Communicating Through Written Messages Using Writing Tools

By Kathy Frady, February 27, 2017

Grade Level

  • PreK-1


  • Summer Design Institute

Subject Area

  • Language Arts

Lesson Time

45 minutes


Most three-year-old children’s fine motor and cognitive skills do not allow them to write fully formed letters that form words to form sentences that can be read/comprehended by other people. The design challenge presented to a group of three-year-old children: How can students in this three-year-old class use writing tools to communicate with each other through writing, when we don’t know how to write many letters, words, or sentences?

National Standards

(See, Early Childhood Education 3 Year -Old Standards) WRITING Standard LL 7: Develop familiarity with writing implements, conventions, and emerging skills to communicate through written representations, symbols, and letters. Indicators: • Experiment with a variety of writing tools, materials, and surfaces. (3.1)
  • Use early stages of writing to form shapes and letter-like symbols to convey ideas. (3.2)
  • Engage in tactile experiences creating letters and other forms. (3.3)
  • Provide a variety of materials in the writing center for children to use to communicate or create.


Three-year-old students will be able to create a way or ways in which they can communicate with others in written form using a variety of writing tools.


No special resource materials are needed, although suggested supplies are listed in the “Materials” box below.


Supplies: containers with fat pencils, triangle crayons, markers, colored pencils, dry erase makers and white boards, paint/brushes, sponges, various types of thick paper, wax paper, foil paper, chenille craft stems, wooden sticks, play dough and/or other supplies the teacher has on hand.


  1. Communicate: to give information to some one.
2. Writing tools: we can use many items that will allow us to write so that we can communicate with each other. Background Information: 1. (Shows and defines five ways to hold a writing instrument.) 2. (Offers written explanations concerning five ways to hold a writing instrument.
  1. (Miss April demonstrates using play dough to roll out letters.)
4. (Miss Jan and Ella use “Wet, Dry, Try writing.”


Four children are in writing center playing “school” Mrs. Kathy sits near by observing and the children invite her to play with them. Mrs. Kathy shows the children the invitation to the party and asks how a person who didn’t know how to use writing tools to communicate could solve the problem of writing a reply. The children, who have had many design thinking experiences, suggest that they could use idea cards and the idea board to come up with ideas. Mrs. Kathy records children’s ideas and then children help Mrs. Kathy sort them on the idea board. Ideas include: ask someone who knows how to write to write the reply, create a secret code to write the reply, draw a happy face as the reply, tell the teacher with words, and wave to the teacher in the hallway. As Mrs. Kathy reads each idea, the children tell her where to put them on the idea board. Ask someone who knows how to write and wave to the teacher in the hallway, and tell the teacher with words do not include solving the problem by using a writing tool so they are put to the side. Make a secret code and draw a happy face do include solving the problem using writing tools so they are put to the other side of the idea board. Mrs. Kathy asks which of those two ideas the children want to explore first. Three children say the secret code and one child says the happy face. Mrs. Kathy reminds the one child who said happy face that she can explore this idea on her own with other friends at another time and asks if she will join the other three in exploring the idea of creating a secret code. The child agrees. Mrs. Kathy points out a container on the shelf near the writing center. She gets it down and shows the children it is full of many types of papers and writing tools. She encourages the children to explore the tools with the idea of creating a secret code. Mrs. Kathy watches as children explore and play with the supplies for several minutes. (Standard: familiarity with writing implements and use of different kinds of writing tools, materials, and surfaces.) After being given time to explore, play, and experience the materials, one child suggests that the secret code they create uses the first letter of each of their first names. The other children agree and they decide to use chenille craft stems to form their first initials. (Standard: form letter/letter like symbols and engage in tactile experiences creating letters). Children ask Mrs. Kathy to help them bend the stems as needed. Mrs. Kathy makes a “K” as she plays with the children. When all first initials are made, Mrs. Kathy asks “How will we know what each letter means in our secret code?” The letters are “K” for Kathy, “A” for Adam, “B” for Becca, “C” for Charlie, and “D” for Daniel. The children think about this question. Adam says, “We can use each letter to mean a different word.” Mrs. Kathy agrees and then asks, “Why is that a good idea?” Becca says, “Because then we all get a turn at being in the secret code.” “How many words can our letters represent?” asks Mrs. Kathy. They count out five letters and agree they can represent five words. (Cross standard integration with math, counting and representation of numbers.) “What five words do we want our five letters to represent?” ask Mrs. Kathy. They decide to represent the words 1. Yes as “K,”2. No as “A,” 3. Thanks as “B,” 4. Good as “C,” and 5. “D” as Bad. “How will we remember which letter stands for each word?” ask Mrs. Kathy. The children look at the idea cards and the idea board. They ask Mrs. Kathy to write all of their letters on an idea card with the secret words next to their letters. Adam and Charlie ask if they can have blank idea cards so they can make their own letters and words by coping Mrs. Kathy’s card. (Standard: emerging skills to communicate through written expression, symbols, and letters.) Mrs. Kathy says she wants to go to the party that teacher across the hall invited her to and she wonders how she can let the teacher know. Becca suggests that Mrs. Kathy write the letter “K” on an idea card and give it to the teacher across the hall. Mrs. Kathy asks, “How will she know what the code means?” Becca thinks about it and then suggests that along with the “K” card, Mrs. Kathy also include a card that lists all the letters and their meanings. Mrs. Kathy asks the children if they would like to walk across the hall and give the other teacher the “K” card and the card with letters and words on it. They agree. The teacher across the hall reads the “K” card and then reads the card with the letters and words on it. The teacher across the hall has some blank idea cards to. She writes “C” on a card and hands it back to Mrs. Kathy, who shows it to the four children. Then Mrs. Kathy asks the teacher across the hall to give the students some “I statements” about their secret code prototype. She says, “I like being able to read a secret code, it is fun.” “I wonder if you could use more writing tools the next time you make a secret code.” “I wish the secret word had more words in it.” Mrs. Kathy and the children go back to class. In the writing center they discuss the other teachers’ “I statements.” Adam agrees it is fun to have a secret code. Becca says that she wants to roll out the code letters in play dough. Charlie says he wants to paint the code letters. Daniel says he wants to use happy faces to represent words since that was his idea earlier. Mrs. Kathy leaves the children to their discussion and construction of new ways to use writing tools to communicate.


  1. How does a person who doesn’t know how to use writing tools to communicate could solve the problem of writing a reply to a party invitation?
  2. How will we know what each letter means in our secret code?
  3. Why is that a good idea?
  4. How many words can our letters represent?
  5. What five words do we want our five letters to represent?
6.How will she know what the code means? Teacher will use a rubric to check off information about each child to assess if the student has successfully learned the objectives of the lesson. Instruction will be differentiated based upon which students need more time to play, explore, and use writing tools.

Enrichment Extension Activities

The objectives of this lesson could be expanded to trigger higher order thinking skills as the teacher asked more how and why questions and as the teacher encouraged the students to ask each other more how and why questions. Connections across the curriculum could include math as symbols were counted, and shapes were named; art, as colors of supplies were named; social studies as ways people interact was explored; and language arts as ways in which people communicate was explored.

Teacher Reflection

The scenario in the “Procedures” section was one example of what might happen in a three-year-old classroom in which a teacher used Design Thinking to meet a writing standard. In this scenario, nothing went wrong, but in a real situation the teacher might have to spent a lot of time explaining and re-explaining how the design process works and the teacher might have had to stop the session if students began to lose interest or the teacher might have had to allow one disinterested student to drop out of the project. In this scenario the students learned to work as a team, to explore and use writing instruments, and to interact with other adults.

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