What would a teacher say about that writing posture? That pencil grip?
The other day I read these words in a comment from Amy:
“…So many of your suggestions for working with little (pre) writers and readers have wisely echoed in my brain right as I am about to pull the panic trigger and rap him over the knuckles with phonics. So instead we listen to Magic Treehouse audiobooks and I help him make comic books full of monsters and robots and I remember that I Am Not Alone and Someday He Will Read (and write, too).”
Smart woman, that Amy. Rap him over the knuckles with phonics. Ha! I always appreciate her play with words.
Writing a response to Amy, I thought about a post I wrote over a year ago, and the absolutely terrific feedback I received in the comments. In the post I asked parents to share their hopes for their kids and writing, and so many readers wrote back, generously holding their hearts open for me. Their words are definitely worth a read.
Over and over again, parents mentioned some variation on the hope that their kids would enjoy writing, that they’d find value in it, and be motivated to do it.
This is what I wrote to Amy:
“When it comes to reading and writing (and maybe everything!), I think my best advice for parents is this: what is your ultimate hope for your child? If your ultimate hope is to raise a child who loves reading, then how can you help him or her love reading today? By reading to him? By not pushing her to read aloud? Whatever it takes to instill a love of reading today will help a child love reading tomorrow. And a child who loves reading will want to learn to read. It’s foolproof! It just may not happen on our timetable.”
When it comes to activities like reading and writing, we parents sometimes get panicky. Especially if we’re homeschooling, and feel that we’re taking on the entire responsibility of making sure our kids learn these skills. (Skills? That’s a pretty icky, school-ish way to describe reading and writing. Even after years of trying to escape school-bound thinking, it still creeps in on me.) We worry that they’ll never learn to read if we don’t help them sound out words when they’re five; we hand-wring that they’ll never write if they don’t know how to compose a sentence by six. We get bogged down in the little steps: the sounding-out, the “word-attack” skills (sheesh!), the pencil grip, the grammar rules…
Our focus gets locked on these little steps, and what our child ought to be doing, and suddenly learning to read and write becomes a chore. We lose sight of the bigger picture.
If we want our kids to love reading and writing in the future, we have to help them love reading and writing today.
“If we want our kids to love reading and writing in the future, we have to help them love reading and writing today.”
So how do you get them to love reading and writing today?
This is where a little outside-the-box thinking comes in, and a little paying attention to your child. In the time you save not pushing phonics programs and grammar worksheets, you can be thinking about your singular, amazing child, and how to make reading and writing exciting in that child’s life. Today.
Loving reading today may not involve your child reading on his or her own at all. Loving reading today may mean listening to Magic Treehouse audiobooks, as Amy mentions. Loving reading today may mean scooping up easy readers from the library on your child’s favorite topics (who knew there were so many ballet and puppy-inspired books for young readers?), leaving them lying around, and then not nagging your child when she doesn’t pick them up. Loving reading today may mean coming home from the grocery store and sitting in the car in the garage, listening to just a little more of The Great Brain audiobook with your kids, because the story is too good to turn off simply because you’ve arrived home.
Loving writing today may mean noticing that your son is writing online messages to the friends with whom he plays Lego Universe, and letting that be writing enough. It might mean encouraging letter and email-writing to friends, as my Indian blog-friend Rashmie does, or letting your son dictate a chart of Lego Ninjago characters like Carrie did with her son, and shared in the comments of my last post. Loving writing today might simply be the casual chat you and your son have about the crafty chapter titles Rick Riordan uses in the Percy Jackson series. It might involve no actual writing at all.
All of these small acts allow a child, un-pressured, to learn to respect and enjoy reading and writing. If they keep having meaningful, enjoyable experiences like these, they will, eventually, want to read and write themselves.
Here’s another way to put it. I always tell nervous parents of young kids something like this this: Your child will eventually find something that he’s dying to read. It might be a Magic card, or it might be a book about horses. And I promise, I really promise, your child will not want you taking dictation from her when she’s a teenager on Facebook. She’ll learn to write.
They will learn to read and write because they want to. This doesn’t mean that they’ll learn to read or write when you want them to. And that, of course, is the fly in the ointment.
You could try to push your timetable on your kids. (Your timetable is likely to be public education’s timetable. Ask yourself why that timetable must be the standard.) The trouble with inflicting one’s timetable on another is that it completely undermines the learning. In addition to learning whatever you’re trying to push, the child is also likely to learn that he or she dislikes reading and writing. Not good. Reading and writing are complicated pursuits! It would be wise to have your child’s internal motivation fueling the endeavor. Internal motivation is a mighty force, and one you want on your side for the ride. (Check out Alfie Kohn’s thoughts on how teachers can kill internal motivation when it comes to reading.)
This all makes sense in theory, right? Yet, it took me about ten years and three kids to really grasp the notion. I know I’ve written about this before (can’t find where) but I really pushed the school timetable on my oldest when it came to writing. I couldn’t shake what I’d done as a teacher, just a few years before. I expected him to do all of his own writing by the time he was six or seven, and I encouraged (read: required) him to write in different formats: nonfiction, persuasive, journalistic. I even expected him to recopy drafts when he was seven for no real reason other than that I expected it. Oh, I thought I was giving him a lot of freedom, letting him choose his own topics within my categories, letting him write silly stuff if he wanted to. Wasn’t enough. One day when he was seven, he swept a stack of papers off of the kitchen table in a rage, screamed, “I hate writing!” and stomped out of the room.
I was lucky with him. Writing and reading actually came fairly easily for H, and starting up a writer’s workshop for homeschoolers a few months later was all it took to make writing worthwhile to him, and to make him embrace it.
By the time it came to Lulu, I decided I’d do anything to keep her from hating writing. So I started taking dictation from her. (There’s a whole series of posts on the topic, if you’re new here.) Thing is, I always felt a little guilty about it, like she really ought to be writing herself. Still, it worked, and Lulu has always fancied herself a writer.
Mr. T is six years younger than his sister, and almost ten years younger than his brother. I started taking dictation from him when he was three or four, and began to recognize that not only were we having a fine time together, but T was learning an awful lot about writing, without writing a word himself. There are many posts on this, both in the dictation project series, and the writing with kids series. The bottom line is this: I never felt guilty that T wasn’t learning to write according to the public school timetable. Instead, I could recognize that I was raising a kid who loved having me put his words on the page, and who loved to talk about writing–both his own and the work of professional writers.
Guess what? At almost-ten, he often chooses to write on his own. But more often he chooses to have me write for him. What matters more to me is that regardless of who’s transcribing the letters, the kid values writing. He thinks it’s worthwhile and enjoyable. And that’s all he really needs to keep going.
There’s something about that first kid: it’s hard to keep your focus on today; there’s so much concern about where they’re headed, and whether you’re doing what you need to do to get them there. But once you’ve been through it before, it’s easier to trust in the process, and to enjoy what’s happening now. If you aren’t in the privileged place of having helped a child become a reader or a writer, I hope you can draw some faith from my story, and from the stories of other experienced parents, who never fail to kindly show up in the comments.
It will work out. In the meanwhile, have some fun with reading and writing today. Don’t know what I mean by fun? Let your kid help you figure that out!