Encouraging Young Writers: Writing Ideas for K- through Third-Graders

Many of you have children who are not yet ready for WriteShop; in fact, they’re still in the younger elementary grades. Yet you’re already beginning to panic because you’re afraid they’re going to miss something. Am I speaking to YOU?

Debbie and I get calls and e-mails from moms who wonder what to do with these five- to eight-year-olds, and we have an answer: “Not much!” Not that you can’t use a formal writing program with these kids—it’s just not necessary. Young writers, as a rule, often are not ready for organized, original writing. Their analytical, abstract, and critical thinking skills do not fully develop until around age 12. Therefore, you may be wise to avoid a formal writing program during these early years. Immature and inexperienced, these youngsters can’t depend on their own abilities to come up with ideas. Use this time to expose them to information. Because their verbal skills are usually more highly developed, use oral dictation for practice with expression. Copying can then be used to help them develop writing habits. 

Susan Wise Bauer suggests that children of this age learn best by imitating. Writing skills are not innate; they must be taught. Copying excellent literature helps young children recognize first-rate writing and incorporate those skills in future assignments. Also, Bauer says, because writing is not a natural skill you are teaching the child to write through copying and, later, dictation. Adjust any of the following activities to the child's ability. Do not frustrate your youngster—choose activities that will help him feel successful. I’m sure you’ll discover that this is not the final word on writing with the K-3 set, but you’ll certainly glean some ideas!


  • Narrating. Read a paragraph or short book or excerpt to your child. Have the student orally tell the story back to you in his own words. Help him by asking questions (who? what? when? where? why? how?). Consider writing down what the child narrates. Be sure to write word-for-word—sometimes he will give such a mature-sounding narrative, the only thing that reminds you of his young age is words like "catched" or "brang." You will have a treasured record of his early speech habits!
  • Journaling. Read a short book or an excerpt from a longer book on a particular topic (how the Pilgrims crossed the ocean, how black bears fish for salmon, etc.). Then, ask the child to synthesize the information by narrating the information in a different form. For instance, he may be a Pilgrim boy journeying on the Mayflower, or he may be a bear cub whose mother is teaching him to fish. To prompt the child, ask him, "What did we just read? What was this story or article about?" Draw out of him feelings and experiences he may have as this particular person or animal. "How did you feel when you caught that fish?" Feel free to give him a word bank from which to choose vocabulary. It's fun to write down what the child narrates. This exercise is especially good when teaching the child to write across the curriculum, or when he’s participating in a unit study.
  • Narrating into a tape recorder. Have the child narrate his account into a tape recorder. When his writing skills have developed sufficiently (3rd-4th grade), you may want to have him write his story from dictation. He can stop and start the tape as he writes his own words on paper. Go back with him to catch and fix capitalization and punctuation errors. His spelling errors can become part of his list for the week. Depending on the child, you may want to focus on one or two areas that need attention. You might also note his errors so that you can bring them to his attention before the next dictation assignment. "Bobby, let's review. What begins every sentence?" 
  • Narrating letters. Your child can dictate letters to friends or relatives, thank you notes, greetings to missionaries, etc. If he is old enough, correct grammar and spelling with him and have him recopy the letter in his own writing. To apply this to your schooling, he may write a letter about a field trip he took, a book he read (or you read to him), etc.
  • Narrating stories: Offer story prompts and encourage your child to dictate a story to you. Here’s an idea: “What would life be like if you were an elephant (a fish, a spider, a sea gull, a dolphin, a Christmas tree, a penguin, a cat, a rat, a gopher, or a hamster)?” You’ll find more ideas like this in WriteShop’s TM Appendix B (Supplemental Activities). For example, the Story Starters offer clever openers that help a child begin to weave a tall tale of his or her own!
  • Narrating description: “What does Daddy look like? Mommy? Grandpa?” Ask your youngster to describe family members, friends, and pets. Again, ask questions. If she tells you that Grandpa has gray hair, ask her, “Is it gray, or is it closer to silver or white? Have her tell you about his hair length and texture, too. This activity begins to prepare children for a lifetime of observation. Then move on to describing objects, food, and scenery. Gather some topic ideas from your older child’s WriteShop I book.
  • Illustrating a story. Have the child draw or paint a picture on a large sheet of paper. Ask him to dictate a sentence or a short story about his work of art. Write it beneath the picture.


  • Copying. Copying can begin in first grade. Give your child a (very) short Bible verse or an interesting sentence from one of his textbooks or storybooks. As this activity becomes more natural for him, increase the length of the selection to a passage or paragraph. Always choose well-written literature as a strong model for your youngster. Perhaps you might provide a wide-ruled copybook for him as he follows the model and copies exactly as it is written. Have him check his copy against the original, correcting all errors of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. (It helps if you type or write out the verse or sentence on a large card or sheet of paper, using larger printing or font size.)
  • Dictation. Second graders can begin writing from dictation. You are still modeling for them and not expecting much in the area of original writing. Copying should continue as longer and longer passages are introduced over time. One way to do dictation is to have the child copy a particular paragraph or passage one day and then write it from your dictation on another day. You can spend 10-20 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week on this important exercise. Continue the practice of writing from dictation at least through the 4th grade.

WORD GAMES (good for any age!)

  • Language games and activities. See Clear and Lively Writing (from Bob Jones University Press) or other sources for a variety of exercises that build vocabulary and language skills.
  • Sentence building. Begin with a short, vague phrase "It went." "He ate." "It left." Ask the child to replace vague words with specific ones. "The dog ran." "The boy chewed." "The bird disappeared." Work at a white board or on a large sheet of paper, writing each new sentence under the former. Now begin to ask questions, such as "How did the dog run?" "Where the bird disappear to?" "What was the boy chewing?" Keep adding a new word or phrase until you have built a long, concrete sentence. "The hungry boy noisily chewed a stalk of crisp celery while watching a Veggie Tales video in the family room."
  • Word associations and list making. Younger students will dictate these to you while you write on the white board. Older students may enjoy competing with siblings in a timed competition, writing on lined paper. First, tell the child he will be writing a list of words that relate to a given topic. Encourage him to be as specific as possible. If you are timing him, give about a minute. Topics can include animals (or more specifically, farm animals, jungle animals, domesticated animals, birds, reptiles, etc.); food; colors; clothing; household items; objects made of wood; things you find in the ocean, etc. If you are studying a topic in science, or a period of history, give an appropriate topic, like the Civil War or holidays.
  • Synonyms. Choose a vague word. Using the Word Association ideas, have the child make a list of as many synonyms as he can list. Adjectives like "good" or "big" often produce excellent results.
  • Acronyms. Write a word or phrase vertically on a sheet of paper or on a white board. Ask the child to dictate or write words or phrases that begin with each letter of the acronym AND that relate in some way to the subject. If the acronym is "tree" he may write "tall," "roots," "elm," and "eucalyptus." Or, an older student may write phrases to form a poem: (Line 1) "Tall and proud, the (Line 2) Redwood tree (Line 3) Eagerly reaches upward (Line 4) Eventually touching the sky." A third idea? (Line 1) "Towering pine" (Line 2) "Regal maple" (Line 3) "Elegant weeping willow" (Line 4) "Eager young sapling." This is a fun exercise to illustrate, too!
  • Captions and more. Use pictures from calendars, magazines, family photos, etc. as springboards for writing. Children can write captions, sentences, storyboards, or short stories (dictated aloud or written, whichever is age-appropriate). Even colorful phrases (clear blue sky, cheerful golden butterfly, etc.) help build the child's brainstorming abilities and stretch his vocabulary.
  • Many, many more ideas abound. Bookstores and school suppliers often carry excellent resources containing pre-writing activities, word building games, and language stimulators. It is not uncommon for a good writing curriculum to provide a list of activities.

Not all writing exercises have to result in formal composition. An artistic child can design a bookmark, travel brochure, or mobile. She can create and illustrate a simple cookbook. Perhaps your “drama queen” would enjoy making up a skit or a song. Here are some other thoughts:

  • Take a peek at Appendix B of your WriteShop Teacher’s Manual—it’s brimming with suggestions! In particular, look at the Creative Extensions for ideas that young children might enjoy.
  • Find a book about teaching poetry. At this age, steer clear of structured, metered verse. Instead, find ideas for simple yet whimsical poems. A Google search of “teaching poetry K-3” might yield some helpful links.
  • And a final word: Read, read, read! Introduce the wonderful world of books to your children. Reading and writing are closely linked. Play with words and discuss ideas. Read aloud from books they cannot yet read for themselves. Your kids will love you for it!

Kim Kautzer


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