“but if I write for them, how will they ever learn to write themselves?”

This is a question that often comes up, when I talk to parents about taking dictation from their kids.

I understand the concern. I’ve had the same worry myself.

But remember this: if you’re taking dictation from kids, you’re helping them see the value of expressing themselves in writing. The usefulness of having a written record of their thoughts.

And eventually, they’ll start writing on their own.

It will probably start small.

A title to a drawing, maybe. Or a caption.

yet another comic

(This one cracks me up. It’s the last page of a battle comic. Note that everyone is head-stabbingly, eye-crossingly dead. I was wondering why he wanted to know how to spell Mondays…)

They may give names to characters drawn.

yet more creatures

Or keep a list of favorite Pokemon cards.

pokemon stats

Next thing you know, they’re jotting down statistics as they play video games. (Cue up my waldorf guilt.)

mario kart stats

I didn’t ask Mr. T to do any of this writing. Usually, I didn’t even know he was doing it. I just found it lying around.

It took me a long time to believe this, but now I do: if you don’t bug kids about writing, if you don’t force them to do it, if you value writing in your home, if you’re willing to write for them occasionally…they will come to writing on their own. At their own time, in their own way. H. liked to make elaborate Calvin-esque Keep Out signs for his bedroom door. Lulu liked to keep lists of her Beanie Babies, and to write out fancy daily schedules for her school days at Hogwarts. And that eventually led to other, more advanced writing. 

So don’t discount those Pokemon lists, or the Beanie Baby cataloguing. And don’t feel like you have to assign writing topics or penmanship practice pages. Barring underlying issues like dyslexia (which I promised my friend Susan I would acknowledge), kids can learn to write as organically as they learned to talk. They really can.

13 comments… add one
  • Just Peaches Apr 2, 2010 @ 16:00

    I’ll second that!

  • Kristin Apr 3, 2010 @ 11:12

    T’s writing and drawings are inventive.

    I totally agree with you that dictation is critical–even though I don’t always enjoy making time to do it; I’m always amazed at how well our daughter composes her story, logically in her head, while I write it down for her. I can hardly write her ideas fast enough. I usually type it on the computer because my penmanship is atrocious, and that way she can read it later.

    This ability of any child to tell a story (to compose it in their mind’s eye) is a skill that only people who write regularly are familiar with, a writer’s bliss.

    I also think that for some kids, writing on their own just doesn’t happen. Yours may be the exception. I’ve seen kids go for years without ever trying it, in fact avoiding it. It seems to me that the practice of regular writing, and an early expectation that they do it helps them–but facilitating them to do it without an argument is a learned skill–and that is what I think parents will look for in your book–tips to inspire the process.

    I’ve always had the expectation that our kids write something, but what they write is up to them. If they don’t have an idea, I ask them if they’d like suggestions. I recommend they start with a drawing and that usually gets them started. For all three of our kids, their images have provided them with an incentive to write; a blank paper is intimidating, but they’ve found expression in describing what’s going on in their image.

    It is often so frustrating for kids to write themselves because they get bogged down with the mechanics of writing and can’t focus on the most important part–their ideas. Drawing (and using scissors) improves their mechanical skill at holding a pencil; which is often hard for some kids, especially boys. (Sorry for the generalizations, but after 12 years, one sees reoccurring patterns of among children.) In fact, I’ll even further generalize that I think all art projects, clay, painting, ect., even knitting and needlework develops their skill of holding and using a pencil comfortably.

    My expectation for our kids to write isn’t daily or even weekly. About every other week, with lapses in between (because they are always processing and growing–even when they aren’t actually writing, I believe they are developing writing skills through speaking, observing and listening) I ask them to write.

    My daughter and I have an on-going project of taking turns writing fortunes for the cookies we plan to make once we have a lot of fortunes to stuff in them. I also ask them to write for meaningful reasons; to add that item they want at the grocery store to the list, for example. I try to not call attention to it as “their writing” but it is. I also remind them that their ideas are worthy of writing down.

    But you know all this already–so I’m not sure why I ramble…just elaborating from your post.

    • patricia Apr 5, 2010 @ 22:13

      Oh, I love it when you ramble. 🙂

      So much experienced feedback here. I especially like your point that you don’t expect your kids to write daily, or even weekly. I agree with you that they grow as writers through speaking, observing and listening. And reading too, of course! That’s one notion I hope to explore in my book.

      Your fortune cookie project sounds so fun! I’d love to hear some of the fortunes you’ve come up with.

  • Angela Apr 3, 2010 @ 19:20

    Mondays. (-:

    We’re seeing more and more writing (and more and more reading!) over here, too. Joseph seem’s to follow H’s model: there are signs EVERYWHERE! Today, of course, it was for the “Awesome Club” wherein he was Awesome 1 and youngest was Awesome 2, with middlest being left out … but at least we can rejoice in the writing, right? (-;

    • patricia Apr 5, 2010 @ 22:19

      I had to laugh about the Awesome Club. Mr. T’s latest dictated stories revolve around an imaginary place he’s created called…Awesome World.

      Hee hee. Awesome is just such an awesome word. And yes, we should definitely rejoice in all their writing. It’s awesome!

  • susan Apr 4, 2010 @ 21:19

    You’re a good friend! I have given a lot of thought to the subject since then…since I have had time to get used to the idea of dyslexia and to cope with the fear of LOST TIME. Taking dictation is actually great for dyslexic/dysgraphic kids.

    And the physical act of putting the words down is such a small part of the writing process. I think of writers in old movies who pace back and forth as the secretary types. Or who dictate into a tape recorder for some peon who will later transcribe their thoughts.

    I, and I suspect you, never “write” when we write, right? I, for one, type. I can barely handwrite, actually. Maybe we should dissociate the physical act of writing from the creative act of writing and talk of verbal composition.

    Think of all those generations of people with scribes and secretaries for whom the physical act of writing was a non-issue. And soon we’ll have really good voice recognition and we’ll be back to that with the computer as our scribe. And who, then, will even think of dysgraphia? It won’t even matter.

    I love Mr. T’s comics. That Mondays one is a crackup.

    • patricia Apr 5, 2010 @ 22:33

      Yes, yes and yes!

      It makes me a little crazy how writing for kids has often come to be equated with putting a pencil to the page. Which is wrong-headed for all the reasons you’ve stated. That’s one of the main things I hope to help parents understand: that the most important thing they can do for their kids as writers is to help them develop voices as writers–rather than focusing so much on mechanics.

      I do write in a journal, and I often freewrite by hand when I’m trying to get going on a topic. But for the most part, like you, I type.

      And I like the phrase verbal composition!

  • melissa s. Apr 5, 2010 @ 21:38

    Speaking of nurturing young writers…I attended a workshop at a conference recently that was based on a book by Matt Glover titled “Engaging Young Writers.” I was really put off by some aspects of the workshop. Are you familiar with the book?

    • patricia Apr 5, 2010 @ 22:37

      I haven’t heard of that book. I’d love to know what aspects of the workshop put you off. Do tell!

  • Barrie Apr 10, 2010 @ 13:29

    Audie has been writing lots of the little things for some time now: copying pages of cards or simple stories, “homework” for Hogwarts, and so on, but I hadn’t ever taken dictation. Well, I finally did the day before yesterday! It was really fun but I hadn’t considered how draining it would be. I could only get down 3 pages, but she wanted to keep going once she got started and write an entire book. I think I will type from now on, and ignore my own Waldorf Guild which dictated (ha!) that I use a pen and paper.

    Anyway, at first, she was sort of hesitant and I had to prompt her a little but, but she soon took to it with gusto: “Mommy, I want each page to be a chapter with a title, but the first page is the Prologue and doesn’t need a chapter. This is a story about Shing Shung, a girl in China who is a demigod like Percy Jackson.”

    “Oh, should we go to the library and research Chinese Mythology?”

    “Yeah!” And so we did. But the book we got turned out to be more of an encyclopedia of Chinese Mythological characters, so we’ll have to go back and look for something with more of a narrative.

    Thanks for being such an inspiration to me and other homeschoolers of young children!

    • patricia Apr 14, 2010 @ 7:04

      I’ve been away, and didn’t get to respond until now. Thanks so much for sharing Audie’s experience! I’m sorry for your hand–but thrilled to hear that Audie took so well to dictating her story. And it’s fantastic that she already has such firm ideas about her characters, her chapters, and her prologue. That’s exactly why I think taking dictation is such an important option for young kids–they’re ready to be authors, even if they don’t have all the mechanical skills necessary to dig in so deeply.

      Good luck finding some better Chinese mythology resources. If Audie doesn’t find anything that suits her fancy, I’ll bet she can come up with her own tales. 🙂

  • Maxina Ventura Sep 4, 2010 @ 18:47

    Here’s what I figured out years ago with my older son who had tremendous trouble with the physical act of writing but had ideas he wanted to share. If dictation is good enough for big bosses with their secretaries, it’s good enough for my kids!

    In wanting to encourage his practice at writing by hand without telling him what I was doing, when he said he was writing to one friend or another I completely resisted the urge in any way to oversee other than to make sure he wrote the address in such a way as to be able to assume the letter would be able to be delivered. I knew his spelling or grammar might be far from my ideals, and I sometimes cringed knowing other parents were likely to be seeing what may not be “picture perfect” work. But I knew that this was about reaching out to friends in a new way, and feeling the freedom and self-confidence associated with that.

    Here’s my suggestion: we parents support this silent conspiracy and let those letters flow. Maybe we say something like, “I was thinking about how fun it would be to get a letter from a friend in the mail, rather than just bills and ads.” Then we go ahead and write a letter to a friend, pop it in the mail, and see our child’s eyes light up when a letter shows up in return.

    • patricia Sep 7, 2010 @ 22:12

      Funny that you mention letters: in my latest dictation post, which I’d written before you sent this, I recommended letters as a written form for kids who don’t know what to dictate. Letters are such a motivating form of writing–they invite response! And they’re writing that’s real and authentic, which makes a difference to kids.

      Good for you for letting go of your own worries about the appearance of your son’s work, and for knowing that what was really important was the exchange.

      Thanks for your feedback, Max!

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