Preschools don't spend a lot of time giving kids a chance to write, and that appears to be a lost opportunity. It's not that preschools should be teaching penmanship or sentence construction, Michigan State and Georgia State University researchers say, it's that they should encourage children to see writing as a way of communicating with others and expressing themselves.

Most 3- and 4-year-olds have a natural desire to write. They draw scribbles and call it writing; they put together pages to make books. But a study found their classrooms were not typically set up to emphasize using writing this way.

Putting writing materials in other parts of the classroom gives children a chance to write a grocery list or restaurant order as part of their play.

“Few teachers in this study think about writing as communication,” said Hope Gerde, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “However, all children have ideas, and when we allow young children to communicate their ideas using whatever type of ‘writing’ they can produce — whether it's scribbles, drawing or letter-like formations — writing is an age-appropriate and engaging endeavor.”

It doesn't matter that you can't read what preschoolers write. Their interest and enjoyment in the process is what counts. Too often, teachers view writing as something that happens after early childhood education, and those beliefs can mean they don't encourage kids to use writing to communicate. But strengthening writing skills early can improve academic success.

The researchers first spent time observing the resources and practices teachers used to encourage writing in their classrooms. Then Gerde and Tanya Wright, an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State, interviewed 32 preschool teachers from varying programs, such as Head Start and nonprofit child care centers, to learn what they had to say about their beliefs and instruction around writing.

Teachers believed their students enjoyed writing, but they said they felt unprepared and had little guidance about teaching them to write. When preschool teachers did address writing, it was usually about penmanship, forming letter properly, rather than communicating ideas; even though most Common Core curriculums in elementary schools focus on composition.

The study found that things like designated writing spaces were in place in 94 percent of classrooms, but there was often little discussion with kids about how to use the materials there. And less than a quarter of the teachers put writing materials in other parts of the classroom, so few children had the chance to write a grocery list or restaurant order as part of their play.

Preschoolers were encouraged to write their names on their artwork, but they tended not to have opportunities for writing to communicate their ideas, such as in a book or journal, thank-you notes, or a note to a family member. Teachers have many more opportunities to engage kids' interest in writing than they think.

The team hopes their findings will be used to improve preschool teacher training and make teachers more aware of the value of giving kids a chance to use writing as a way to express themselves, even if only they can read what they've “written.”

The study is published in the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education.