3.3 : Dictation and Mark-Making

Children have so many stories to explore - and they have stories to tell.  In this lesson, you'll learn about some of the more structured ways that children can share their stories.

Story Dictation

At the beginning of this workshop, you learned about the development of traditional literacy - reading and writing.  We know that children can communicate before they can read or write - and before they can talk.  Even as adults, we communicate with our bodies, wearing our ideas and emotions in our facial expressions.  

Even the youngest children can communicate their stories. With story dictation, children's stories are celebrated just as they are, without the need to polish or change.  I have worked with children whose stories are a single word, or a single sentence; I have worked with a child who signed up to share a story every day - and that story was always exactly the same, word for word, for weeks on end.  There is value in giving children a judgement free space to explore stories.

A story cannot be wrong.  a child may have a recount of a Disney movie or a television show; the story may be about her own experience with a friend on the playground; it may be about a power struggle at home.  The story may have aspects of anger, of violence.  Again, children explore their world through story and play, and stories are a safe space to try power on for size.  Using story dictation is a way for children to explore, and to see that the adult - you - respects and values their words.

Vivian Gussin Paley : Storytelling and Story Acting

One of the first examples of storytelling I learned about as an Undergraduate in Early Childhood Education was the work of Vivian Gussin Paley.  Her work centers around gathering children's story dictations and creating space and time for children to act out those stories, creating a hybrid of children's dramatic play impulses and their ability to understand "story" as a concept.

In The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, Paley articulates her process:

"A day without storytelling is, for me, a disconnected day.  The children at least have their play, but I cannot remember what is real to the children without their stories to anchor fantasy and purpose.

I listen to the stories three times: when they are dictated, when we act them out, and finally, at home, as I transcribe them from my tape recorder.  After that, I talk about them to the children whenever I can.  The stories are at the center of this fantasy of mine that one day I will link together all the things we do and say in the classroom."

Paley's method is one that I have used in my own way from time to time, asking the group at morning meeting who is interested in telling me a story to write down, creating a list of names, and checking in with those children throughout the long, open play of the morning before lunch.  In my experience, it can be a slow start, with children unsure of why I want to write down their stories.  

Take a look at Vivian Gussin Paley in action:

When we write down children's words, verbatim, we are giving a permanence and respect to those words.  Just as we do not expect a child to write a perfect "E" the first time they attempt the letter, we must manage our expectations of children's storytelling with an understanding of child development.  Your reflections on storytelling as it is naturally in your classroom helped inform you about that: throughout your setting, children are constantly exploring their world through story play.

The storytelling part of the process is followed by story acting: the educator reading the story aloud for the group while children take on different roles in the story.  This allows children to embody the characters, and to revisit the story.  Through this process, children get the sense of the importance of their words as they are read multiple times.

Although the story acting is powerful, the dictation of stories while they are written down, by hand, is the powerful message.  A few tips for getting started with story dictation:

  • Write the stories on paper - don't type.  When someone is typing on a tablet, it gives the impression that they are not paying attention to you.  Write the stories down, word for word, saying the words out loud as you write them, like Paley does in the video above.  Use one clipboard - or a story notebook - so you can easily share the stories with your co-workers and families, and with the children.
  • Try not to correct children.  It doesn't matter if the story is true or false, if they get colors or names or verbs "wrong" - remember that this is an exploration of language and story and the world.  Some kids will want to tell funny stories that get a rise out of the other kids; some kids will want to explore gross stuff.  You might make agreements about what other kids do and do not want to hear, but story dictation would be a sad place to discourage children from exploring: it is all about their voice and ideas.
  • Read the story back to the child after they dictate it.  Read it right from the beginning, just like you would with a picture book: be expressive, and show the child that their story matters.
  • Use an audio recorder alongside your notebook if you want additional documentation.  It helps to listen back to your responses, ideas, and interruptions during the storytelling process.
  • Tweak it for your setting.  You may be seeing instant barriers to success, like time and language and behavior - or any of the many reasons that I hear educators say they "just can't".  Think about the simple ways you can encourage children's oral stories, and do what you can.  It is wonderful for all children.

A Place to Explore Mark-Making

 A place for children to self-select materials for mark-making in my classroom, 2015.

A place for children to self-select materials for mark-making in my classroom, 2015.

In my time spent as a teacher of two- to five-year-olds, there were some tried and true ideas that I brought from classroom to classroom.  One is a place where children have a variety of materials for mark-making: a place that pulls them in because there are exciting materials and ideas to explore.  This happens most often at a table that is dedicated to mark-making, with a nearby shelf with a variety of high-quality materials that the children can access independently.

The materials can rotate from time to time, giving a new option for children's writing or drawing.  I am careful to support children where they are: they are not required to write, or to draw: they just know they can write and draw at this particular center when they want to.  They also know that they can access materials from this center and bring them to another part of the room, encouraging mark-making around the learning environment.


When given the space and the materials, children can find their own problems to solve: and they are deeply motivated to solve those problems.  When we set expectations for children to create a specific product when they write or draw, we do them a disservice: they need to space to practice fine motor skills before they can be representational mark-makers - that includes drawing and writing.  This is why so many toddlers make a mark on paper and decide what it is later: a sun! a pickle!  Daddy! - the mark comes before the idea.  A mark-making center is a place where we, the adults, can curate interesting materials that children can use how they please.

The video below is a favorite clip of mine: children in the mark-making area, highly motivated to write and draw.  There is an alphabet as a resource, interesting paper, high-quality writing instruments and - the most important tool of all - a supportive group of peers.  The children are all at different places in their developing literacy, but they self-identify as competent explorers of reading and writing.

A few tips for getting started, or enhancing, your mark-making area:

  • Use materials that children can have independent success with.  They should be able to cut their own tape, feel successful with the pens/markers, sharpen their pencils, and the like.  
  • Frame it as a mark-making center, not a writing center - especially at the start of the year. Many children already have negative experiences with writing when they arrive at school - it may seem small, but an adult correcting their writing at a very young age can be really discouraging.  Make sure they know they are free to experiment.  You can add an alphabet, and more letter centric things, later in the year.
  • Make it personal.  Print out pictures of the children's faces; their names typed out; pictures you have taken of their play and learning in the classroom.  This creates an easy entry point for them: rather than worrying about "what to make" they can jump right in with a resources that erases anxiety.
  • Do what works for your classroom.  As I mentioned above, with story dictation, don't build a wall because you cannot picture children engaging in these ideas for the reasons that pop into your head immediately.  How can you adapt?  You might have caddies with materials that are put out on a table if you do not have a dedicated area; you might use clipboards on the floor; you might offer drawing and writing materials to explore all together as a group.  There is more than one way!
  • Give children time to explore.  My motto is long and lazy: it takes a while to get into a groove.  Many children spend time observing and wandering and watching before they engage and focus.  Be sure to allow ample time for children to experiment and explore: not just make a product.  If you have to cut time short, be sure to have a spot where they can save their work.