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Practical Homeschooling® :

Getting Kids Ready to Write

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #50, 2003.

Stimulate your children's learning.
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David Marks

Very recent research studies in infant development have produced interesting - and for homeschooling parents, significant - information. It's been discovered that when children are born they have pathways in their brains that are open to almost every potential ability. Those areas of experience to which children are exposed develop, and those areas in which children have no experience atrophy and can only with great effort be re-activated.

The important implication for homeschooling is that the more varied and extensive stimulation a child receives in an ability area the more developed those sections of that child's brain will be that hold the abilities for those activities. This means that if parents want their children to have particular abilities they should expand their young children's experience in those areas.

As an example of what happens to children when they're not stimulated, the children of deaf parents have a great deal of difficulty with language, for they are deprived of this early stimulation. Why develop skills first in babbling and then in speaking when those closest don't respond?

There have been many articles in the popular press in the last few years about children raised in orphanages in what used to be communist countries. In many of these large child warehouses, there isn't enough help to do more than keep the children from starving. They're not held, played with, talked to, or stimulated in any way. They don't develop the ability to form attachments to people, and they have great difficulty learning to use language.

Writing Ability Needs Stimulation

So, what's that got to do with teaching writing? You must accept that the ability to write is much more involved than having an understanding of

  • the rules of the language used (grammar)
  • the correct spelling of words
  • the conventional usages of punctuation
  • the development of the ability to remember and reproduce the symbols that represent the sounds of letters

It's necessary for two conditions to be present in order for children to be able to give others accurate and usable information in the form of images, thoughts, ideas, and descriptions.The first of these necessary conditions is that the children must form positive attitudes toward the appreciation and use of language. The second is that the children must learn to organize material for various purposes. Children are not born with these attitudes and skills; they must be developed.

To make clear this understanding of the processes of development of these two skills, I'll start with an explanation of how you can develop your child's appreciation of and use of language.

The Earlier the Better

If we accept the research that tells us that nurtured neural pathways, developed in the first three years, are necessary for the easy and proficient use of language, we must decide to begin early in children's lives stimulating those pathways through various experiences. The earlier this is started, the better.

How early can you begin this verbal stimulation? Earlier than you might think! Our son was born in 1970. When my wife was about three weeks from delivery, I came home one evening from teaching a night class. As I stepped onto the porch, I heard her reading aloud Shakespeare's King Lear. She was sitting alone on the couch, so I asked her why she was reading aloud. She said, "I'm reading to our child." I humorously suggested to her that I felt that that was a wonderful idea, but didn't she think that Shakespeare might be a little tough for someone that young? She laughed and said, "There's a rhythm to Shakespeare that can't be found anywhere else. I want our child to be exposed early to the wonderful rhythms of this language."

Four Ways to Help Your Child Get Ready to Write

It may be too late for you to read Shakespeare to your unborn child, but there are many things you can do. The first relates to probably the most destructive thing in any child's verbal environment (other than silence) - the television set. Children can't relate to TV. They can't talk to it or respond to it. Their minds shut off as they're bombarded with fast-cut, bright-colored, shifting images, and incomprehensible sounds. Very young children who are placed in front of a TV which is used as a babysitter are deprived of a great deal.

One of the really valuable gifts we were able to give our son was giving away our TV. We got rid of it when he was about one year old and we didn't have one in the house until he was fourteen. His stimulation in language came from us.

Second, talk to your child! Children need to be talked to as if they can understand. They need to hear ideas talked about. Even when they don't understand the context of conversations, they will understand that their parents are giving information to them and to each other.

Third, embrace books. If very young children see their parents with books, if they hear them read passages to each other and see them enjoy this, it sends strong messages about the importance of words and sharing with others through language. Children need to be read to. They need to see pictures and to feel the pages and to hold books and to laugh and cry with joy with their parents over the experiences of the characters in their stories.

When our son was still in diapers, we lived in a small house and had to store our books in shelves in the living room. The walls were lined with books. He would see us taking down books and reading, so he wanted to share that experience with us. He would crawl to the book shelves and pull out books, look at them and pull out more and then even more. We realized that he was trying to understand what we found so fascinating in these things. We had to decide: would we discourage him from reaching out for books or would we place the books back on the shelves hundreds of times? We re-shelved hundreds of books. I can't remember him as a child going anywhere with us when we each didn't carry a book. Now he is an adult and he still loves books. That re-shelving was worth while for his world today is hugely enriched by his love of language.

Fourth, teach them to love words! Children need to play word games with their parents. They need the joy of discovering that words rhyme and they need to play with ideas that can be expressed with rhyming words.

When our son was small he loved to ride on my shoulders when we went shopping. He got a kick out of being so high. He had an expression he used to shout out. "Duck, here comes a duck." He and I would both duck. He got a real kick out of the double meaning of the word duck.

Writing Needs Organization

Give your child these kinds of experiences and you've produced the first condition for good writing, a positive attitude toward language use. The second, the skill to organize material so that it can be understood by others, is a result of very specific and organized training.

Organizing material so that it can successfully be given to others is a vital skill not taught by most of the writing training programs used in public schools. The president's report card (a report to the country each year by our president on the state of American education), has stated for the last 20 years that only about 15 percent of college-bound high-school seniors can write an argument that is coherent and persuasive. We have to accept that our nation's educational system has failed our young people on a massive scale, so the responsibility to teach this skill then falls on parents.

Because we as a nation haven't done this training for our college-bound seniors, we now have in many of our large universities what amounts to a five-year undergraduate program. Many freshmen have to take remedial English classes for which they receive no credit. In these special classes the students are given training that they should have received starting in the fifth grade. It's appalling, but many college freshmen cannot write clear sentences and coherent paragraphs and they are unable to organize information. These skills must be taught to them before they can do their college work.

Children have to be taught that they are controlling their reader's minds when their writing is read. If they transmit information in unclear and confusing ways, their readers will receive that information in ways that are not clear and it will be confusing to them. Conversely, if information is organized and clearly stated, readers can have a clear understanding of it.

Raising an Organized Mind

This training also can be started when children are quite young. I described it at length in my article in the previous issue of PHS, so I don't want to repeat all that, but I can give you one hint about how you can start doing this.

It's important that young children be required to organize what they say when in conversation with their parents. Here's an example: Don't accept, "Just because," as an answer for anything. If this answer is accepted by parents, it says to children: "I don't really care what you think, and anything you say is all right." Not a good message to give to any child.

Many children who are asked why they did something are allowed to get away with, "I don't know." This, too, is not acceptable. The parents who allow this answer are saying to their children. "I accept that you do things without thinking and that's fine."

When children are very young, it's easy for them to develop the habit of responding to an adult's questions with a shrug. If you insist on organized responses that contain clear reasons for behavior, it will promote two conditions: 1) It says to children that verbal communication is valuable and a shrug is an unacceptable way of responding to a question; and 2) it encourages children to think through actions before they're committed, because the children expect that they will be held responsible for their decisions. Children need to know that they will be held accountable for what they say and do, and that they must organize what they say.

I had a senior girl in class one year who responded to every question I asked her with a shrug and "I don't know." I found this both fascinating and terribly sad. She had been allowed for 17 years to shrug off adult questions. I talked with her about this and that was so threatening to her that she dropped my class. That child had been seriously neglected by the people who were responsible for her training.

Teaching with Verbal Exercises

When your children are first learning to write sentences, you should begin working with the ideas of sentence construction and point of view. This can be done during dinner or when in the car and introduced as verbal play. When children are seven or eight years old, it's not too early to introduce them to the ideas of tense and the construction of simple sentences. This process might go this way:

Mom: Bob, give me a simple sentence in past tense.

Bob: The dog ran away.

Mom: Good for you. Now give me the same sentence in present tense.

Bob: The dog is running away.

Mom: Excellent. Now try the same one in future tense.

Bob: The dog will run away.

You can gradually introduce complex and compound sentences. When that is mastered, you can have the children work into their sentences the other elements of point of view. When your children are nine or ten you should be able to say to them, "Give me a compound and complex sentence that starts in past tense and introduces a character's thoughts in both present and future tense but is limited in omniscience and subjective in attitude." You'll have to be fairly good at this yourself to be able to help your children, but you'll find that this stuff is handy to know when your children are older.

Selecting a Writing Curriculum

These kinds of activities will help your children understand that they are responsible for what they say and write. Now, they have to be shown how to organize material they are going to present to others in written form. You will have to have a curriculum for this for it is fairly complicated.

When you're in the process of selecting your language arts curriculum, check to see if the authors, in effect, say this to students: "Once you have selected your audience and have a body of information to give to that audience, and have a purpose for giving the information, this is the first thing that you will have to do and this is the way you should do it. This is the second thing to do and this is a model of how to do it. This is the third thing and this is the way to do it," and so on. The curriculum you select should tell your children exactly how to put together ideas and information so that their audiences can understand them as they intend them to.

If you begin early with your children asking them to be responsible for what they say and write, and you select a program for their training that teaches them how to organize information and ideas, they should be in that 15 percent of high school seniors who can write papers that will be accepted by universities.

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