Teaching Writing to Young Children
Okay, before we go any further or get into any of the fun stuff. Let’s take this one right off the table to begin with, shall we? I hear you freaking out about teaching kids to write. Because you “can’t” write. Or you hate writing. Or you just know your kid will. Or you hated it in school. Or some ridiculousness that has nothing to do with just how really fecking simple it is to teach almost any kid to write as long as you aren’t some freak who thinks its fun to bully ten year olds with circles of red pen. (Breathe through it teacher friends, I’m kidding. Mostly.)
I’m going to teach you, in three paragraphs, how to teach any developmentally normal child (and most of the struggling ones too) to write. Any child. Are you ready. This formula will always work, if you are patient. Always. Are you ready? Here we go.
You must read to the child. Good books, not just Captain Underpants. Books that have the kind of writing that is interesting to children, of some nutritional value, and that you would be happy if they emulated in their own writing one day. The Burgess books were fan favorites at our house. Harry Potter works in a pinch. Aesop’s Fables, fairytales of all sorts, the Rudyard Kipling books, are all perfect.
Read. Every day. This is the first and most important building block for writing. DON’T make them read. YOU read to them. That’s step one.
There are two pieces to “writing.” There is the telling of a story, which any four year old can do with the kind of perfection that makes anyone with in hearing distance need a drink.
You know what I mean.
Little people can TELL ad nauseum, and they will hold forth of the discovery of the breathing pore on the side of a snail face with delight and enthusiasm for longer than we wish they would.
Then there is the mechanics, the shaping of letters, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing and semi-colon navigation that leads most children to the weeping and gnashing of teeth that causes mere mothers to cower with dread.
Pour the kid a glass of almond milk and send him out to hug a tree while I break this down for you and solve the problem forever.
Narration is another Charlotte Mason-ism that just means, “telling something.” Here’s how it works.
- You read something SHORT and INTERESTING. (How the Elephant Got His Trunk, for example).
- You close the book.
- You ask the child to TELL YOU back what they heard.
You sit up, you look interested and encouraging, not critical and miserly. You enthusiastically WRITE DOWN in very neat and nice printing, double spaced, and easy to read, every single word your brilliant child tells you, while nodding, smiling, and “wow” ing.
If you have done your job properly you now hold in your hands your child’s “paper” on the subject at hand, written with perfect mechanics (assuming you can spell and use a semi-colon yourself). This is your child’s authentic “writing” because every word is his.
3. Copy Work
Now, hand the paper to your child and get him to copy this into his own notebook. This won’t be too hard to do if you haven’t beaten the love of writing out of him already by forcing some craziness on him too early. If you have accidentally already goofed this up, no worries. Apologize. Tell the kid you didn’t know better, but now you do so you won’t be a jerk about writing any more, and ask, kindly, for not more than two sentences. Less if the child is under seven or seriously traumatized by your previous efforts.
Presto! Your child has just produced a quality piece of writing.
“Yes,” you say, “But I did the spelling and punctuation, that’s not his work… how is he learning that?”
By osmosis, obviously.
Which is the easier way to learn sentence structure: by trying and failing, knowing all the while you’re failing (children know what they don’t know) only to have your best effort returned marked all to hell with red pen and being forced to re do it, maybe several times, with stress and disapproval being the associated emotions, OR by copying your own brilliant words perfectly at the first pass and noticing that every sentence ends with a little dot. Those who hated writing growing up, go to the head of the class.
Once your child is successfully copying, it’s an easy matter to point out how GREAT it is that they started every sentence with a capital letter, most people do that. (Not e.e. cummings, but we can get to that later.) Then play hide and seek in their own work with nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. They’ll gradually learn what “looks right” and they’ll learn to name the conventionalities in ways that will eventually shut your sister-in-law, the fourth grade teacher, up. Eventually. Be patient with her too. She can’t help it.
You can add to this by having them copy interesting science or history bits they find into a notebook, right out of actual books. Or a poem they like. Or whatever. Copy work. Learn to love it.
How to start: SMALL. Don’t ask a child who can’t form all the letters yet to copy more than five words at a time. And only include letters that they’re already friends with. Then, around six or seven let them copy the first sentence or two of their narration. When that is painless, go for a third sentence. Work up to a paragraph.
Here’s what happens eventually: You’ll catch them writing for fun. With one of my kids, this happened at about five; but remember, the pediatrician told me that one was weird. Another kid was pushing 11 before there was any writing for fun observed from afar (with great relief, I’m not gonna lie, I was wondering if this really would work with any child, cuz that one… whew, he was a tough nut).
After they write for fun, THEN you can say things like, “Why don’t you write me a paragraph on…” pick a thing. THEN you can start teaching the editorial process and three paragraph formation, and the three part essay (my friend Nancy, an expert teacher and worldschooler, says this is the single most important thing we teach our kids, I agree with her, but then I usually do.)
So there is is. Teaching writing to any child.