Imagine, if you will, a family that has just had a new baby. These new parents never talk to the baby and somehow manage to keep the baby from most conversation until he is about two years old. At two, they decide it is the correct time for baby to begin to talk. Each day, for fifteen minutes, they have talking lessons. They don’t speak to the baby the rest of the time. These well meaning parents spend a lot of money and research and find the perfect talking curriculum. Unfortunately, they quickly become frustrated with their child’s inability to speak.
Now If these parents came to you for advice I’m sure you would be horrified that they hadn’t been speaking to their baby all along. It is likely you would tell them to dump the complex ‘talking curriculum’ and just start conversing with their child. You would reassure them that teaching him to talk is really not that complicated and if they would just start to make conversation a regular part of his environment, he would absorb (learn), most of the necessary skills. These well meaning parents might be shocked. Surely it can’t be that simple. After all, there are speech therapists and experts, people who have degrees in how to teach babies to talk properly. This is of course a ridiculous scenario. Yet, don’t we have a tendency to do the same thing when it comes to teaching our children to read and write. Do we complicate the process with too many expert opinions and complicated curriculum’s.
We all know the process babies go through when they learn to talk. Ideally babies are surrounded by a loving family who continually converse with them and cheer over their every attempt to communicate. We know that a baby learns language skills by being around conversation. We don’t teach a baby sentence structure, but by three they can put together a rather complex and grammatically correct sentence. They have learned, by example, without much conscience effort on their part. We accept this as the natural way of things. We know that children begin to acquire critical language skills even before they are physically able to speak.
We can draw several parallels between a child learning to speak and a child learning to read and write. I think if you incorporate these into your school day, over time, you will observe a great improvement in your child’s writing abilities.
We are often like the above parents when it comes to teaching writing. We mistakenly think that writing begins when our child is five or six. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have already been laying a foundation for their writing in their early years. Just as an infant needs to be surrounded by conversation a child needs to be surrounded by good books…great writing.
Key One to growing great writers: Children become good writers when their environment is filled with good writing. I know, you are sick of the mantra, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. Reading good books to our children, taking them to the library regularly, buying them books of their own, and encouraging their own reading, is the best foundation we can lay for them to become proficient writers. A child who has been read to daily will have assimilated (learned) much of what he needs to know to write. Just as a baby absorbs the way we speak, our children will be absorbing how to tell a good story, illustrate a point, or give instructions. All of this learning will be done with very little effort on their part. So, the first and most important step in teaching your child to write is reading to them and introducing them to outstanding writers. After you have done this, the rest of the process will be greatly simplified.
Key Two to growing great writers: Children need lots of time and opportunities to write, and this writing needs to have a purpose. Just as an infant is forever playing with sounds and saying the same word over and over our children need practice and time to play with language. Now I sympathize. I can hear many of your now saying, “but my kid never wants to write.” While I would like to have all our schoolwork be fun, the reality is, some of it is work. However, while not all writing assignments may be fun, they should have a point.
Don’t load your kids up with busy work just because they need practice writing. When writing has a purpose, it is much easier to get excited about it. For instance, writing a paper about the last field trip that will just be going into a file of mom’s may feel like busy work, but a letter about the field trip to Grandma gives the assignment some purpose. Having your children make up shopping lists, take down messages, write out invitations, or write a story to be published in the monthly newsletter gives the writing activity a sense of purpose and focus. We all put more effort into something if we have an audience, so make sure that most of your child’s writing has an audience.
Key Three to growing great writers: Provide a safe environment with plenty of realistic praise. Would you want to write a poem and share it in front of our next parents meeting? Realize that the same insecurities that you feel at that prospect, your kids feel too. Writing exposes us, so we need to make a safe atmosphere for our children to write in. We need to help them see that they have something worthwhile to share.
Remember when your child was learning to speak and you cheered over each new sound and word, how you would try to get them to show off in front of friends and relatives. Well, do the same thing with their writing. When they write a clever poem or story make a point of sharing it. Let them hear you bragging about their writing to other adults. When your child was an infant and mispronounced words you still cheered them on and applauded their attempts. Isn’t it obvious that if you talk up how well your child is doing in writing and what progress they are making that they will in turn feel more confident and positive about the writing process? That they will be more likely to improve?
Now, a serious word of warning. Your praise must be realistic and earned. You can almost always find something to praise, and with an elementary school child I think you can praise just about every effort. However, children are not stupid, they will quickly figure out if you are gushing over their work when it is undeserved. They will come to distrust your opinion if you praise everything they do, even when it is an obviously poor effort. So be honest in your praise. This is especially important as your children get older. If they are handing in written work that is obviously beneath their capabilities then you must call them on it and demand a rewrite. Kids are quick to find ways to wiggle out of the hard work and while we need to praise their abilities that is not the same thing as letting them off the hook when they are not handing in their best efforts.
So here it is in a nutshell. Fill your children’s lives with great books, provide as many opportunities as you can for purposeful writing, and be sure to provide a safe environment and to praise their efforts.