One day last spring my daughter Gillian came home from her part-time daycare program with a sheet of paper with her name sloppily printed across it. Thinking it was a party invitation written out for her by one of her classmates, I was shocked to hear her proudly proclaim that she had printed it all by herself. She’d just turned three and already her printing was tidier than her then seven-year-old brother’s.
My shock turned to pride, but then quickly morphed to guilt, because I hadn’t thought that she’d be interested in practicing her printing. Besides, she would be starting full-day kindergarten in just a few months and I didn’t see the benefit of teaching her to print before school started. (I worried she’d be bored in class while the other kids learned to spell their names if she already knew how.)
Throughout the summer, Gillian’s printing became even more precise as she mastered the alphabet, the names of everyone in our family and then her friends’ names. We spent afternoons sitting together, her type-A personality shining through as she struggled to make each and every letter perfect.When she started picking up on sight words from her brother’s homework, the link between her ability to print and her ability to read suddenly clicked for me.
New research out of Tel Avi University this progression from printing to reading that I saw in Gillian.
Published recently in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, the study explains why early writing, even before children start school, plays a role in improving a child’s literacy level and fine motor skills. Researchers Dorit Aram of Tel Aviv University and Samantha Bindman of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign specifically looked at the importance of parental support in teaching preschoolers how to write.
“Parents in the U.S. are obsessed with teaching their kids the ABCs,” Professor Aram said in a news release. “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.”
Researchers asked 135 preschool children and their parents to work together on a semi-structured invitation for a birthday party, observing how the parents supported the children and assessed the children’s alphabet knowledge, word decoding, vocabulary and fine motor skills. Parents who provided the most graphophonemic support (that is, had the kids sound out words as they printed them) had children who had better fine motor and word decoding skills.
Surprising to me is that parents often accepted errors rather than asking their kids to fix mistakes. “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,” says Professor Aram. Perhaps letting those “b” and “d” mixups slide is a parent’s way of making printing work less arduous?
So break out those worksheets, or get a jump on hand writing those Valentine’s Day cards, because a little printing goes a long way when it comes to improving your child’s literacy skills.