Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How do three year olds write?

Since this post is about writing, I knew it was perfect for the Tuesday Slice of Life at Two Writing Teachers!  Check out the Two Writing Teachers blog for lots more reflection about teaching...

At the beginning of each school year, I gather "baseline data" on my preschoolers' writing skills - their ability to use a writing tool, to write alphabet letters, and their overall interest or curiosity about writing. For preschoolers, these skills can be discovered through drawing.  

I invite each of them to draw a self-portrait. I work with them one-on-one, enticing them with a "teacher pen" (one of my black thin felt tip markers) and a personal mirror propped to catch their reflections.  

I give simple directions, "Draw a picture of your face; here's a mirror so that you can check all the details.  See if you can draw your face just as large as it is in the mirror.  How should you begin?

I am continually amazed how every child throws themselves right into this endeavor, without a pause; there is no concern about ability, there is simply excitement about the mirror and the pen.  (How many of us adults would willingly attempt a self-portrait?)

When they pronounce the picture, "Done!", I double-check - "Did you get all the details? Your eyes? Your nose? What else do you see in the mirror?" And then, when they are really, truly done, I ask them to sign their name to this masterpiece.

This self-portrait work provides me a delightful opportunity to observe many details. Let me share some of the questions I consider and also some of the children's work, in hopes of illustrating how this simple exercise - drawing a self-portrait - can reveal so much about how a child is learning and developing.

How long do they attend? Do they show curiosity and eagerness? 

Do they work to make their drawing more detailed? Do they use the mirror or ignore it? Are they focused and studious? Or 'quick to escape'? Are they able to ignore most distractions and interruptions?

How familiar are they with drawing? How are they holding the pen? Do they hold it purposefully? Or do they jab at the paper?  As preschoolers develop their writing ability, they move from grabbing the pen with a blunt, full fist to more precise finger and hand movements, leading to a three-point grip.


How many details do they add to their picture?  How well do they plan the space on the page?  

How skilled are they at writing their name? As preschoolers develop their ability to print letters in the alphabet, they move from scribbles, to more controlled "mock letters," then letter strings, and, finally,  an accurate name.

Self-portraits have proven to be a playful, enjoyable, yet informative ritual at the start of each school year, providing me a window into my children's writing skills, and informing my teaching.  

We do lots of drawing all year long - and we work with mirrors a great deal more, as well.  

We will draw self-portraits again at the end of the school year.  At year end conferences, I show families both the beginning and end-of-year drawings. It is always breathtaking to see the growth in preschoolers' development, how much more detailed and polished their self-portraits look at year's end.  Almost all have learned to write a very clear signature! 


  1. Awesome presentation!That's why I name you as a mentor.

  2. This is so informative, Maureen, a real peak into your world & into the skills of pre-schoolers. I love the changes they make, remember well my first graders who drew the circle face then attached the legs and arms to it, but slowly through the year, added the bodies. Great to see your questions too. Thanks!

  3. Thank you, Linda! I am always excited by these self-portraits...and the children's progression in skills through the year.

  4. What a great piece here from start to finish. It's like I'm listening in as you process through this work and reflect on the importance here. Lovely.

  5. This was so interesting! I loved seeing the students' work. I love the questions you consider and how it impacts your teaching. What an awesome end of year comparison!

  6. This is so wonderful to read! I feel like I get a whole new perspective on my daughter's learning, plus she really enjoyed seeing her drawing online :)