I remember my mother picking me up from school in our orange VW camper one day in late October. I was in first grade and excited to tell her that, just like grown-ups, we had voted for president in the upcoming election and were going to find out which candidate won at our school.
My mother asked me whom I voted for, and I told her. I could tell she didn’t like my choice! I explained that I chose that person because his name was easier to write: the letters were easier to form, and his name was much shorter than the other person’s. My mother didn’t seem pleased with this answer either!
Transcription—forming letters, writing them correctly, and avoiding fatigue by writing at a fast enough pace—affects how we communicate ideas and opinions. For me, transcription was my primary concern as I cast my first-ever vote.
Transcription’s starring role in the Simple View of Writing
If your child is learning to write, they’re practicing transcription, even if they don’t use that word to describe what they’re doing. Transcription is a big part of the Simple View of Writing, which my colleague Lauren Bardwell introduced in her post “What families need to know to support their child’s writing.”
Transcription is simply the act of putting words on paper (or screen) through handwriting (or typing) and making those words understandable through good spelling. Think of handwriting and typing as siblings—and of spelling as a bossy aunt who takes charge, disciplining the letters to get in line and in the right order.
The Simple View of Writing describes how writing is dependent on three interwoven skills: text generation (creating the ideas), transcription (putting the ideas onto paper or screen), and executive function (organizing and revising the ideas). All three take place within the limits of a person’s working memory, whether that’s an adult or a kid.
Take a look at the graphic below, which shows these three key components visually.
The Simple View of Writing
For children who are just learning to write, transcription takes up most of their working memory, making it really hard for them to come up with ideas of what to write (that text generation bit I mentioned). They have very little free space in their brain to think about planning or organizing their ideas or to think about spelling.
When transcription becomes more automatic, handwriting (or typing) and spelling stop requiring as much conscious thought and effort. Children then do not need to use as much brain power for those tasks and can redirect energy to generating text, including longer pieces, and executive functions, like organizing their ideas.
Transcription’s three parts
Let’s take a closer look at each of the three components of transcription: handwriting, typing, and spelling.
Handwriting means writing by hand, of course, using a tool like a pen or a pencil. You may wonder: does it matter if children begin writing by hand or with a keyboard? It does!
Handwriting activates areas in the brain more than other forms of fine-motor tasks, like tracing or typing letters. For young children without physical disabilities or impairments, learning to draw letters by hand is an important part of both the writing and reading processes. (For students who have disabilities that might interfere with handwriting, there are technologies such as speech-to-text software, as well as supports for positioning and holding a pen or pencil. Some students may be introduced to a keyboard or text-to-speech technology right away if a disability prevents them from writing by hand.)
Writing letters by hand also triggers key regions in the brain and puts in motion processes necessary for later reading development.
Children need to develop fluent (i.e., quickly produced and legible) handwriting so they can focus on what is most important: generating and organizing ideas. Writing letters by hand also triggers key regions in the brain and puts in motion processes necessary for later reading development.
Forming letters by hand, while associating them to the sequence of the sounds in a word, is important to a process called orthographic mapping, which begins with hearing and identifying each sound in a word, then associating each sound with the letter that represents it before spelling out the word. For example, with “toad,” children will need to understand that there are three sounds (/t/ /ō/ /d/), represented by four letters.
Orthographic mapping is important to the reading goal of recognizing words automatically and, thereby, reading fluently. (For more information on how kids learn to read and tips you can use at home, check out our Teach. Learn. Grow. eBook: How to support reading at home: A guide for families.)
Think about this complex process and take note of what you think the role of handwriting might be. When a child is learning to write a word, they:
- Say a word orally, or “say” it in their mind
- Identify all the individual sounds in the word
- Figure out the letters that match each sound or that are necessary to represent the sound
- Remember what the letters look like
- Form each letter in the correct sequence (i.e., accurately, legibly, and fast enough to write sufficient words to express themselves fully)
Wow! That’s a lot of work for a growing brain. And handwriting is integral in this complex process.
Students are often more motivated and engaged with digital writing than with handwriting. Perhaps this is because digital writing is more collaborative than handwriting, allowing for other students to easily add to or make changes to a draft. Students can write with teachers, friends, and family members, and the relationship part of writing can be motivating or of value to students or the assignment.
Keyboarding is often introduced in first grade. As children move past first grade, they usually become more adept at it. Fluency in handwriting is still important, but the fundamental nature of writing quickly supports the shift of moving from writing by hand to typing. Typing also makes it easier to revise drafts.
It turns out that spelling words correctly really does matter, even after the test. When students think about how to spell a word, they are strengthening the same muscle that helps them decode (that is, break down, read, and understand) that word. Although the English language has many (sometimes confusing) spelling rules, most words have predictable letters and letter combinations that we can lean on when trying to spell or read a word.
Unfortunately, some writing difficulties stem from problems with spelling. Often, the middle of a word, where the vowels reside, is where students need the most help with spelling. Sometimes two vowels together do not make a sound a student expects. For example, the -ie in “pie” and “piece” make two different sounds. And the -ou in “loud” and “soup” are completely different as well. Words that have two consonants at the beginning (e.g., “brake,” “grill”) or end of a word (“bent,” “past”) can also be difficult for students.
The good news is that digital tools help students correct spelling errors. Spell check and autocorrect for the win! Frequent exposure through practice and word study, such as sorting activities, can help, too.
How to help your child with transcription
To support your budding writer at home, here are some things you can do to strengthen their transcription skills:
- Practice! Practicing writing letters or words for short periods each day. Even 10–15 minutes is enough to help your child with forming letters, writing neatly, and increasing writing rate.
- Use self-evaluation. Encourage children to evaluate their own efforts. One way is to have them circle what they determine are their best-formed letters or words. Ask them for ideas on how they can improve.
- Focus on a few letters. Research supports that the letters Q, J, Z, U, N, and K account for almost half of the mistakes kids make when writing lowercase letters. The most common illegible letters are Q, J, Z, U, and A. Pay attention to these and be ready to help clarify how to form a letter or how to write it more legibly.
- Aim for speed. Copying short paragraphs or sentences from a grade-level book is a valuable activity that can help young children learn to write faster. Have your child write for about three minutes and then have them (or help them) count the number of words they wrote. Repeat the effort the next day and see if the number of written words increased. This little self-competition can be motivating for some kids.
- Establish a purpose. Practicing writing at home does not mean having to write a full story or formal essay. Think about useful forms of writing you do at home each day, such as grocery lists, thank you notes, birthday cards, or even simple directions for a dog walker or babysitter.
The writing is on the wall
Sometimes what we see as the little things end up being much more important than we thought. Handwriting is one of those things. It is an important part of the process of writing, starting with shaping letters that match to sounds in words, sequencing those letters together properly to form correctly spelled words, and forming words at a speed that creates legible pieces of writing for different purposes and audiences. Learning to type these letters at a speed that won’t slow down thinking is not so easy either!
Our young children have a lot to say. Transcription turns out to be a key part of the developmental process that will empower them to use their voice, not just in those early years when learning to write, but throughout their lives—even to express their ideas about elections!
Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Meg Guerreiro, Tiffany Peltier, Julie Richardson, Kellie Schmidt, and Lauren Bardwell for their contributions to this blog post.