become a writing mentor to your child, part 4: that niggling thing called spelling

April 2, 2013

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“So, what did I do with my kids? Well, I unschooled them. But like a lot of wives out there, my husband wasn’t always as supportive of unschooling. He has trust issues (and after all the years he spent in school, no wonder he did). So, every once in awhile he would have me do something ‘schoolish’ with the kids. You know, just to be sure they were learning. One of the most painful memories of this ‘schoolishness’ was when our firstborn, then about 9 (he is now 22), came to show me a book he had been writing and illustrating. It was awesome, I did tell him that. It was 40+ pages in a spiral notebook. He’d really been working hard on it. But of course the spelling and punctuation weren’t great. So, per my husband’s suggestion, I proofread a page or two. My son was crestfallen. He didn’t want me to be a teacher and do that. He wanted me to be a reader, enjoy his story and discuss it with me. I remember how hurt he looked when I made marks on his writing. He never showed me anything he ever wrote again, and he didn’t write for a long time. It still hurts me when I write this. Of course, I apologized and asked him to forgive me for being a ‘teacher’ instead of a ‘reader’, and he did. But, the damage was done, for quite a bit of time. By overlooking his wonderful story to point out misspelled words, I devalued my son’s burgeoning written voice.”

–from a reader comment (you can read the entire comment, happy ending and all, here)

In many ways, being a mentor is about learning what not to do. Which is why I want to delve into this series with a few posts about spelling, grammar and punctuation. These are minor parts of writing. Handmaidens, really, that help us convey what we want to say. Part of me hates the idea of addressing them first, and raising their stature to something bigger than they are. But I know that many parents struggle with seeing past spelling, grammar and punctuation issues—spelling in particular. So let’s gather for tea and gossip about these handmaidens a bit. Let’s put them in their place. Let’s figure out what to do about them before you do something drastic—something that might unwittingly kill any chance your kid has to love writing.

First up, spelling, because it’s the skill that seems to niggle parents the most.

It began to niggle me when my second kid started writing.

My first kid never struggled much with spelling. He’s a very visual learner: taught himself to read at a young age, jumped into writing at the same time. Once he’d been writing for a while, though, he wanted nothing to do with “invented spelling”—the sort of spelling in which kids simply spell words as they think they should be spelled, without worrying about conventional spelling. If he was going to spell a word, he wanted it to be right. I suspect that as a visual learner, he could see that there was something wrong with his misspelled words, and it bothered him. It frustrated him less if I simply told him how to spell the word he needed to spell. So that’s what I did. H became an adept speller fairly quickly and painlessly.

Not #2. It became clear early on that she was not a born speller. But she didn’t let this bother her. The girl loved to write! She saw her older brother writing, and she wanted to do it too. She wrote lists of Beanie Babies and poems about her ballet class and menus for her play kitchen. One week when she was seven, she secretly made a 23-page book with an entire retelling of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, based on her audiobook listening of it. She even stitched the pages together and made a hard, cardboard cover.

Then she presented it to me one morning, pulling it from behind her bag, shyly and proudly.

Because I was a parent who had already made one of my children scream, “I hate writing!” (see the first post in this series if you need to be reminded of this particular parenting nadir), I knew not to comment on the spelling in the book, even though the first sentence looked like this: When Matilda Wormwoda was born her paints didn’t a pesyat her. (When Matilda Wormwood was born her parents didn’t appreciate her.) The spelling became more baffling as the book went on. There were some sentences that I couldn’t begin to decipher.

So I asked Lulu to read it to me. And I was amazed at the scope of her project. She had retold Dahl’s entire book! She had used words like appreciate and startling! (Although they were spelled a pesyat and srtleing.) I kept my focus on that.

Lulu continued to write with abandon, but her spelling did not seem to improve much. I worried a bit. Sometimes her spellings looked almost nothing like the word she was attempting. (Sily for smile, for example.) Words she spelled correctly one day would get misspelled again the next. Unlike her brother who despised invented spelling, she seemed to be an ambassador for it. It was as if she glossed over the words quickly when she wrote, and couldn’t be bothered with their specifics. Or she just didn’t see the words. She eventually began to recognize that spelling was a problem for her. We tried out a few spelling programs here and there, but her heart wasn’t in it. We never stuck with them for long. Lulu would rather spend the time writing.

Plus, I didn’t have much faith in spelling programs. During my first year as an elementary school teacher, I gave spelling tests, because this is what teachers did, and parents liked them. It was one way that parents knew how to help their kids. Here’s what I discovered about spelling tests: there are two types of kids who do well on them. One type is the kid like my firstborn, who simply has a natural sense of how to spell. The other type is the kid whose parent helps him or her practice for spelling tests. What I noticed about this second type of kid is that despite 100% scores on spelling tests, knowledge of spelling did not carry over into everyday work. Unless these kids were natural spellers, they continued to misspell words in their writing—even words they’d spelled correctly on their spelling tests.

My second year teaching I stopped giving spelling tests. They were a waste of my students’ time.

Sure, there are some spelling programs that claim to teach kids how to look at words, and how to see the patterns in this crazy stew of many languages that we call English. But unless your child is dyslexic, or unless your child really wants to improve as a speller, I question the worth of them. If you feel strongly about using a spelling program, you might ask yourself these questions: does the program really seem to improve your child’s everyday spelling (not just spelling related to the program)? Do you and your child enjoy the time spent with the program? Does the program’s focus on correctness seem to hinder your child when he or she sits down to write something independently?

And the big one: might the time spent working at the spelling program be better used enjoying books together, and cultivating a love of writing?

Some kids simply seem to be born spellers and some aren’t.

So, did Lulu’s spelling ever get better, without the help of spelling programs? Yes. What seemed to help most was typing on the computer and being able to use a spell checker. Initially I thought that a spell checker would only make her spelling troubles worse by taking care of the problem for her. But having her misspellings underlined by the program was actually helpful: Lulu began to recognize which words she regularly misspelled, which is something natural spellers do routinely. Also, when the spell checker provided a list of possible alternatives to misspellings, Lulu needed to examine the words to select the correct one. Again this seemed to help her look at words in the way a natural speller does.

The biggest help: Lulu wrote a lot. And the more you do anything, the better you get at it. (She is also quite a reader, but I have doubts about how much reading effects the ability to spell—at least for kids who aren’t born spellers.)

At seventeen, Lulu is a pretty good speller. She is able to write in-class essays in high school, without her spelling being an issue. She still struggles with spelling more than a natural speller might, and knows that if she has an important document to share, she should have someone proofread it. Just in case.

I’m glad that I didn’t let Lulu’s early challenges with spelling get in the way of her becoming an eager writer. Backwards as it might sound, it was her writing that taught her how to spell.

Tips for helping kids with spelling:

  • Consider taking dictation from your child. This allows a kid to develop a writing voice, and an enthusiasm for writing without getting bogged down by spelling. Let the child practice spelling on simpler tasks, such as lists, signs, comics and other tasks they are likely to do on their own anyway.
  • When your child writes something, ask him or her to read it aloud to you. In this way, you hear the work without getting distracted by the spelling. In my writing workshops, we always hear the work of writers read aloud; we never see it. Some of the workshop kids struggle with spelling, but workshop participants don’t know this. We get to focus on the content.
  • Encourage your child not to worry too much about spelling when they initially sit down to write. Any professional writer will tell you that getting hung up on the mechanics of writing too early in the process will hinder the thinking and writing process. Fixing spelling is part of proofreading, which should happen after the piece is written, and after the ideas in the piece have been reconsidered and revised (if the child chooses to revise.)
  • Don’t expect a child to fix all spelling errors on everything they write. That’s a sure way to undermine a love of writing. Save fixing for writing that will have an actual audience.
  • Even when a piece of writing will be seen by an audience, consider: does this piece really need to be spelled completely perfectly?  Who is the audience? A publication, or Grandma? If perfect spelling isn’t absolutely necessary–as it might be for, say, a publication–consider asking the child to fix a few words. See the next tip.
  • When your kids want to polish a piece of writing for an audience, ask them to underline words that they think are spelled wrong. This will have them examining their words carefully, which is an important skill to learn, especially for kids who aren’t natural spellers. Let these be the words to help your child fix.
  • When kids want to fix a misspelled word, don’t make them consult a dictionary. It’s tedious, and will only teach kids that writing is a chore. Go ahead and simply spell the word for your child. You can also provide them with a simple word list which they can add to and refer to, if that appeals to them, like these. But mostly, spell for them.
  • Don’t push a kid to fix spelling if this upsets him or her. Eventually an audience will come into your child’s life that will encourage correct spelling. In the meanwhile, remind yourself that it’s more important to encourage a love of writing than to fix the words in a particular document. (Even if this means that you have to swallow your pride as a parent, and allow your child to share writing that worries or embarrasses you!)
  • Consider taking dictation on writing in which you are concerned with the audience–writing such as thank you notes, or co-op projects. Share a typed version with others. This keeps the focus on your child’s ideas rather than his or her spelling and penmanship. (On thank you notes, kids can still write the greetings, closings and even envelope addresses by hand.)
  • Allow kids to use a computer’s spell checker. Although it may seem that Spell-Check allows kids to be lazy spellers, the truth is that spell-checking requires a writer to examine the spelling options provided and to make choices. It also helps kids to see, via the spell checker’s underlining, which words give them trouble. Spell checkers can give confidence to kids who refrain from writing because spelling makes the act seem overwhelming.
  • Don’t underestimate power of technology to inspire writing. Many kids take to writing in order to communicate as they play Minecraft, or to respond to the work of others on sites like Scratch, or to ask for help or cheats on video game forums or to chat with friends via texting. Parents often worry that rampant misspelling in these forums will only be detrimental, but for many kids these nonjudgmental environments are just the settings they need to try writing. Many kids write more than they ever have once they feel comfortable in these forums. The more they write, the better they will get at it.
  • Be patient. For kids who aren’t born spellers, improvement might seem imperceptible. This is a skill that develops over the course of years. Try to find intriguing writing audiences for your kids, and look for small, incremental improvements in spelling, rather than perfection.
  • Help kids who are spelling-challenged understand that spelling is a difficulty for them. These kids should know that the ability to spell is not a measure of writing skill or intelligence. Some people have a talent for spelling; some don’t! If they don’t, they just need to remember to have their important documents proofread by a stronger speller.
Do you or your kids struggle with spelling? Has this been a hindrance to writing? What have you done to try to overcome it?
You can read all posts in this series here.

 

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

amy April 2, 2013 at 11:25 am

One of my huge issues with my son’s 2nd grade year was how much time was spent on spelling. They used a program that broke things down, and they had to do some sort of ladder-type writing of spelling words, and it just seemed like so much misplaced time and effort and energy in second grade, not to mention mind-numbingly dull. I told the teacher flat-out that I wasn’t surprised my son was doing poorly on spelling tests each week because I didn’t quiz him on the words and had no plans to, because I felt his spelling would eventually improve as he read more. Second grade seemed to be all spelling, writing (nothing he chose to write, either; it was all imposed), and math (Everyday Math, which taught him nothing but that he hated math). As far as I’m concerned, last year was a wasted year and I regret not pulling him before 2nd grade instead of afterwards. Now, he doesn’t want to write, one of his reasons being that he can’t spell. I DON’T CARE ABOUT HIS SPELLING. And I think quizzing 7yos on spelling words is ridiculous.

I will be saving this post to digest your list of tips more fully. Thank you for this series!

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Kerry April 2, 2013 at 4:42 pm

I read this post out loud to my daughters and they’d stop me from time to time to discuss different parts. It is amazing how much they remember from 2nd and 3rd grade, their last years at school. We’ve been homeschooling for 3 years now. My oldest told me she remembers learning the words just for the test and then forgetting them and moving on to the next list. She had almost perfect scores every week and it never helped her spell better in her writing. One of my girls is an avid storyteller, who was told she had to write non-fiction journal entries at school. I love that she’d come home with journal pages claiming we’d visited Niagara falls over the weekend, and that we climbed to the top on a rope ladder. My oldest loves making lists and planning events, she also writes music and poems sometimes. And, two weeks ago, they started a joint writing project, a novel, with multiple sequels planned. Neither of them wanted to even write their names when they first came home and I missed their writing terribly. I think the first homeschool writing they did was a menu for their “restaurant” when they made the rest of us breakfast one morning. Deschooling has taken some time, but I’ve found that talking about their school experiences and about how homeschooling can be different, has helped a lot. They eventually figured out that bad spelling doesn’t mean bad writing and that non-fiction isn’t inherently better than fiction.

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patricia April 3, 2013 at 9:53 am

Thanks so much for sharing, Kerry. I’ll make sure Amy sees what you wrote about your daughters’ experiences with deschooling. Love how your storyteller daughter made nonfiction journal writing work for her. Ha! (I think my youngest might try something similar if those constraints were placed on him.) I also think kids would enjoy nonfiction writing more if they were exposed to more creative forms of it. The best nonfiction really employs the tools of storytellers and fiction writers.

Sisters writing a novel together! How fantastic is that?! I love hearing all of the examples of what your daughters are doing, and how their writing evolved after they deschooled. Thanks!

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patricia April 3, 2013 at 9:47 am

Amy, your son is so lucky that you have the perspective that you do, and that you were willing to bring him home. The traditional school approach to spelling is so frustrating. Not only does it not teach kids how to spell, but it damages some kids’ willingness to write, as evidenced with your son. Aargh!

Have patience, and keep encouraging him to do projects like his fabulous Monster Book. Eventually he should absorb your message that you don’t care about his spelling, and he’ll find more that he wants to write about.

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Heather Caliri April 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I was a very haphazard speller. Not just as a child, but through college. As an English major. Even with spell check–sometimes I wouldn’t even bother to correct the words before handing in essays. (I still did fine). Then I worked as a proof-reader post college, and surprise! I shaped up real quick. Now I worry about stuff like the placement of hyphens. When there’s a need, it will come.

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patricia April 3, 2013 at 9:59 am

Great to hear that you managed to master spelling when you decided to, Heather–and that your haphazard spelling when you were younger didn’t keep you from enjoying writing (as it does for so many kids.)

Hyphen-placement: so important! I always overdo them. 😉

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Karen April 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm

I loved this post so much!

My daughter is not a natural speller either, and that’s a gigantic understatement. However, I chose not to focus on it and hinder her great love of writing. She wrote all the time, although often I couldn’t read it. Like your daughter, Patricia, she used words of great sophistication and had a marvelous story-telling voice which I was completely reluctant to tamper with or intrude upon with fussy corrections. I did continue to worry about her spelling, but at least I did it privately, careful not to let it seep into my enthusiastic response to her work. We did a separate spelling program; but oddly enough, like the children you mention she could spell fairly well in isolation but not carry it over to her larger writing projects despite anything I could think up.

When she was around eleven or so she became much more aware that she was spelling things wrong, and began to feel uneasy about her lack of spelling prowess. Around this time I happened upon Jeffrey Freed’s book “Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World.” In the chapter on spelling, there was what I thought was an utterly bizarre activity which would, he said, demonstrate whether or not your child was a visual speller: you chose not a short easy word, but a long, interesting one — I think we began with “elephant” or “elevator” — had your child look at the word for a couple of minutes, then close her eyes and spell the word orally forwards, and THEN BACKWARDS. My child, who according to a teacher friend “could not spell cat,” flawlessly tossed out this longer word in both directions. She wrote it down perfectly. We did this with several other words: same results. We used another Freed technique sometimes, writing combinations of letters she found harder to remember in different colors of bright pencils or markers.

Over the next six to eight months, we practiced this technique for maybe ten minutes, two times a week, at most. Her spelling improved by leaps and bounds, jumping five or more grade levels before she turned twelve. By fourteen, she was working at an age-appropriate level. She’ll never be a perfect speller, but the change has been nothing short of astounding.

Some children are visual spellers with visual memory deficits. This is precisely what my daughter turned out to be. She didn’t need years of spelling programs and practice, but only a few months of casual, brief practice at improving her visual memory with regard to words.

There were a handful of words she had memorized incorrectly. I remember “captain” was the most persistent: in a typical visual misspelling, she’d write “captian” every time. Finally I had her write that single word fifty times, maybe three or four times, hoping that the muscle memory would become automatic. It didn’t! But she now was aware that was a personal spelling bugbear for her, and she would stop and think when she had a need to use it (Star Trek stories).

I think it also helped that we “worked” with words in other ways as well, so that we didn’t emphasize only their spellings. We kept personal lists of words we found beautiful in looks and in sound, words we didn’t like, and compared lists. We took a long word like “chocolate” and made up as many shorter words as we could from its letters. We compared the same word, like dog, in different languages. Today, my daughter and I both keep commonplace books of favorite quotations, which she loves to read aloud and share.

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patricia April 3, 2013 at 10:15 am

Thanks so much for sharing your daughter’s story, Karen. This is precisely the situation I was referring to when I wrote, “…or unless your child really wants to improve as a speller, I question the worth of them.” I do think that there are spelling programs out there that can help kids, but these are far more likely to be effective if they are saved until the kids are older and actually wanting to work with them to improve their spelling. (My daughter was just about your daughter’s age when she became bothered by her spelling; still, she didn’t want to work with a program to try to improve it.)

The Freed book sounds interesting. A big part of your success with it must have to do with the fact that you didn’t have to devote long sessions to it. Little bits of practice over time sounds ideal.

Gotta love that Star Trek stories finally helped your daughter learn to spell captain. Chalk up another one for following kids’ interests!

Love your last paragraph too. Yes! Kids are much more likely to want to work with words if you play with them on a regular basis, and learn to appreciate how fun and fascinating they can be.

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KC April 3, 2013 at 7:29 am

Fantastic article! I am terrible speller and always have been. I found learning a second language was very helpful for me. I love writing and that’s partly why I keep a blog. Thank goodness my husband can spell and is a grammar wiz. I have him edit all my posts. My girls are not writing yet but I can already see where my telling my oldest how to spell or correcting her papers might send her away forever!

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patricia April 3, 2013 at 10:20 am

Great to hear from an intelligent, well-written person who admits to being a terrible speller, KC! Spelling is such a minor part of writing–it’s sort of like the polish on a pair of beautiful handmade Italian shoes. A finishing touch. I’m on a mission to help parents recognize that. Thanks for testifying! :-)

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Dawn Suzette April 5, 2013 at 7:46 pm

I have always struggled with spelling. I read and re-read everything I write way too many times just to catch the spelling errors. Let us not even talk about grammar, but I am sure we will, and I am looking forward to that post!
I am definitely an example for my kids in terms of looking up words in the dictionary and also writing them down to see how they look on paper. I almost always have to see a word written out to make sure I am giving them the correct spelling.
My oldest is an avid reader and is very concerned with spelling. She really wants nothing to do with inventive spelling and it is holding her personal writing back. We started a little spelling workbook together this year, more as a way to give her confidence. She seems to like it for now but said the other day that once she is done with that book she does not want to “move on” to the next level, the next book. That is fine. I think this start is achieving the desired effect and hopefully with some more sessions of dictation and general encouragement she will put more of her stories on paper on her own. She makes lots of lists and has for years. It is my patience I need to keep in check!
Thank you for another great post Patricia!

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patricia April 8, 2013 at 8:23 am

It’s really helpful for me to hear from parents who struggle with spelling, since it happens to come fairly easily to me. It’s also great for parents, I think, to recognize that there are plenty of intelligent adult writers out there who have a hard time with spelling–it offers some perspective!

Dawn, is your daughter interested in writing on the computer? When my daughter was around her age, she started writing more at the computer, and Spell-Check was a revelation for her. She really seemed to enjoy the process of choosing from the spell checker’s alternatives.

Thanks so much for sharing!

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Dawn Suzette April 8, 2013 at 9:30 am

I read your comment and went straight to the moving boxes to dig out the VERY old laptop for her. She has her own desk in her room now so we just set it up there. I showed her how to get into word, type, get the options for a misspelled word and choose the right spelling. She is in typing away right now.
I will keep you posted.
Thank you so much Patricia!

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patricia April 8, 2013 at 9:35 am

Thinking of her typing away gives me goose bumps, Dawn! Hope she enjoys the process!

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Kirsten April 7, 2013 at 4:34 am

This has been so reassuring for me! My 5yo is a prolific writer, but of the make-up-your-own-spelling variety! My natural instinct is not to correct it unless he asks me for a spelling, but the school-child within me does sometimes worry if he’ll ever learn this way. He attends school and they seem relaxed about spelling at the moment too, which is good. I really hope that he doesn’t have the joy of writing knocked out of him when they decide that spelling is more important…

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patricia April 8, 2013 at 8:29 am

Kirsten, you’re lucky if your son is willing to try out his own spellings! As you’ve probably recognized in my post and in some of the comments, many kids aren’t willing to guess at spelling, and this can prevent them from wanting to write. Nice to hear that they seem relaxed about spelling at his school too.

How fantastic that your son is a prolific writer! In that case, he’s bound to keep getting better at spelling and writing. It’s just what happens. :-)

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Michelle April 9, 2013 at 6:45 am

My oldest (now 9) struggles a bit with spelling, and it bothers my husband way more than it bothers me, the former English teacher. :) I didn’t want to spend much time on it, or kill her love for writing, so we agreed to work on just a few short lists each year, no more than five minutes a day during the weeks we worked on a list. Mostly just lists of common words or commonly misspelled words. Our experience has been mixed. It did help her with some things (there/their/they’re, for instance), but a lot of words (I guess the ones she didn’t care about) she would spell correctly during our spelling time, but misspell them later in her stories. So . . . that was wasted time, right? We’ve since ditched the lists and have taken a spelling break.

The big point here, I think, is that people forget how the writing process works. If I hand my husband a rough draft and ask him what he thinks of the content, he can only see spelling errors. It drives me crazy. Just like it must drive kids crazy to have that experience. Spell-checking is part of the LAST phase of writing. Proofreading. It shouldn’t be part of the rough draft process, and pointing out those nit-picky errors too early in the process is so disheartening.

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patricia April 9, 2013 at 7:30 am

It’s helpful to hear about your daughter’s experiences with spelling lists, Michelle. Pretty much bears out what I’ve experienced with kids too.

I had to laugh about what happens with your husband and rough drafts–my husband does the same! Got me thinking. Obviously, many of us were trained in school that spelling and grammar are of utmost importance, so sometimes readers can’t move past those sorts of errors. But I think there’s something else. It’s simply *easier* to give proofreading-type feedback to a writer. It can be much more challenging to consider the content of the piece and to give feedback on how you think it’s working. Plus, many adults were never given thoughtful feedback on their own school writing–they just got a bunch of red marks on their errors–so they don’t know *how* to give useful writing feedback.

Disheartening is a great word for how that sort of feedback feels!

Planning to write about how to give more useful feedback to kids in upcoming posts…

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Kristin April 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

It’s weird how my first-born picked up spelling easily and my second and third didn’t. I guess the spelling genes magically assemble once;->

Spelling has no correlation with “smarts.” Yet, in the public or private school environment, its significance is valued more than content.

(Aside) I’m wondering if that is a reflection of our society: that we are more concerned with the appearances of the written word than the meaning of words strewn together?

It’s such a delicate and temperamental process–to “teach” writing. Without the gentle facilitation, the nurturing, and the care of a parent or teacher to aide a beginning writer to trust themselves, to rely on internal validation in order to develop their inner writing voice, kids fail to recognize the point: effective communication.

It seems like forever, that kids, parents and teachers have been stuck on the pointless activity of studying words for a test on Friday and getting stoked by “As,” an “external validation” bearing little significance upon one’s ability to share written ideas effectively.

I liked what you wrote with regard to the following:

“…might the time spent working at the spelling program be better used enjoying books together, and cultivating a love (a habit, a practice) of writing?”

Yes! –And use a spell-checker and find a proofreader when something of importance needs to be shared.

Tricia, will you be my proofreader forever and whenever I need it (which is always;-))?

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patricia April 11, 2013 at 8:50 am

Hi Kristin,

You wrote, “(Aside) I’m wondering if that is a reflection of our society: that we are more concerned with the appearances of the written word than the meaning of words strewn together?”

Seems like we humans get snagged on the appearance of things constantly in life, doesn’t it?

“It seems like forever, that kids, parents and teachers have been stuck on the pointless activity of studying words for a test on Friday and getting stoked by ‘As,’ an ‘external validation’ bearing little significance upon one’s ability to share written ideas effectively.”

Yep! There must be some study proving the ineffectiveness of spelling tests. What if every teacher spent spelling test time having kids do fun, thought-provoking writing exercises instead? (Been sharing these great prompts from Luke Ness recently: http://writingprompts.tumblr.com )

Kristin, I will only be your proofreader if you ask me to. I try not to correct the spelling of others unless asked because that’s obnoxious. Unless, and only unless, a spelling error is funny. Then I can’t resist. (As I think you well know.) 😉

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Noel April 27, 2016 at 10:08 am

Patricia,

As a homeschooling mother of 5, I’ve always been under the impression that it’s a good idea to be very concerned with spelling! I think I have a lot to learn. :) My family is very literature rich in that I read aloud to them every day, we read poetry just for the enjoyment of it most days, and my children read on their own voraciously (well, at least the ones who are old enough to know how to read well). Literature is actually a very natural part of our family and doesn’t really even feel like “school” to me or them. I feel comfortable not have a specific reading program with comprehension questions for them, because I know they love and understand books. But writing is something that is not at all part of our everyday life. My children do not spontaneously write, for the most part, and I really have no idea how to get it going. I do lots of reading myself, but little writing other than writing in my planner and a quick journal entry each day.

What I’m reading here is very different from what I’m used to. Upon thinking about it, I get that there are loads of people on the planet who can write a competent paragraph with proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation … but far fewer who can write in an amazing, compelling, thought-provoking way.

When my children see a word spelled wrong, they tend to remember the wrong spelling over the right one, so I think I’ve made the assumption that it’s better for them to do copywork and/or spelling at young ages. But you are saying that it’s really fine for them to just try to write whatever they want on their own and just not even worry about the spelling?

For my current 3rd grader, what would you recommend that I do with her? Right now (for language arts), she does a bit of copywork, handwriting practice, and spelling every day. She occasionally writes a few sentences of a story on her own, but not often.

Thank you for any help you can give me. :)

Blessings,
Noel

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patricia April 27, 2016 at 10:15 pm

Noel, it sounds like you are doing some wonderful things in your “literature rich” home! I love how you write that “literature is actually a very natural part of our family and doesn’t really even feel like ‘school’ to me or them.” Wonderful! Have faith that all you’re doing is undoubtedly helping your kids to become natural writers.

Then again, as you say, some kids do not “spontaneously write” and the trick is finding ways to help that happen.

One of the best ways to encourage kids to write is to help them find some sort of audience for their writing. You’re lucky–you have a large family, and that can be an audience right there. Perhaps you can make a special time in your week when your family shares writing. For your younger kids (possibly even your third grader), I encourage you to consider taking dictation. I am a huge fan of this, and I’ve watched many kids develop into wonderful writers by starting out dictating. I have a whole series on that here: http://patriciazaballos.com/the-dictation-project/ Even a three-year-old can dictate stories and ideas–and that’s a great age to begin! This post in that series might give you some guidance on how to help kids decide what to write about, especially if story-writing seems too daunting: http://patriciazaballos.com/2010/09/16/they-dont-all-want-to-tell-a-story/ (And maybe have your older kids take some dictation from the younger ones. Read my posts for tips on how to do it.)

Your third grader might enjoy list-making, which can be much easier than writing a story. Somewhere here I’ve written about list-making as writing–but I can’t find it! Start with ideas like: Things I Love. Things that Drive Me Nuts. Ways to Drive Your Siblings Crazy. What to Do When You’re Bored at Target. And so on. Have your kids brainstorm a list of lists! They can be a lot of fun, and kids of every age can get into them–even the littlest.

You could have your family take turns reading something they’ve written, and have everyone offer something they enjoy about the piece. (Making this sort of a mini-writer’s workshop. My book has more details if you want to really dig into a workshop.) Young kids who aren’t yet reading can have someone else read their work. I’ve actually had four-year-olds participate in a writer’s workshop–they loved it!

I’m very biased :-) but I do believe that rather than having kids spend time working on things like spelling and grammar, you’d be better off spending that time actually encouraging them to write–so long as you can find a way to make that enjoyable. I’ve explained my thinking on spelling in this post, so I won’t rehash it here. I think copywork is fine, if the child enjoys it. But if copywork takes all their stamina, and keeps them from wanting to write something on their own, maybe consider original writing instead, at least some of the time. Or combine copywork with dictation.

Back to the notion of audience. Some kids enjoy writing for themselves, working in a journal, say. But for many kids, an audience is what inspires them to write. A family sharing time is one idea, but I list others at the bottom of this post: http://patriciazaballos.com/2012/05/31/how-do-kids-really-learn-to-write-2-0/

Oh, and you should try to write a bit too! If you do a mini-workshop with your family, you can share right along with the kids! Modeling is one of the best ways to encourage, of course! A couple of posts to inspire you: http://patriciazaballos.com/2014/08/05/i-have-a-picture-of-you-on-my-heart/ http://patriciazaballos.com/2012/06/22/if-you-want-to-help-your-kids-with-writing-you-need-to-write-yourself/

As you say, Noel, “what I’m reading here is very different from what I’m used to.” Yes. We are all so used to the school model of learning to write, but it really can work very differently for homeschoolers. I’d encourage you to read here slowly. Take your time and let these ideas sink in. Consider what might work for you and your kids–and how you might adapt my suggestions for your own family. You don’t have to change anything right away. Instead read, observe your kids and think about it. You already have such a great start with your family’s love of literature! Do some thinking about how you might bring writing in in a natural way too, so it “really doesn’t even feel like school.” You can do it! Please come back and leave more comments! I’m happy to answer questions, and I’d love to hear how it goes.

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Noel April 28, 2016 at 3:04 am

Patricia,

Thank you so much for your reply! I’m going to come back later today and re-read your reply, but for the moment, I’m going to focus on two things: observing and thinking about how I might bring writing in naturally, and encouraging my 3rd grader to make some fun lists. (The names of all her baby dolls might be the first!) I can see how list-making would not be intimidating, and I think she would enjoy it.

One thing that she does sometimes is take notes when she is listening to a history CD. I think she enjoyed that and I could encourage her to continue. She could end up with her own little history encyclopedia! We’re going to begin literature-based study of world history soon, so I’m wondering if they might be able to do some writing in relation to that: timeline of events, interesting tidbits, drawings with labels, etc. If you have any more ideas for me there, I’d love to hear them.

I have actually done a little bit of scribing for my 3 year old and 6 year old, and they really were so excited to have written a story. I will have to keep doing that with them when they come up to me with something exciting to say … which is often! I can certainly do this with my 8 year old too. :)

One other question right now: How about older children? I’ll be starting to homeschool high school in the fall and I’m wondering if you recommend just encouraging spontaneous writing for that age too, or if you think it’s a time to do some more formal writing assignments. I’m feeling pretty comfortable with writing being relaxed before 7th grade or so, as we are pretty relaxed in how we homeschool the early years, but we tend to get more structured around the age of 12 or so, depending on the child’s abilities and interests.

That’s all for now. I will be back to read and explore … and hopefully update too.

Thank you so much!
Noel :)

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patricia April 29, 2016 at 1:06 pm

I’m happy to hear that you’re taking time to rethink writing in your home, Noel! That’s great! The best writing ideas will come from your kids and you. If you’re open to possibilities and pay attention to your kids and their interests (as I’m sure you already do!) you will suddenly see all the potential out there, beyond traditional language arts study.

I found the post I wrote on list-making! It’s embedded in Part 6 of this very series. There are ideas there that might even appeal to your older kids: http://patriciazaballos.com/2013/06/13/become-a-writing-mentor-to-your-child-part-6-finding-meaningful-writing-for-kids/

Which is a great segue way into your wonderings about your older child. I think many people worry that once kids hit their teens, they must be exposed to formal writing. I felt the same way back with my oldest, but I began to shift my thinking as time went on. I explain this in some detail in my post http://patriciazaballos.com/2012/05/31/how-do-kids-really-learn-to-write-2-0/. What I believe should take precedence over “formal writing” is many opportunities for kids to write on topics of choice, in their own style and voice, for an audience that matters to them. That post I just linked has some ideas for finding audience towards the end. It’s easy enough to teach kids a bunch of rules about writing, but if they don’t have time to play with words, to develop their own style and love of writing, those rules won’t do much. Here’s yet another post with some thoughts on that: http://patriciazaballos.com/2010/12/03/up-on-my-soapbox/

What I’d recommend for teenagers is a concerted effort to find meaningful writing that the teen can share with others. It may take some effort to find those venues, but it will be worth the time! Then, eventually, if you want to help them learn to write more formal papers, look to a interest-driven approach like these: Gretchen Bernebei’s Reviving the Essay: How to Teach Structure without Formula http://trailofbreadcrumbs.net/books or Bruce Ballenger’s The Curious Researcher (for older teens and college students) https://www.pearsonhighered.com/product/Ballenger-The-Curious-Researcher-A-Guide-to-Writing-Research-Papers-8th-Edition/9780321992963.html (Older editions can be found online quite cheap.) Or look for an online writing class that allows students to write work based on personal interests rather than formula.

Then again, I’m not sure that formal writing is terribly necessary if kids become avid writers on their own. There’s a quote in the middle of my How Do Kids Really Learn to Write post from a college professor who explains this quite well. Goal #1: Help kids find some way of enjoying writing, and the rest can fall into place with support. Once a kid really becomes a writer, he or she will be able to tackle any form or formula someone throws at them, in college or elsewhere.

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patricia April 29, 2016 at 1:19 pm

P.S. I think your ideas about having your daughter take notes while listening to a history CD, labeling drawings, writing down interesting tidbits, etc. sound great. Those might replace copywork for her. Combining those activities with occasional dictation–where she could develop higher-level ideas or stories while someone writes for her–might be a nice combination!

I realize that many of my suggestions may sound time-intensive, and you have five kids! But if kids are doing truly engaged writing work, I don’t think they need to do it on a daily basis. Lesson-style study requires repetitive practice, in many cases, because the kids aren’t engaged, so they don’t really learn what you want them to learn–or they don’t learn it quickly. When they’re engaged, the learning is deep and meaningful, and it doesn’t have to be practiced every day. Just another two cents! :-)

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