Writing is the most complex literacy task we ask students to perform. Before one can become a proficient writer, they must first master the foundational skills of writing, which include letter formation, handwriting, spelling, capitalization and punctuation, as well as sentence construction. In this blog post, I will provide an overview of each of these foundational skills and discuss why they are important.
First, let’s talk about the complexity of writing.
The more we ask students to perform, the higher the cognitive demand. For example, if we ask students to write a paragraph with five sentences but they have not yet mastered letter formation and cannot fluently handwrite, then the student will almost certainly be set up for failure. Their cognitive attention will be so focused on the formation of the letters that they will not have enough cognitive energy left to attend to spelling, capitalization and punctuation, and sentence construction.
Letter Formation and Handwriting
Letter formation and handwriting are the building blocks of writing. Children begin learning how to form letters in preschool or kindergarten and continue to refine their skills throughout elementary school. The ability to form letters quickly and legibly is crucial for future writing success. In fact, it is the number one indicator for students’ attitude towards writing.
Skills students need in order to be successful at letter formation and handwriting include pencil grip, letter names, directionality, fluent and accurate letter formation, and spacing between letters and words. For more on letter formation and handwriting, read William Van Cleaves’ article Handwriting in a Modern World.
Spelling is another important foundational skill that is necessary for writing. Poor spelling can detract from the readability of a piece of writing and can even affect the meaning of a sentence. It is important to teach children how to spell common words and to provide them with tools to help them spell unfamiliar words.
When we view the subskills students need in order to be successful spellers, we see that the skills include phonemic awareness, segmenting sounds, attending to orthographic patterns, and understanding morphology (the smallest units of meaning, i.e. prefixes, suffixes, base words, etc.) and etymology, or word origin.
For more on spelling, I recommend the book Speech to Print by Louisa Moats.
Capitalization and Punctuation
Capitalization and punctuation are important for conveying meaning in writing. Capital letters are used to indicate the beginning of a sentence or proper nouns, while punctuation marks such as commas, periods, and question marks help to clarify the meaning of a sentence.
It is important to teach children when and how to use capitalization and punctuation.
Sentence construction is the process of building sentences that are clear and concise. Students begin with a simple sentence, which should have a subject and verb and should convey a complete thought. They build upon that simple sentence to make expanded sentences and more complex sentences through answering questions like who, what, when, why, where, and how.
In order to be a successful sentence writer, students need to use the following skills: oral language, vocabulary, background knowledge, organization, purpose, audience, word spacing, syntax, and simple and complex sentences.
Keep in mind that when students are tasked with writing a full paragraph, the cognitive demand is high. We must build these foundational skills so that students are fluent and cognitive space can be freed up to work on things like planning, editing, and revising.
Writing is a complex task that requires mastery of foundational skills. Without a strong foundation, students will struggle with more advanced writing tasks, hindering their success in academic and professional settings. By teaching and reinforcing letter formation, handwriting, spelling, capitalization and punctuation, and sentence construction, teachers can set students up for writing success.