The Case of the Blank Page: Rethinking Writing in Kindergarten

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.  Over the Family Day long weekend I was visiting with my niece.   It was her brother’s birthday and the kids had all received loot bags.   In the loot bag was a very cute little notebook with lines on the page.  Let me preface the following exchange by noting  that my niece is 4 years old and an extremely bright, outgoing, capable child.  Here is how the conversation evolved:

Niece’s father: “Show Auntie Jess how you write your name.” 

Niece:  “I can’t write my name.”

Niece’s father: “Yes you can you just did it yesterday.  Show her.”

Niece: “I can’t”

Niece’s father: “Why”

Niece: “I don’t know how”

Niece: She looks up at me and in a quiet voice whispers, “The lines are too small.”

This is when my head instantly went into teacher reflection mode!  Aha!  Knowing  this child so well and knowing how “smart” she is, I was surprised she was not willing to write her name on the lines.  I tried to explain to her that the lines didn’t matter and I just wanted to see her writing.  She refused.  What does this tell us as educators?  Those lines have stifled her desire to communicate in writing.  If I was to infer what she was thinking, it wasn’t that she couldn’t write her name but that maybe it wouldn’t be perfect.  As adults we have modelled the correct way to write on lined paper and children have watched this many times; she didn’t want to make a mistake.

What does this mean for our kindergarten students?  Beginning writers go through many different writing stages.  It is not developmentally appropriate to have a beginning writer practise their writing on lined paper or worksheets.  When we create worksheets that we think will help support developing writers, we can be hindering their writing by not allowing the student to explore and practise on a large blank piece of paper.  When we provide worksheets or lined paper we’re sending the message that their writing isn’t good enough if it doesn’t fit between the lines.  Some students may begin to dislike writing.  To me this is a slippery slope…dislike writing, afraid to take a risk, etcetera.  

You may be thinking, “How will they learn to print if they don’t learn on lines?”  I challenge you to re-think that concern.  The “lines” do not teach writing.  They do not teach the formation of letters nor the writing process, traits, or craft.  Those lines hinder a young child’s natural curiosity to communicate in writing.  The nice “neat” printing can come later…or not, and remember it’s not in the Ontario Language Curriculum, Grades 1-8 or the Full-Day Early Learning-Kindergarten Program document!

I would like to thank my niece for reminding me that knowing our students as learners and establishing parental partnerships are critical to maximizing student success.  If I did not know my niece well enough or if her father had not told me that she could write her name, then I would have thought that she “didn’t know how”.  How wrong I would have been!  Sometimes, as adults, we don’t see the obstacles that we create for our young learners.  Next time you create a “pretty” worksheet or have your students practise writing on lines…ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this?”  or “Is there another way my students would like to demonstrate their learning?”  When asking students to write down their thinking,  provide Kindergarten students with the materials and let them choose the size of  blank paper (different sizes have different purposes).  I promise you will be amazed by what they can write!

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One Response to The Case of the Blank Page: Rethinking Writing in Kindergarten

  1. Ellen Vander Kloet says:

    Your blog’s example really clarifies that the focus is the writing, not the lines. We need to listen more carefully to what our students are saying, not assume we know what they are saying! As your niece demonstrated so clearly, sometimes we put obstacles in the way of allowing kids to share what they really know.

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