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You Can Teach Your Child to Write, Part 1

You can teach your child to write!

Part 1: Readiness, reading, copying, and narration

Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space; and great not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help to all other inventions. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

I have often been asked why students, especially young children, seem to dislike writing assignments. After talking with the parent, I often find that it is a case of "too much, too soon."

Parents often feel that if child can read fluently, he should also be able to write fluently. However, reading and writing require different mental processes and motor skills. Reading is primarily a mental process of decoding and comprehending words that have been put together by someone else, but writing is much more complex.

Not only must the student be able to comprehend words, he must draw upon his own limited knowledge or experience for a subject, organize his thoughts, choose appropriate words (and try to spell them correctly), and use his budding penmanship skills to put it all on paper.

It's no wonder that children are overwhelmed by the task! Here is a simple, model-based sequence of activities you can follow in order to teach your child to write. I hope you find it helpful.

Readiness

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

It is necessary that children learn to write, but when should they be taught, and how? The timing varies for each child, depending on his mental and physical maturity level and his home life. A child who grows up in a home where books hold a place of honor, playing outside is a normal part of life, and screens are simply tools used only when needed is likely to be light-years ahead of a child who doesn't have that advantage.

Children who see their parents read and write for pleasure are likely to imitate them at a very young age, thereby increasing their readiness to read. Parents who spend time in conversation, enjoy a variety of creative pursuits, interact with nature, and read aloud with the family, are modeling a well-rounded life and providing a content-rich atmosphere and the type of sensory input that will help the children write with vividness, depth, and insight.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is a wonderful example of the effectiveness of this "life-style learning." She was able to translate her rich childhood experience into prose that brings that period of history to life. I doubt that she wasted much of her childhood filling out workbooks and answering often-trivial comprehension questions.

Even though life in the twenty-first century is very different from the life recorded in Little House on the Prairie, the requirements for developing writing ability are the same for our children as they were for Wilder or any other writer.

Children need exposure to good, age-appropriate literature early in life, conversation and interaction with adults, personal experience with nature, time alone for developing thoughts, and much penmanship practice so that lack of fluency does not limit creative expression. Ideally, all these things (except penmanship practice) will be part of a child's life from the day he is born.

Reading: The first step in writing instruction

The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write. Ernest Gaines (1996)

Even if reading and conversation haven't been a regular part of your home life, it's never too late to unplug the television and begin reading aloud and discussing good books with your child.

This is the vital first phase of writing instruction — the construction of a sound foundation of literary experience — and ideally it should last from birth through high school, and even beyond, if the family enjoys it. Hearing good literature read aloud does several things:

  • It allows the child to hear words put together in a way that is more powerful and expressive than ordinary conversation;
  • It exposes the family to vocabulary they may not normally use;
  • It often introduces people and places the family would never encounter in real life, opening an opportunity for exploration and understanding of other people and cultures;
  • It provides an opportunity to internalize correct grammatical structures in an informal context;
  • It often helps to create an atmosphere of emotional intimacy in which personal issues can be discussed in the context of the book's characters and situations.

Reading aloud is foundational, but if for some reason it is not possible to do it regularly, at least provide your family with audiobooks. These can be borrowed from the library, rented, or purchased. Thousands of titles are available, including fiction, biography, poetry, and non-fiction. 

Professionally recorded audiobooks usually have the added benefit of being read expressively and with clear diction. This not only keeps a child's interest, but it also helps with comprehension. Listening to audiobooks can also provide a model for correct pronunciation of challenging words. When students have heard big words or unfamiliar names in an audiobook, they are more likely to recognize those words in print and even be able to spell them more easily. 

Early writing with copywork and narration

We are what we write. Michael Wood (1995)

Most children launch naturally into the second phase of writing instruction with very little prompting from the parent. Fingers clenched around a fat pencil, they work hard to copy the letters of their name, or a title for the drawing they have just created.

At this stage, you will often hear, "Mommy, can you write [something] for me?" as they realize that letters put together in a certain order mean something. This is also the stage when they will want to re-tell (often at great length) a story you have read or they have heard on tape. Copying and re-telling, often called narration, are critical to the development of writing skills, as they develop many of the mental processes necessary to good writing.

Copywork

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, As those who move easiest who have learn'd to dance. Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

The importance of copying is often underestimated, and it is discarded as soon as a child is able to write a few words on his own. This is unfortunate, for frequent copying of well-written sentences or paragraphs provides several benefits:
  • The opportunity to see and reproduce properly written and punctuated writing many times before attempting to do it independently;
  • The opportunity to become familiar with new words in a low-stress learning situation;
  • Practice in handwriting without the distraction of trying to create content and remember how to format, spell, and punctuate it.
  • Multi-sensory input tends to be memorable. If a child sees a word written, says the word to himself as he writes it, he has engaged several senses, and is likely to internalize the information after following the process over time.

The easiest way to approach copying is to use a piece of the child's lined paper - I like the size of the lined paper designed for third and fourth graders - and write a sentence, verse, or quotation, using the style of printing you want your child to learn.

Skip a line between each line that you write, so that the child can form his letters directly beneath yours. This is much more practical than simply writing line after line of the same letter. It allows the child to see and copy proper letter and word spacing as well as proper letter formation, capitalization, and punctuation. Do this daily until the child is able to copy neatly and easily — a stage that girls sometimes reach earlier than boys. Consistent, patient practice with short lessons is the key to success.

If you have excellent penmanship in the style you want your children to learn, you can make copywork pages by writing on lined paper and skipping every other line. Children would then copy under your line of writing.

For printing, I recommend learning the italic style of writing, a beautiful and natural style. I made a lot of copywork by hand in this style for our boys and used Perfect Reading, Beautiful Handwriting as they grew older. For cursive writing, a handwriting program such as CursiveLogic by Linda Shrewsbury is an excellent, easy-to-use program. More on this stage of writing: Charlotte Mason on Copywork at DoingWhatMatters.com.

Narration

Writing and speaking, when carefully performed, may be reciprocally beneficial, as it appears that by writing we speak with great accuracy, and by speaking we write with great ease. Quintilian (circa A.D. 35- 100)

During this stage of learning, you can use narration to begin working on the writing readiness skills of thought organization and sequencing. Read a story to your child and have him re-tell or narrate it back to you in sequence.

Charlotte Mason, the nineteenth-century educator whose methods work beautifully for homeschooling, used retelling as a major learning tool and a means of evaluation. After a child listens to a story he chooses those parts that seem the most important, mentally organizes them, and chooses the words with which to narrate the story back to you.

Narration is simply a form of oral composition. Just as writing helps an adult or older student detect gaps in his or her knowledge, so narration helps younger students to discover their strengths and weaknesses in listening and comprehension. Experienced Charlotte Mason educator, Karen Glass, has written and outstanding book on narration, Know and Tell, which provides examples, a scope and sequence, and much more. 

Once a child has mastered the skills required for verbal narration, he will find it much easier to move into written narration than a child who has never had to organize and focus his thoughts in order to convey specific meaning.

Don't forget to read Part 2!

Building a home library is an important step in helping children learn to read, and used books are a very inexpensive way to begin. Enjoy!

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