HOW DO KIDS REALLY LEARN TO WRITE?
I have some radical notions about how kids can become writers.
These notions didn’t come from my school experiences as a kid, or my years as an elementary school teacher. They came, instead, from fifteen years spent homeschooling with my own kids—now nineteen, sixteen and ten—and watching them become writers. They come from a dozen years of facilitating writer’s workshops for homeschoolers—a dozen years of word-tinkering with kids. They come from twenty years spent trying to make a writer of myself.
Writing is an area that seems to prickle at the doubts of homeschooling parents—even the most radical unschoolers. How can kids learn a skill as complicated as writing if it isn’t forced upon them? Here’s what my kids and my experiences have taught me.
What kids DON’T need to become writers:
Kids don’t need to master the mechanical skills of writing before developing voices as writers.
So much “writing” time in school is spent learning the mechanics of writing: penmanship, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Often, these skills are emphasized over developing written self-expression. The how of writing takes precedence over the what; words-on-paper skills matter more than what a child has to say. Schools push kids to write at six and seven because written communication helps teachers track the progress of twenty to thirty students. There’s no reason for a homeschooled child to take on these skills at such a young age. Learning to write is hard, perhaps one of the most challenging tasks a young person will undertake. When the power of a child’s motivation isn’t behind it, mastery of mechanical skills can seem like insurmountable acts of drudgery—which is why so many kids learn to dislike writing.
On the other hand, if you focus first on what the child wants to express, the mechanical skills will fall into place over time. Kids needn’t actually transcribe to get their thoughts on paper and screen: they can dictate their ideas to a willing adult. This allows them to say more, express higher-level thoughts, and use richer vocabulary than they’d be likely to if required to write on their own. Young children tend to have lively, expressive, imaginative speaking voices; transcribing their words to the page or screen allows them to develop a vivid writing voice at a very young age. Meanwhile, their mechanical skills can develop more organically than they might in a classroom, as the child makes signs for lemonade stands, labels for rock collections, dialogue bubbles for comics, keep out signs for bedroom doors. Taking dictation is also helpful for older kids who are reluctant writers, or beginning a challenging project.
Also, when kids struggle with physical writing, it can be helpful to introduce keyboarding as an alternative. Digital writing drives the world they’re growing up in, after all.
Kids don’t need daily, or even weekly writing practice.
The concept 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; all learning gets focused into a lesson format. Many of us who grew up in schools have unwittingly become convinced that a person needs this sort of routine practice in order to learn skills such as writing.
But adult-driven, routine-practice learning rarely takes a 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. However, 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.
The same goes for writing. Occasional, child-oriented forays into writing are rich, like a piece of good, dark chocolate: a little goes a long way. The signs your daughter letters for her make-believe candy shop, the Lego haikus your son writes for a contest: these are authentic, meaningful writing experiences and your kids learn deeply from them. They don’t need to be replicated on a daily or even weekly basis. The learning, because it has value for the child, accumulates gradually over time.
In my years working with young homeschooled writers, I’ve seen this play out again and again. Kids who don’t practice writing formally or regularly still develop into unique, effective writers in their preteen and teen years—and often before. How does this happen? Read on.
Kids don’t need to practice writing in various formats.
Learning to write in a variety of formats—fiction, poetry, persuasive essays, narrative essays, 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 begins to matter to the child. He’ll be compelled to play 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–when the need arises. 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 my daughter 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 kids to focus on topics and genres of interest will naturally help them develop unique, powerful writing voices. This, I’d argue, is the most essential writing skill of all.
Kids don’t need to write to develop as writers.
A most radical notion, I know, but I believe it! Here’s why: writing skills are based in thinking and speaking skills. If kids 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 when the time comes. 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.
An unschooling friend shares the following story: “My 17-year-old wrote hardly at all but grew up in a household full of discussion, debate, literature and content. When, at about 15, he wanted to write, lo and behold, he really knew how to put words together. He knew how to think and speak clearly from years of doing just that. It translated perfectly well to paper. The mechanics of writing (especially the ridiculousness of English spelling) were something of a stumbling block but those are getting rapidly better with time and experience and they seem to be coming together in far less time than if he’d been studying them or practicing them for years.”
In my years of facilitating workshops, I’ve seen a similar progression with many kids.
If kids don’t need these writing experiences, why have we become so convinced that they do?
As parents, we often worry about preparing our kids. We understand that writing is an essential skill for life, so we take on the burden of assuring they’ll gain that skill. But focusing on what our kids may need tomorrow confounds our sense of what they need today. This quote, by writer, researcher and English professor Thomas Newkirk, always puts this in perspective for me:
“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.”
If you hope your child will become an effective writer tomorrow, concentrate on making writing—and the broader skills of writing—a vital part of your child’s life today.
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. 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, Mad Libs, verbal poetry composed on the spot, and so on.
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. Ask for their take on important, real-world issues. This will develop their 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. In the meanwhile, explore dictation as a means of developing your child’s written expression. Encourage keyboarding as an alternative to writing by hand.
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 they love Tolkien or Harry Potter, 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 kids 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 assignments on your kids, search for well-written nonfiction books on their favorite topics. Unlike formula-bound essays, good nonfiction employs the tools of fiction; it absorbs us because it tells a story. Find history told with time-traveling comic characters, and science explained with zombies. Look for Shakespeare explored through silly top ten lists. Nowadays the children’s nonfiction section of the library bulges with such books—books which dare to capture a kid’s attention. They delve into content, as did the old report-ready nonfiction of our childhoods, while also modeling style, tone and even humor in writing. They’ll teach your kids how to move beyond the dull five-paragraph essay approach to nonfiction, and into writing that engages.
Help them 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; blogs on personal 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 or history fair; form clubs based on their interests: oceanography, insects, rock and roll music; help them gather a group to write a baseball newsletter; form a team and create a homeschooling yearbook. (All examples of actual activities organized by my local homeschool support group!) If you don’t have enough local possibilities, use the Internet: find websites of interest to your child with writing opportunities; set up group-written 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, books, films, videogames; explore the online writing community for young people at figment.com.
This is a long list, yet it’s just a beginning. Your child’s own quirky interests will unearth other possibilities.
To become writers, kids need something to say, the means to say it, and a reason to say it. Schools tend to focus on the means—the how-tos of writing. If you concentrate instead on what kids have to say, and helping them find real reasons to express that on paper and screen, the rest will fall into place over time. It really will.