “Adults tend to view writing as associated with school, as ‘torture.’ My experience in the field indicates that it’s quite the opposite — children are very interested in written language. Writing, unlike reading, is a real activity. Children watch their parents writing and typing, and they want to imitate them. It is my goal to assist adults in helping their children enter the world of writing by showing them all the lovely things they can communicate through writing, whether it’s ‘mommy, I love you’ or even just ‘I want chocolate’.”

The researchers observed 135 preschool children (72 girls and 63 boys) and their parents as they attempted to write a semi-structured invitation for a birthday party. They analyzed the degree of parental support and assessed the children’s phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, word decoding, vocabulary, and fine motor skills. Overall grapho-phonemic support by the parents was most positively linked to children’s decoding and fine motor skills.

“Scaffolding,” or parental support, was most useful in developing early literacy skills. “The thing is to encourage children to write, but to remember that in writing, there is a right and a wrong,” said Aram.

“We have found that scaffolding is a particularly beneficial activity, because the parent guides the child. And, if that parent guides the child and also demands precision in a sensitive and thoughtful way — i.e. ‘what did you mean to write here? Let me help you’ — this definitely develops the child’s literary skill set.”

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