Mr. T is just beginning to type his writing on his own.
Warning: some of what follows may sound like heresy to traditional educators.
Recently a reader of this blog sent an email asking for advice. She’s a homeschooling mom, and she wrote after spending time with other homeschooling friends, and hearing how they teach writing to their kids. Basically, these parents have their kids work daily at their writing. Younger kids draft a sentence each day and then combine them into a paragraph at the end of the week. An older child writes a paragraph each day, and then combines them into a traditional “five-paragraph essay.”
My reader writes:
“I wonder if this approach is going to encourage a love of writing and an ability to establish an authentic writing voice of one’s own.”
She then went on to describe some of the writing that her kids do, based on their interests. I won’t describe the details, to protect my reader’s privacy, but she writes,
“Their writing experiences are few and far between, but in my opinion, so rich, so full of voice and purpose…”
Here’s what she wonders:
“Can these kinds of few and far between writing activities be “enough” if they are rich enough and gradually become more frequent? How can a family keep a sense of play and joy and authenticity in writing while making it a habit, too? And how can a parent know when it’s time to push a little more and when it’s time to wait? And am I being overly cavalier and irresponsible to think that teaching my kids paragraphing skills can wait a while?”
There are so many good questions here, enough to fill a chapter in a book. Rather than try to address this reader’s wonderings in an elegant, cohesive way–which would have me tapping at my computer here for days–let me offer instead some random thoughts.
- The notion of learning through routine practice is mostly a school notion. Practicing small pieces of a larger skill day after day is a way of ensuring that a large group of children will eventually learn that same skill. The assumption is that the child will learn the multiplication table, or the rules of grammar, or the parts of the body if he or she works at them repeatedly. The teacher can’t be aware of learning that happens outside of the classroom, in daily life, so all learning gets focused into a lesson format. Many of us who grew up going to school have unwittingly become convinced that a person needs this sort of routine practice in order to learn something.
- Adult-driven, routine practice-type learning rarely takes the child’s interest and motivation into account. In fact, in most cases, the child isn’t terribly engaged in this sort of practice. He or she does it simply because it is required.
- On the other hand, when a child’s interest and motivation are there, that child can often pick up concepts and skills rather quickly. Repeated practice isn’t necessary. Your daughter figures out how to multiply mentally because she wants to win at Yahtzee; your son understands how different ancient civilizations affected one another because he enjoys reading The Cartoon History of the Universe.
- This is not to say that repeated practice doesn’t have a role in learning. Repeated practice when taken on by choice can be the deepest sort of learning. When, for example, a child does that skateboard trick over and over to get it down; when she draws manga characters in the margin of every paper in her path; when she keeps strumming her guitar because she wants to be able to play Hey Jude through the finish. The child learns in these situations because he or she is motivated and the engagement is constant. In this case, practice leads to deep learning, yet it doesn’t feel like practice to the child. The child is simply doing what he or she is compelled to do.
So, how do these ideas apply to writing?
- I don’t believe that a child needs to write daily, or even (gasp!) weekly to become a skilled writer. I’ve developed this radical notion by watching my own kids learn to write, and also by working with dozens of homeschoolers in writer’s workshops for over twelve years. Many of the kids I’ve worked with didn’t practice writing formally on a regular basis, yet most became effective, expressive writers by the time they reached their teens, and often well before.
- When a child is interested and engaged in his or her writing, the experience is rich, as my reader notes above. It’s like a piece of good, dark chocolate: a little goes a long way. The child learns enough from the experience that it doesn’t need to be replicated on a daily or even weekly basis.
- Learning to write in various formats (e.g. fiction, poetry, persuasive essay, narrative essay, and so on) matters less than allowing the child to write in formats that matter to him or her. Engagement is key. When a child finds topics and formats that appeal, the writing will begin to matter to the child. He’ll be compelled to work with the words, and will learn to manipulate them for his own purposes. This is what matters. Once a child has crafted with words and learned to control them, she’ll be able to apply these skills to other styles of writing–like formal essays–fairly easily. There’s no need to rush into these formats. (In other words, don’t worry if your child wants to write nothing but poetry for two years. That’s pretty much what Lulu did at eleven and twelve, and she eventually moved into other types of writing. Meanwhile, she learned what all poets know: every word matters.)
- Allowing the child to focus on topics and genres of interest will naturally help that child develop the “authentic writing voice of one’s own” that my reader wonders about. This, I’d argue, is the most essential writing skill of all.
- Writing skills are based in thinking and speaking skills. Believe it or not, kids can develop as writers without writing at all! If they live in a home where people talk, discuss and debate–especially on topics important to the kids–those kids will learn to express themselves clearly and passionately. And this verbal expression will carry over into written expression. Even kids who are not terribly verbal, but are quite logical, can naturally develop into strong writers if they understand that clear writing follows from logical thinking.
If you’re concerned about helping your kids develop writing skills for their futures, I have a few quotes for you.
The first comes from writer, writing educator and college professor Thomas Newkirk:
“The good writers I see in college have often developed their skill in self-sponsored writing projects like journals or epic, book-length adventure stories they wrote on their own.”
The second comes from the syllabus for H’s freshman-year writing class at NYU:
“Throughout the year, your goal is to transcend the formulaic five-paragraph essay model—the one that you have probably relied on in other courses that required you to write essays—the essay that depends too greatly on a reductive thesis-statement and a limited scope of evidence.
The riskier, more fulfilling alternative is…a piece of expository writing that relies on inductive reasoning, that grows and develops as it attracts fresh evidence and makes surprising connections between such pieces of evidence, which explores an idea from many angles and through many lenses. The payoff should be a rich, provocative, unpredictable exploration…Only you—your ethos, your thought progression, your associations and preoccupations—can make your own essay. “
Do you see what I’m getting at? Both of these college professors value creativity and thinking in writing. Newkirk recognizes that a love of words and time spent with them is what teaches a student to write. H’s professor values deep thinking and personal insight. They’re less concerned that students know formal rules and formulas–H’s professor says the goal is to transcend those formulas! But, you ask, what if the students don’t know how to funnel their love of words and deep thinking into an essay? Well, that’s what these college courses are designed to teach.
Bottom line: kids don’t need to learn how to write formal essays at age ten. Especially if formulaic instruction is replacing meaningful, authentic writing.
So, how can you help kids develop into writers?
- Raise them in a literature-rich, word-loving home. Visit the library often and check out armloads. Look for engaging nonfiction as well as fiction. Read aloud and listen to audiobooks together. Encourage independent audiobook-listening if your child can’t yet read, or doesn’t enjoy reading. Have deep discussions about books and films–not based on someone else’s “comprehension questions”, but on your own wonderings. Tell stories. Read and recite poetry. Engage in word play: rhyming games, puns and riddles, verbal poetry composed on the spot…
- Talk about what interests them. Let them go on and on about ballet or Roman legionaries or Smurfs if that’s what excites them. Ask questions. Let them explain in intricate detail. Debate them, gently, on fine details if they enjoy defending their beliefs. This is how they’ll develop the skills of explanation and argument, which will eventually factor into their writing.
- Make the distinction between getting-words-on-the-paper skills and written expression. In other words, remember that learning to form letters and spell words are not the same skills as developing a voice as a writer (the more important skill in the long run.) Help make the mechanics of writing as easy as possible for your child. Let those getting-words-on-the-paper skills develop slowly, ignoring public education’s timetable for those skills. In the meanwhile, explore dictation as a means of developing your child’s written expression.
- Let them write about what interests them, and in genres that they enjoy. Even if what interests them is Magic, The Gathering or the characters from Glee. This is what they know. This is what excites them. They understand every detail, which will make the writing vivid. If they want to write fantasy stories because that’s what they read, they’ll understand how the genre works. And, of course, this is the most likely way to make the act of writing engaging, which will draw them in and make them want to continue. That will lead to those “self-sponsored writing projects” that Thomas Newkirk values. (After all, don’t you prefer writing on topics that interest you?)
- Explore intriguing nonfiction. Rather than pushing dry reports and formulaic essay-writing, search for well-written nonfiction on your kids’ favorite topics. Unlike formula-bound essays, good nonfiction writing employs the tools of fiction; it engages us because it tells a story. (Consult that syllabus from H’s English professor.) Fun books like You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Roman Gladiator! teach both content and writing style. The writing and photos in Theodore Gray’s The Elements transform an overwhelming topic into a box of treasures to discover. Let these types of nonfiction serve as models for your kids. You can read more about helping kids find nonfiction topics based on their interests in this post. Excellent inspiration: Wacky We-search Reports by Barry Lane, which provides fun alternatives to dull report-writing. Bonus: it’s written directly to kids.
- Help your kids find meaningful, authentic reasons to write. Writing because Mom or Dad thinks it’s a good idea is not a meaningful, authentic reason! Generally, we write to communicate with others. We write to connect. (Unless, of course, we find fulfillment in personal writing such as journaling. If you have a journal-loving kid, value that! See Newkirk, above.) We write, very often, because we’re seeking a response. Find real writing opportunities that engage your child and invite response: letters and e-mails; family newsletters or blogs on shared interests; signs and props for make-believe play; displays of favorite collections to share with friends and family; rules for self-designed games… Make opportunities for your kids: host a writer’s workshop; organize a science fair or a history fair; form clubs based on their interests: oceanography, insects, rock and roll music; help them gather a group of friends to write a baseball newsletter; form a team and create a homeschooling yearbook. (All examples of actual activities organized by my family’s homeschool support group!) If you don’t have enough local opportunities, use the Internet: find opportunities for your kids to write on websites of interest (all three of my kids have done this in various ways); set up group blogs or wikis; let your kids explore online forums if you think they’re ready for it; look for fan sites based on their passions; allow them to post reviews on music or books or films; check out the community for teen writers at figment.com. There’s much more to say here, and if there’s interest I can write further posts on the topic. But know this: kids who have real, meaningful reasons to write will want to write, and will continue to write.