Writing with children

Explore how educators can create authentic, and engaging writing experiences with children, while embedding important learning foci for development of emergent literacy.

Photo: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.


It is important to emphasise that writing with children involves primarily the facilitation of their written expression through the developmental progression from mark marking, scribbling, and drawing (see Mackenzie, 2011, 2014).

Thus, “writing” refers to all forms of visual and written communication, rather than just conventional writing which tends to emerge towards the commencement of formal schooling.

We also explore how elements of print, text, and written language features can be introduced during engaging emergent writing experiences. ​

Writing with children provides opportunities to engage children in meaning making using multiple modes of communication. For example: visual, auditory, tactile, verbal, and written.

The benefits of writing with children for emergent literacy development

Children’s experiences with writing and creating texts is an important avenue for self-expression in early childhood. These experiences also support precursors to their later reading and writing development (Saracho, 2017; Puranik & Lonigan, 2011).

As children are scaffolded by educators to participate in more varied experiences with writing, their ability to create complex, multimodal texts develops:

Young children begin to explore written communication by scribbling, drawing and producing approximations of writing. They use digital technologies and multimedia resources to communicate, play and learn. They create and display their own information in a way that suits different audiences and purposes.- VEYLDF (2016)

Writing experiences provide endless opportunities for developing children’s artistic, as well as written expression.

Pedagogies for writing with children

During writing experiences, the role of the educator is to share in the enjoyment and fulfilment of creating texts, as well as scaffold children’s engagement to develop their emergent literacy skills.

Fellowes and Oakley (2014) emphasise the importance of demonstration (modelling) and practice for emergent writing development, arguing that children need to observe and experiment with the processes used by a competent writer. 

Children need continuous experience in writing. They need the chance to experiment using what they know about writing and the opportunity to apply and practise their developing skills and knowledge. The opportunities to write should be available during free play. - Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 358)

While writing together, children and adults engage in different writing behaviours. The following behaviours are grounded in the gradual release of responsibility model (Duke & Pearson, 2002; Fisher & Frey, 2013; Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) which sees the role of educator as initially leading writing experiences (modelled writing), and gradually decreasing responsibility as children start to share (shared/interacting writing), and eventually create texts with very little support (independent writing).

Modelled writing behaviours

  • educators compose a text, demonstrating how to create texts using multiple modes (e.g. print, images, and audio - for ICT texts)
  • children observe educators during modelled writing
  • educators use ‘’think-alouds’’ to narrate the strategies they are using (e.g. scribbling, drawing shapes, drawing illustrations, annotating, letter formation, writing left to right)
  • depending on the age and emergent writing stage of children, educators will think aloud about different writing strategies, somewhere on the continuum of: mark making, scribbling, shape formation, to more elaborated drawing, and the addition of print elements.

By thinking aloud the educator makes it obvious what the practices are for generating ideas and organising sentences and words in a text. Thinking aloud allows the educator to demonstrate more effectively how the writer should apply skills, knowledge, processes and strategies when writing.
Fellowes & Oakley (2014, p. 449)

A three-year-old’s drawing, featuring some possible letter or number forms. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre

Shared/interactive writing behaviours

  • educators provide opportunities for children to create texts together
  • educators provide prompts to scaffold children’s written expression
  • children express themselves using written and visual modes, as well as verbal (and educators annotate or add to children’s texts based on their shared ideas)
  • through modelling and scaffolding, children learn more about how texts work, and the features of different text types:

Over time and with plenty of opportunities to hear and talk about narrative texts and with a developing understanding of the detail in narratives as well as writing skill and fluency, children’s stories will progressively display a greater application of the text organisational and language features.
- Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 383)

Through these shared writing activities children develop a sense of ownership of the text.

Independent writing behaviours

  • educators provide space, materials, and writing inspiration/stimulus
  • children create their own texts from beginning to end, drawing upon skills and knowledge gained in other emergent literacy experiences
  •  educators ask children about their drawings/writings, and add any annotations if the child directs them to
  • educators may provide support or scaffolding as needs arise, but children are almost entirely independent.

In early childhood settings, it is important to think of the writing pedagogies above as fluid and dynamic, rather than as fixed or separate. In these experiences, educators can model and scaffold at different levels of support according to the needs of the child.

This allows educators to create learning experiences that are responsive, intentional, and catering to the learning needs of individual children (i.e. child-centred) (VEYLDF, 2016).

  • Therefore, educators can work to encourage modelled/ shared/ independent writing behaviours, depending on factors like the child’s previous writing experiences, their familiarity with the materials, and the text construction process.

Facilitating multimodal written expression

Photo of child using iPad to capture clay letters.

In early childhood settings, meaning within texts is often conveyed in multiple modes (written language, spoken language, visual, audio, gestural, and tactile and spatial systems of meaning) (Kalantzis, Cope, Chan, and Dalley-Trim, 2016).

Examples of multimodal texts include picture books, drawings with annotations, posters, films, web pages, and art works.

Children’s written expression begins with combinations of multimodal communication systems, including speech, drawing, music, and dance:

As small children, we lived in a multimodal world. We discovered that art was a language with as much communication power as speech. Later we learned, like oral language, that the arts could act as a bridge to reading and writing and that music and movement had the same potential for contributing to our expression of meaning and self.
- Crafton, Silvers & Brennan (2017, p. 68)

Based on research by Mackenzie (2011, 2014), Puranik and Lonigan (2011), and Sunday (2017), the following pedagogical methods for facilitating children’s emergent written expression are explored below:

  • facilitating drawing as writing
  • incorporating text structures and features
  • incorporating elements of print.

These involve facilitating experiences that draw upon fine arts drawing, painting, sculpture, or multimedia text creation, as well as facilitating children’s experimentation with elements of print in their work.

Facilitating drawing as writing

In Mackenzie and Veresov’s (2013) exploration of children’s multimodal text creation, they highlight Vygotsky’s (1997) distinction between sign creation (i.e. making up one’s own signs: drawing), and sign use (i.e. using the signs already available in established systems: print/writing).

Mackenzie et al.’s work in this area have shown that encouraging children’s purposeful use of drawing as a sophisticated form of written communication, which helps to facilitate the eventual emergence of conventional writing, at the start of Primary school:

The simple sign use (written language) is complemented by complex sign creation (drawing) to create multimodal texts in each instance. The children are able to express themselves using two modes of language working together.
- Mackenzie and Veresov (2013, p. 26)

Writing experiences that encourage drawing, allows children to express themselves in multiple modes. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

Another benefit of encouraging drawing as emergent writing is that it can act as an anchor for children’s ideas as they begin to experiment with letters and engage in experiences (Mackenzie, 2011).

Therefore, valuing drawing and making time and space for children to engage in meaningful drawing experiences can facilitate emergent written expression (Mackenzie, 2011).

This means providing tools for children to express themselves via drawing, and valuing children’s mark making, scribbling, and drawing as communicating a message. Shared and interactive writing experiences allow children to observe educators' modelled writing behaviours, and collaboratively contribute to the creation of early texts.

See Making meaning and expressing ideas in texts.

This image comes from a shared/interactive writing experience, where educators and children simultaneously add marks and drawings to this collaborative text. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

When children are provided materials, time, and scaffolding, they can express themselves using complex multimodal texts.

Educators can work with children to scaffold and add to their drawings/writings. Depending on the learning intention, educators can engage in shared/interactive writing behaviours.

Educators can also annotate children’s drawings/paintings to record the child’s oral narration of their work.

Educator’s annotations of children’s drawings help to capture the additional meanings that children wish to communicate through their texts. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

In this way, educators use the annotation process to scaffold children’s learning and motivated by the child’s desire to add other modes of communication (for example: writing) to their texts.

When children desire it, educators can work with them to add further meaning to their drawings, such as through annotation of children's oral narrations. Such drawing/writing experiences are closely connected to fine arts experiences incorporating emergent literacy concepts.

Introducing text structures and features

As children engage in emergent literacy experiences, they begin to learn about the unique features of written language and multimodal texts.

 Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 387) recommend the following key understandings relevant to embed within writing experiences with children. Children are developing the following:

  • understanding that written texts should be meaningful and communicate information, and that the meaning of a text stays the same each time the text is read
  • understanding that the content of a written text comes from the thoughts and ideas of the writer
  • knowing that there are different purposes and different types of texts for writing and that an author writes for an audience
  • the purpose and nature of some familiar types of text, e.g. letter, list, telephone message, stories and greeting cards
  • print and text concepts such as writing from left to right and from top to bottom on the page, spaces between words, and the concepts of a word, sentence and punctuation mark.
Text structures can be explored and introduced using reading experiences, then writing frameworks like this comic strip can support children’s creation of text according to different genre conventions. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

Through emergent reading and writing experiences, children learn about how texts work, and the main differences between text types (genres).

The main text types relevant for early childhood include (adapted from Fellowes & Oakley, 2014):

  • personal (expressive) texts, including letters, diaries, journals, and notes
  • imaginative (narratives) texts, including stories, fairytales, poems, and play scripts
  • informative (expository) texts, including reports, explanations, procedures, and persuasive writing.

For an in-depth exploration of text types (including ICT texts) see the learning focus Exploring and creating texts.

Fellowes and Oakley (2014) argue that the texts children create “should be for purposes relevant to their lives and interests” (p. 377).

The kinds of texts that can be created during writing experiences with children:

  • writing the procedure for the biscuits that are made during a class cooking experience
  • preparing for an excursion by writing a reminder list of the things to be taken
  • writing a thank you letter to a recent visiting speaker
  • talking and then writing about favourite places at home and assembling them together to make a book for the classroom reading corner
  • writing labels for the material containers and special areas of the classroom so as to assist people to easily locate them
  • writing a sign to go over the fish tank advising people about required behaviour when dealing with the fish. - Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 377)
Recount texts can be created using “drawing telling” experiences, where children are asked to retell or describe an experience through drawing and oral narration. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre

These texts can be created through modelled, shared/interactive, or independent writing experiences.

What is key, however, is that educators embed emergent literacy learning foci within these writing experiences. 

Incorporating elements of print

As explored above, children’s written expression develops on a continuum starting with early mark making, and scribbling:

Young children would benefit from being encouraged to scribble and pretend write during play time … - Puranik and Lonigan (2011, p. 585)

Through writing experiences, including modelling and scaffolding from educators, children begin to also produce drawings that include letter-like characters. Educators can engage in modelled and shared writing behaviours to provide multiple opportunities to scaffold children’s writing.

As children gain confidence and proficiency with drawing, educators can start to facilitate children’s letter-sound experimentation during writing experiences.

For example:

writing one’s name appears to be an ideal starting point for learning language-specific writing features. For these children, drawing attention to the letter-sound relationships for their own names and their classmates’ names would be appropriate.
- Puranik and Lonigan (2011, p. 585)

This multimodal text produced by a four-year-old was created during a shared/interactive writing experiences, with scaffolding from the child’s educators. The child provides a drawing, and has added a short sentence, and a name to the text. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

Educators should continually scaffold children’s mark making, scribbling, drawing and emergent writing, to help them to extend upon previous experiences. An obvious starting point is to scaffold children’s attempts to write their name.

Through the following ideas for writing experiences, educators can support children to write their name in authentic ways:

  • children “signing in” when arriving at the room
    • can begin with placing an item on their name/face to show they are here
    • then perhaps making a mark next to their name/face
    • can progress to copying their name
    • eventually child writing their name independently
    • children writing (or pretending to write) their name during sociodramatic play experiences
    • children adding their name (or a mark to signify their name) on their drawings and other artwork.
    A label created by four-year-old children out of clay, to be placed with an art installation they created. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

    See the resources on handwriting available at the end of this page.

    By introducing letter forms, and scaffolding children’s writing or creation of these letters, educators can demonstrate how to add elements of written language to their drawings, but only if children are ready and interested to do so (so as not to lessen the importance of their visual expression in and of itself). 

    Educators can purposively introduce multimodal text types (like comics, cartoons, posters) that include both a visual and written element, and scaffold children’s expression within these kinds of text structures.

    After children have produced their visual contribution, they can work with the educator to annotate the work with the written component(s).

    This comic strip was created by a four-year-old child with scaffolding and support from her educator. After the images were complete, she worked with her educator to capture the oral narration that accompanied each of the pictures. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

    Embedding specific learning foci in writing experiences

    Writing with children provides numerous opportunities to develop children’s emergent literacy capacities including making meaning/expressing ideas in texts, fine motor skills, concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics, and creating and exploring texts.

    Some ways of facilitating emergent literacy learning foci are below:

    This writing experience provided opportunities for collaborative mark making and drawing, with the educator adding the print for each child’s name at the end of the experience. Image: Milleara Integrated Learning and Development Centre for Children

    Making meaning and expressing ideas in texts

    • use images, sounds, sensory materials, and previous experiences as as a stimulus to help children express their ideas in texts
    • for example, you might ask children to draw about a recent event or experience
    • alternate between modelled/shared/interactive writing  behaviours to scaffold children’s expression using multiple media
    • educators might demonstrate some marks, or shapes they could make using a crayon or a texta; then wait for children to respond with their own marks or shapes; educators could then build upon what the child has written and scaffold the child to express themselves further, with more elaborate mark making, scribbling, or drawing
    • offer opportunities to annotate their work if they would like, using their own oral narration.

    Fine motor

    • consider the fine motor requirements of any writing implement or material you provide children
    • take time to model and scaffold children’s use of implements to create more complex and varied marks, scribbles, drawings, and shape/letter forms, developing their fine motor skills
    • support children to use writing implements for all kinds of writing experiences from mark making through to using print to annotate children’s own visual texts.

    See Fine motor.

    Concepts of print

    • before children can write their name, encourage them to make marks to represent their name
    • model and “think aloud” the strategies and print concepts to create texts with children (e.g. spacing between words, tracking left to right, upper and lower case letters, punctuation marks)
    • provide opportunities for children to practice letter formation in functional ways (e.g. signing in, adding name to work).

    Phonological awareness

    • if children are interested in adding print to their drawings/writings, provide rhyming words which would allow children to write a few words with similar phonological patterns (e.g. -ap words like: map, gap, sap, lap).


    • during functional uses of print in children’s writing experiences (e.g. adding labels, signs etc.) model how simple sound-letter (phonics) patterns can be used to spell short words
    • model sounding out and writing a letter (or letter pattern) for each sound in the word
    • show children how to say the sounds of their name as they learn to write it. For example, Max is spelled: m, a, x. Isla is spelled: I, s, l, a.

    Exploring and creating texts

    Through writing experiences, children learn how different text types (genres) are structured, and what features they have. Different text types include:

    • personal (expressive) texts
    • imaginative (narratives) texts
    • informative (expository) texts.

    Children can create functional and meaningful texts using mainly drawings/images, but may include some elements of print (with educator support). Functional and meaningful texts can include:

    • procedures for creating a structure, or following a recipe recounts from an excursion or other experience
    • thank you letters for family, friends, or guests to the early childhood setting
    • descriptions of favourite places
    • creating labels for parts of the room or outside
    • creating a sign.

    Theory to practice

    Bruner’s concept of “scaffolding” was influential in creating the “gradual release of responsibility model” (Duke & Pearson, 2002; Fisher & Frey, 2013; Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) where the responsibility of instruction varies from solely the educator’s (modelled writing), to sharing more responsibility with children (shared/interacting writing), until children can create texts with very little support (independent writing).

    Using these different writing practices, educators can dynamically model, scaffold, and support children to engage in increasingly more complex writing experiences.

    The importance of children’s drawing as emergent written expression is important to remember in this teaching practice.  Drawing upon the theories of Dewey and Vygotsky, Richards (2017) argues that children are:

    …active participants in their own and other’s lives as they make meanings from the world around them and contribute meanings to their worlds … Their participation, which involves co-constructions with people, objects, events and places, results in their competent use and construction of multiple literacies …

    Drawing and other art forms have long provided children with a means of expressing thoughts and feelings and making sense of experience. Artistic actions and outcomes bridge internal thoughts and external communication – in effect acting as mediating devices, through which children make meaning, develop higher levels of thinking and generate complex interpersonal relationships.”- Richards (2017, p. 128)

    Mackenzie’s (2011, 2014) research aligns with this view, demonstrating how drawing is an ideal scaffold and outlet for facilitating rich engagement and construction of texts.

    Drawing (as another form of communication) can provide an effective, and important connection between the kinds of expression that children use in early childhood settings (meaning making using multiple media), and those expected in the early years of school (emergence of formal writing).

    Mackenzie (2011, p. 324) asserts that:

    For many children drawing is both child’s play (Norris, et al., 1998) and a substantive mental activity (Sheridan, 2002); a socially meaningful activity and a constructive process of thinking in action (Cox, 2005) which allows access to real and imaginary worlds (DuCharme, 1991).

    Drawing is ‘spontaneous, aesthetic, expressional, and graphic’ (Neu & Berglund, 1991) and holds the potential for rich expression and complex learning (Oken Wright, 1998).

    Other researchers note the benefits of drawing as a form of expression that is easily accessible to children, and can help them to articulate their ideas holistically:

    One of the great strengths of drawing lies in its ability to immediately reflect back to the person drawing the ideas that are revealed. This is perhaps why young children find drawing such an attractive and powerful tool. It is immediately holistic and interactive in ways that writing is not.- Brooks (2017, p. 42)

    Evidence base

    In a study of children in their first year of school Mackenzie and Veresov (2013) found that continually encouraging children to use drawing as the primary form of written expression eased the transition from drawing to conventional writing.

    They found the children’s own desire to continue drawing was supported by their continued access to the meaning making tools (i.e. drawing and writing) they needed, in order to express themselves and “construct meaningful texts”.

    They also found that over the course of the multiple drawing experiences, children began to gradually supplement their visual text construction with conventional tools of writing (i.e. printed letters and words).

    Other research focussing on fine motor, and emergent writing development, has found that children’s interest in writing can be fostered from an early age, when provided access to writing implements:

    Our results indicate that children begin writing from a very young age. Interest in writing can be facilitated by providing children as young as 3-years-old with the necessary tools (pencils, crayons) and the opportunity to engage in writing activities.- Puranik and Lonigan (2011, p. 585)

    A meta-analysis of emergent writing instruction in preschool settings found that children’s emergent literacy development is strongly supported when educators provide guidance or scaffolding and embed emergent literacy concepts in the context of authentic writing experiences (Hall, et al., 2015).

    Emerging research is showing the potential benefits of incorporating ICT texts (including electronic books and interactive media), particularly when combined with scaffolding and mediation by adults (Piasta, 2016).  

    Links to VEYLDF

    Outcome 1: identity

    Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities

    • use their home language to construct meaning
    • develop strong foundations in both the culture and language/s of their family and the broader community without compromising their cultural identities.

    Outcome 2: community

    Children become aware of fairness

    • begin to understand and evaluate ways in which texts construct identities and create stereotypes.  

    Outcome 3: wellbeing

    Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing

    • respond through movement to traditional and contemporary music, dance and storytelling of their own and others’ cultures.

    Outcome 5: communication

    Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts

    • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
    • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured
    • explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
    • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
    • recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts.

    Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media

    • use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning.
    • experiment with ways of expressing ideas and meaning using a range of media
    • begin to use images and approximations of letters and words to convey meaning.

    Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work

    • begin to make connections between, and see patterns in, their feelings, ideas, words and actions, and those of others
    • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
    • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
    • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them
    • draw on memory of a sequence to complete a task
    • draw on their experiences in constructing meaning using symbols listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme.

    Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking

    • use information and communication technologies to access images and information, explore diverse perspectives and make sense of their world
    • use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing
    • engage with technology for fun and to make meaning.   

    Experience plans and videos

    For age groups: early language users  (12 - 36 months)

    For age groups: early language users  (12 - 36 months); language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months).

    For age groups: language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months).

    Links to learning foci and teaching practices:

    Handwriting resources


    Brooks, M. L. (2017) ‘Drawing to learning’ In M. J. Narey, (Ed.) Multimodal perspectives of language, literacy, and learning in early childhood: The creative and critical "art" of making meaning (Vol. 12). Springer.

    Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of meaning. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.

    Duke, N.K. & Pearson, P.D. (2002). Effective reading practices for developing comprehension (Chapter 10), In A.E. Farstrup & S.J.

    Fellowes, J., & Oakley, G. (2014). Language, literacy and early childhood education, 2nd Edition. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

    Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility.2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

    Hall, A. H., Simpson, A., Guo, Y., & Wang, S. (2015). Examining the effects of preschool writing instruction on emergent literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Literacy Research and Instruction, 54(2), 115–134.

    Mackenzie, N. (2011). From drawing to writing: What happens when you shift teaching priorities in the first six months of school?. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 34(3), 322-240.

    Mackenzie, N. (2014). ‘Transitions to school and emergent writers’ In B. Perry, S. Dockett, & A.Petriwskyj (Eds), Transitions to school — International research, policy and practice (pp. 89-102). Springer, Dordrecht.

    Mackenzie, N., & Hemmings, B. (2014). Predictors of success with writing in the first year of school. Issues in Educational Research, 24(1), 41–54.

    Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983) The instruction of reading comprehension, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.

    Piasta, S. B. (2016). Current understandings of what works to support the development of emergent literacy in early childhood classrooms. Child Development Perspectives, 10(4), 234–239.

    Puranik, C. S., & Lonigan, C. J. (2011). From scribbles to scrabble: Preschool children’s developing knowledge of written language. Reading and Writing, 24(5), 567–589.

    Richards, R. (2017). ‘Young children’s drawings and storytelling: multimodal transformations that help to mediate complex sociocultural worlds’ In M. J. Narey, (Ed.) Multimodal perspectives of language, literacy, and learning in early childhood: The creative and critical "art" of making meaning (Vol. 12) (pp. 127-147) Springer.

    Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction.3rdEdition(pp. 205-242), Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

    Saracho, O. N. (2017). Parents’ shared storybook reading–learning to read. Early Child Development and Care, 187(3–4), 554–567.

    Sunday, K. E. (2017). Drawing as a relational event: Making meaning through talk, collaboration, and image production. In M. J. Narey (Ed.), Multimodal perspectives of language, literacy, and learning in early childhood(pp. 87-105). Springer, Cham.

    Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016) Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) Retrieved 3 March 2018,         
    Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10.Retrieved 3 March 2018.Vygotsky, L. S. (1997).

    The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. (R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton, Trans.). New York: Plenum Press, Vol. 4.