I have always had a passion for writing. As a preschooler I "wrote" lengthy books, including an autobiography. These masterpieces featured my inexpert drawings and whatever words I could manage to spell. I went through reams of paper. My parents encouraged my efforts, while shuddering at the thought of forests being decimated to feed my addiction.
My older daughter eventually "caught" this love of writing. My son James, on the other hand, is a more visual-spatial learner and a very reluctant writer. He is eight-and-a-half, reads well, and has strong verbal skills. His penmanship and his preliminary efforts at spelling are good enough not to melt is confidence. However, James doesn’t write. He and I have had painful moments over something as seemingly innocuous as a few lines of copywork.
Writing is probably the single most important academic skill our kids will ever master, and it is the most complex. It is not one skill but many: a symphony of visual-motor, creative, cognitive, and organizational skills. The logical, sequential "left brain" and the holistic "right brain" must work together in an intricate relationship. The child must logically, in a step-by-step fashion, connect letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs, stringing ideas together in an effective way, with his mental eye firmly fixed on the "big picture." It is somewhat like composing a painting in one's mind's eye (without actually seeing the picture). He must decide what to do first, then next, then next - laying down one line at a time - while "seeing," in his imagination, how all these lines fit together to make the whole painting. Writing also requires planning, clear thinking and - of course - motor skills, for handwriting or keyboarding.
Ideally, I would like my kids to be doing daily writing. However, I do not want to risk sowing the seeds of dislike and fear of writing in my son, who is reluctant to put a pencil to paper. So I don't force the issue. Instead, I have begin to focus on the variety of ways young children develop "writing" skills.
When we first began home schooling, I explored Charlotte Mason’s ideas, we began to use narration. I became a believer in this technique. I began to notice something. Young children, whose innate drive to learn language is blooming, seem driven to describe "what happened."
My three-year-old offers constant commentaries on what is happening throughout the day. "I'm playing with this toy." "That lady said 'hi' to me!" This is an amazing age. I thought about my older daughter, Sarah, when she was somewhere between ages two and three. For months I had watched her engaging in what seemed to be imaginative play, wondering what went on in her mind. Suddenly I felt as if a mystical door had just been thrown open, revealing her rich imagination. I reveled in it. At one point, when she was somewhere between ages two and 2-1/2, I realized she already understood the concept of dreams. She had laid her small Winnie-the-Pooh figure on his plastic bed and was acting out a scene with other figures from the same playset (including a duplicate of the now-sleeping Pooh figure) right beside him. "This is Pooh's dream," she explained.
It occurred to me that, in this way, the art of narration (telling) was beginning to blossom. Part of Charlotte Mason's genius was that she crystallized and built upon the ways in which children naturally learn and develop. Narration, the act of "telling," is an integral part of the naturally unfolding process of learning language, and of the child's cognitive, emotional, and social development. I believe this simple, yet incredibly sophisticated, act is as natural to a developing human as swimming to a fish. It is how we share experiences, learn to think and understand, reveal our emotions and imaginings, and keep stories alive.
Charlotte Mason's educational method uses formal narration - beginning around age 6 - as an essential part of daily learning. Through this method, the child develops the "Habit of Attention," gaining the skill of careful mental focus on the thing being learned. She also develops writing skills. Without needing to physically write, the child is doing all the things a good writer does: narrating, explaining, describing, expressing opinions and ideas, and relating ideas to each other.
On the other hand, my son is resistant to narration. Through his resistance, he has taught me to explore other ways of fostering writing development. In my eclectic/unschoolish way, I realized that my job was not so much to introduce activities but to develop – in Charlotte Mason’s words – the "habit of attention." I needed to notice the ways this learning was already happening.
Storytelling is one form of narration. My children love to tell each other stories. For my son, who loves the interactive quality and fast-paced adventure of video games, storytelling has taken a new form. Years ago, my daughter became hooked on Choose Your Own Adventure stories. The books feature brief adventures, told in second person. After an introduction to the story, the reader is given choices on how the story should progress. For instance:
If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4.
If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4.
If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.
Depending on the reader's choice, the plot would unfold in different ways and eventually lead to many different possible endings.
My kids love to tell each other "Choose it Yourself Stories," and have brought their dad and me along on some of their adventures. The interactive tales they tell each other are much more wonderful that the books. The story is not limited to printed pages. The teller's imagination can create an infinite number of possible consequences of the listener’s choices and alternate endings.
I believe storytelling nurtures narrative and descriptive writing skills, before a child is ready to put a pencil to paper. My son is occasionally willing to dictate a story to me, while I type furiously on the keyboard, and illustrate a printed copy. While I certainly do not believe we need tangible output, I think it is important that he occasionally see his ideas translated into written words.
Expository writing skills emerge when a child teaches or explains. We find natural opportunities for this throughout the week. A few days ago, my son taught me how to compete in a duel with Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards. Yu-Gi-Oh is his current passion, and has become a rich source of practice in reading (reading the information on each card) and math (comparing the numbers on battling cards and subtracting). He was able to articulate, in a logical step-by-step way, how to carry out the complicated sequence of moves in a turn.
In my work as a writing coach, I find that persuasive writing, rather than narrative or expository writing, is often most difficult for students. It requires a student to critically consider her ideas, untangling the many threads of thought woven into her opinion, and carefully plan and organize her arguments. I believe our kids get some early coaching in this when they listen to us discuss things about which we're passionate and hear us explain why we believe as we do. When they are allowed to explain why they disagree with our rules and decisions, even if they don’t "win," they not only learn the art of negotiation and compromise, but they practice organizing and articulating their thoughts in a persuasive way.
In addition to narrating, storytelling, and discussion, children can develop writing skills in non-verbal ways. This is important for my son, who seems to thrive on visual-spatial learning, and is rather artistic.
He is not willing to write stories - yet - but he will create pictures and comic strips. A picture often tells a fascinating story, which he is willing to explain. James will often describe the action happening in his picture, or tell me about the fantasy creature he created on paper. Comic strips are a way of telling stories, sequentially, through pictures. I print various kinds of cartoon templates, from donnayoung.org, for James. Sometimes we have a family "Freewrite," in which each of us writes something - anything - for a set amount of time. James will willingly participate if provided with cartoon templates to draw on. He is encouraged - but not required - to add words.
In addition to comics, he has created his own "Monster Cards." They are similar to Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards. Each one includes a drawing of a fantasy creature along with a brief written description of its special powers and other qualities. He has also made "car magazines." They are inspired by one of his favorite things, which is (believe it or not) booklets of used car ads. Each page features a drawing of a car, along with a brief description and a price. One of the things I've learned is that he will often write (albeit briefly) if the focus is not on the words.
Even active, imaginative play can be a form of "writing." When my older daughter was about five, she often had difficulty creating stories. Her imagination was rich with ideas, but she had trouble expressing them in a logical, sequential way. One day, she had a playdate with a friend. Running around Shannon’s yard, they enjoyed a "play" in which they were baby birds. Later, she was able to tell me the story they had created: "There were two baby birds, and ..." She needed to create the story with her body, by acting it out, before she could create it in her mind.
Throughout the years, I have become more aware of the various ways kids learn writing skills, such as narrating, describing, explaining, and evaluating. I have become less wedded to the notion that young children "need to be writing" – pencil or keyboard in hand. This reflects one of the most exciting parts of learning at home: my children have taught me about learning, and the myriad forms it takes. Through talking, drawing, and imaginative play, my children became "writers" before they were ready to commit their ideas to paper.
I believe that writing – ultimately – requires discipline and work. However, it is my hope that, for them, it will begin in a more spontaneous, joyful way. Once this has taken root, perhaps the discipline and hard work will seem well worth the effort.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.