color photo of a young child writing with a blue pencil
How to Teach Your Children to Write Well

This is going to sound ridiculously simplistic, but there is one basic way to learn how to write better:  write more.  That’s a little like saying A = A, so I perhaps need to flesh out this little gem in greater detail.  The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t learn to write better by mastering a sequence of specific skills like verb object agreement, punctuation, spelling, and prefixes and suffixes.  These things are important, but they’ll come later, and more importantly, they need to be addressed within the context of writing itself, not in a disconnected way through a workbook of fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice activities. Worksheets do not teach kids how to be better writers (except, perhaps to be better writers of fill-in-the-blank responses).

Emerging into Literacy Naturally

So again, I repeat:  the way to become a better writer is to write more.  You might say, well, doesn’t my child need to learn his letters first?  Not necessarily.  We see young kids at three and four years of age scribbling with a pencil on sheets of paper, and from their point of view, what they’re doing is writing.  This phenomenon is termed ”emergent literacy” and suggests that from the earliest stages of childhood, kids watch those around them (parents, teachers, siblings) engaged in writing tasks, and, taking their cue from these role models, they begin to act out their own ideas of what it means to be a writer.  Just the idea of holding a pencil (or crayon, marker etc.) and scribbling what the child pretends are words, is in a sense mastering a fundamental principle about writing – they’re practicing what is ”feels like” to write.  And it’s very important at this point not to try to teach your child anything about writing, but instead to engage him or her in the act of writing as a playful activity (e.g. ”What ‘cha doin’ punkin’?” ”Writing a letter to Grannie!” ”Oh, I’ll bet she’ll love receiving a letter from you!”etc.).  Early on, kids come to realize that one of the most important functions of writing is to communicate, and these playful interchanges can help reinforce that idea.

What About Spelling?

Fast forward a few years and along the way kids have learned their alphabets and begun to spell a few words more or less correctly.  A few comments about spelling.  Kids don’t need spelling workbooks or lessons.  Again, they’re going to learn to spell by writing a lot.  A key term here is developmental spelling.  Experts believe that children go through stages in learning to spell when left to their own devices and not explicitly given spelling lessons.  At first it’s just a lot of gibberish (e.g. ”bfsoetk” for ”monster”).   Then they’ll use the strongest letter sounds to spell words (e.g. ”MRT” for ”monster.”) Eventually, they’ll master some phonetic and visual word patterns that they’ll incorporate into the spelling (e.g. Mun-ter for ”monster”). Finally, over time, the correct orthographic representations emerge as kids practice writing, get feedback, and improve themselves as writers (e.g. ”monster” as ”monster”).

Writing:  The Inner Connection is Crucial

Now I’m going to say something very important, so listen carefully:  kids need reasons to write that are more fundamental than just learning to write because it’s something they have to do or because it’s part of school learning. We’ve already looked at one of those reasons:  the desire to communicate.  But the desire to communicate must come first from the child and derive from the child’s own choice, not be imposed on them by parents and teachers eager to ”teach my child how to write a letter.” Coercion won’t work.  It will just turn your child against the act of writing.  Other reasons to write might include:  a need for self-expression (as in poetry and stories), a desire to record a significant experience (as in diary writing), and a way of discharging strong emotions (as in a rant against a sibling).

We rush kids too quickly into ”writing in order to . . .” kinds of writing experiences.  For example, the illustrious Common Core, which I am not a big fan of, has this writing ”standard” for first graders:  ”Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of “how-to” books on a given topic and use them to write a sequence of instructions).’‘  So now, first grade teachers are going to be expecting kids to perform in such a way as to meet this objective, and not help them to write as a fundamental way to grow as a human being.

There’s a crucial step that’s being left out of this approach to writing, and that’s the connection of the student to what they’re writing.  Too many kids have difficulty with writing in school because they have to write to perform and meet specific instructional objects.  Where’s the child’s own wishes, desires, thoughts, and beliefs in all of this?  Early writing should be a personal affair; should be a way of empowering kids to take charge of their worlds according to their inner experiences, intentions, and emotions.

When we try to teach kids to write, instead of just letting them write, then writing becomes a purely utilitarian affair:  something to do to get a grade, or receive praise from the teacher or parent, or fulfill a homework assignment, or pass a test.  These are all rotten reasons to write!  Kids should write when they have something to say!  Maybe they have a field trip out in nature, and they come back to class (or the home school), and they want to write about what they experienced.  Perhaps they’ve gotten into a fight with a sibling and want to write about the conflict from their point of view.  Maybe they’ve just read or had read to them a beautiful story or poem, and they want to write their own poem or story.  These are all organic connections between the child and the printed page.

The Magic of Writing

One other thing, too, that’s crucial in all of this.  And that is that writing is magic, and we should present it to kids in this way.  I’m not talking about fairies and elves and wizards, but about how a person can put some marks on a page and have those marks represent things that are not immediately present to their senses.  Write the word “jump!” on a piece of paper.  Then show it to your family, without words, and see if you can get your kids and spouse to jump.  This is real magic:  action at a distance.  That’s why the scribes of ancient cultures were closely allied to the king – because they had this power, this magic to put marks on a page and communicate things that had to do with affairs distant in space and time.  It’s in this sense that we ought to frame the act of writing to our kids.  As kids learn for themselves the power of words, they’re going to see that writing isn’t some disconnected activity that they HAVE to do for school, but rather, a way of vastly expanding their reach in the world.

For more information on developing imagination, creativity, playfulness, wonder, curiosity, and other qualities of learning in school, see my award-winning book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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