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Teaching writing in the elementary years

This is a transcript of a talk that I gave at the recent HSC Conference in Sacramento. Thanks to my great audience, I have edited the content so hopefully now it’s even more helpful. This talk was written with homeschoolers in mind. If your children are in school or will be in school, you’ll find that schools have a very different approach to writing. Somewhere along the way, they forgot to observe children who eventually became good writers and analyze what helped them get there. You’re not going to be able to change the way your child’s teachers do things, but perhaps if you have a child who has been deemed unsatisfactory in the writing department, you can follow some of my suggestions at home. You might also even consider making suggestions to the teacher, if you think s/he is receptive.

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I graduated from University of Michigan with a Master’s in Creative Writing. Somehow, this made me eligible to teach expository writing at the college level. I remember when I got my first job, my elation and then my dismay: How do you teach expository writing? Nobody had ever taught me much of anything. I read the textbook before walking in the first day. And I got one valuable piece of advice: Another teacher told me that the best way to get to know my students was to have them write their first essay on the topic, “How my family eats dinner.”

I followed his advice. The results were fascinating. The worst-written essays came from 18-year-olds who wrote things like, “I grab a TV dinner and eat in front of the TV.” One of the best essays, however, was from a young man who happened to be a preacher’s son. His essay revealed how every evening of his childhood, his father had sat the family at the table and grilled them on topics of his choice. At any given moment, they were supposed to be able to expound on questions concerning morality or rights.

This young man also revealed to me that he’d gone to an abysmal California high school that seemed bent on preparing its low-income students for prison. He’d never written an essay before, but because of his father’s training, he intrinsically knew what it was.

He got an A.

In order to get you into the mind and body of an elementary-age kid who has assigned writing, I’d like you to do the following exercise: Choose a profession you are not interested in pursuing. Write three paragraphs about the best things about practicing this profession. Do it with your non-dominant hand. Consider how that feels, and how your eight-year-old might feel when given an assigned writing topic.

I want to go back to my own writing training. My school system was pretty old-fashioned. None of this new-fangled “writing across the curriculum.” We studied grammar, we studied spelling, we had to write reports in middle school, and papers in high school. Also in high school we were given the opportunity, occasionally, to write creatively. There are obvious drawbacks to this approach: It’s uninspired and ignores creativity and the joy of writing.

But the good thing about this approach was that I was never, as a young child, expected to want to write or to have opinions on things adults thought were important. By contrast, when my son was in public school, his math book had problems where he was supposed to write narrative answers. I’m sure the committee that thought this up had good intentions, but really, who wants to write about math? Even the people I know who are good at it have little interest in writing about it. And if a kid isn’t good at it, forcing him/her to write about it instills more resentment…against both math and writing!

So I actually don’t know that our school-y approach to writing has improved all that much. It’s replaced a system that expected little from kids and did little to inspire them with a system that expects way too much from kids and turns inspiration into force-feeding.

Let’s talk about what writing is:

  • Expression
  • Ideas
  • Argument
  • Self-awareness
  • Flow
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Being part of a community of readers/writers
  • Permanence

Writing is more than just learning a skill. It’s about expressing yourself and your ideas, being able to bring your ideas out of your head and give them a form where you can consider them, edit them, change them, and refine them. It is the process of revealing what’s in your brain in a sort of real-world, permanent way. It’s a really BIG thing, especially to a kid. Writing is power.

So what stifles writing?

  • The wrong tool (scratchy pen, dull pencil, broken keyboard)
  • The wrong environment (too noisy, too quiet, wrong kind of music, bad smell)
  • Too high expectations from someone else or yourself
  • Having to write about something you don’t care about
  • A physical problem (carpal tunnel syndrome, young hands with very little fine motor control)
  • The editor on your shoulder (that voice in your head that keeps criticizing what you’re writing, often even before it makes it to the page)

Taking all of this into account, I believe that enforcing a general rule that all kids must “work on” writing before they are, at minimum, in late elementary school is unwise. Now, notice that I said “a general rule.” As a child, I was a clear exception to this. In the third grade, I wrote an entire post-apocalyptic novel on purple notebook paper. It was, if I remember correctly, about a girl who has lived through a nuclear disaster and is left to fend for herself in a poisoned world. (Unfortunately, it was lost in a flood at my parents’ house. I’d love to read it now for a good chuckle!) So there I was, an 8-year-old, definitely not a kid who was afraid of writing or unable to express myself. But there were two other extenuating circumstances: First, no one had ever told me I had to write or had edited my writing. They had edited my spelling, punctuation, and grammar on exercises, but no one had ever asked me to produce writing I cared about and then proceeded to tell me what was wrong with it. Second, I was unusually drawn to writing at a young age, and no one was expecting me to write novels, or even essays.

Parents homeschooling their kids need to have a stern talk with themselves about interfering in their young children’s writing. Here are some rules I suggest you follow:

  1. Never, ever correct your child’s spelling on a piece of spontaneous writing unless you are asked to
  2. Never, ever correct your child’s grammar on a piece of spontaneous writing unless you are asked to
  3. Do notice the errors your child is making and gently point them out in circumstances completely separated from creative writing, if you feel you need to
  4. Do nothing but praise what your child produces, and make your praise “functional,” e.g. “Wow,  you worked hard on that!” or “It is fun that your story has a surprise ending!” (Not, “That’s brilliant and should be published!” because that’s a lie.)

So now you’re thinking, Wait, are you telling me that I shouldn’t have my younger elementary child work on writing at all? Yes, indeed, that is what I’m saying. However, I’m not saying you shouldn’t interfere, but rather, I’m suggesting that you should do it in a stealthy way that looks nothing like a “writing exercise.”

Here is what you should do to stimulate your child’s writing:

  • Read. Then read. Oh, and also read. Read some more. Read all the time. Enjoy reading. If your child enjoys reading aloud, ask him/her to read to you.
    Reading constantly and enjoyably is the number one way for your child to learn how to write. When I teach writing, the worst writers are the ones who never read for enjoyment. How can they write well? They haven’t seen any examples! We don’t expect kids to do much of anything else well without millions of examples, so why do we expect that of writing?
  • Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!
    Talking about things cogently is how your child is preparing to be a writer. Our first babysitter was from Colombia, and she viewed part of her job as learning American culture. She was amazed that I talked to my kids “like they are people.” She said that no one she knew in Colombia ever talked to kids in anything but babytalk. I had to break it to her that this is probably true of most Americans, too. But at our house, we knew we wanted our kids to be able to talk well, so we talked to them like they were smart, interesting people with fascinating opinions. This is how you make a writer.
  • Let them see you write – the actual physical process of it.
    This is where some parents are going to groan. Oh, I hate writing. I have hated writing ever since third grade when Mrs. Evans… Exactly. And you don’t want that to happen to  your child. So get out your notebook and write. Write bad nature poetry, and read it to them. Write a letter or e-mail and read it to them. Read them something in the newspaper that really makes you angry, write a letter to the editor, and read it to them. You can even let them see you edit. My kids were fascinated when I read them the first draft of a book I’m working on with pen in hand, and kept making marks. “What’s wrong with that paragraph?” they asked excitedly.
  • Make writing physically easy for your kids.
    Let them dictate while you type/write
    Make a recording device available to them to dictate into
    Incorporate writing into things they love
    Don’t ever criticize anything about their writing
    Keep homemade blank books around
    If your child’s brain has developed ahead of his/her hands, get them voice recognition software or teach them to touch type
    If your child has a disability, work around it
  • Any writing is good writing: signs, comics, tracing. My daughter loves to make signs and for years that was her biggest writing output.
  • Don’t push good penmanship until they are clearly ready to improve, and don’t comment on penmanship when they write for pleasure. Ditto spelling.
  • Never, ever edit things they write for pleasure. (Unless they ask you to, and then make them beg till you do it.)
  • Never, ever assign them topics. (Unless they ask you to do it.)
  • Incorporate writing into project-based learning.
    This is a big one. A kid who is reluctant to sit down and write a book report may be very willing, even eager, to write up the results of a cool science experiment. (Who the heck ever thought up book reports anyway—that’s enough to ruin any good book!)
  • Create actual products that contain writing. Lots of kids are very inspired by this. Actual products can be:
    Letters to Grandma
    Newsletters for their friends or neighbors
    Reports that they present at their homeschool program
    Copied poems with drawings to hang on the wall

Relax! Remember that as long as they are reading and having interesting conversations, your kids are preparing to become good writers.

Here’s a self-assessment you can take if you want to think about what you’re doing to inspire your child’s inner writer:

  • How often do you read to your child aloud, even after s/he can read alone?
  • How often to you ask your child’s opinion about something you’re reading together?
  • How often do you read to your child from something you’re reading for yourself or something you are writing?
  • Do you ask your child questions about the things she is interested in?
  • Have you offered to type/write as your child dictates?

For most kids, creative writing is going to come first. They may incorporate words into their art from a young age. They will usually start producing creative pieces if they see it modeled for them. They can be very inspired to write if you write down the stories they tell and then read them back.

When kids are producing creative work spontaneously, that’s when you know that they are developing a healthy attitude toward writing. You might actually see them gravitating toward things that you could have “assigned” to them. When my daughter was in first grade, she decided to write a “report” about squid, since we were studying the ocean. She did it, then presented it to her teacher at her homeschool program to be put into her portfolio. She did this all on her own. And she, by the way, is a kid who swears she “hates” writing! (What else would you expect the rebellious daughter of a professional writer to say?)

Finally, we do have to address the obvious question: When is a child ready to do assigned writing? If your child is homeschooled and is not required by a charter to take writing tests (something I abhor about one of our local charters), remember that writing on a prompt is only a skill they will need on tests for admission to programs, high school or community college classes they take, and on their college applications. If you’ve already nurtured a happy writer, learning to do this will not be hard. This skill is best developed by: a) reading a lot, and b) not being forced to learn it till they actually need it.

Most homeschooled kids–assuming you’ve been following the advice above–probably don’t need to practice writing from prompts before middle school. Of course, you are going to have kids who want to attain this skill earlier on their own, or perhaps who are so academically advanced that they will have to learn this skill in order to take the classes they want to take. But they are the exceptions. This isn’t a skill that needs to be forced on younger kids, who will only learn to dislike writing if it is “taught” too early.

If you have kids in school, you’re going to see that the educational establishment doesn’t agree with me at all. And, well, good luck with that. I hope that your child has understanding teachers who figure out how to meet the standards while still keeping creativity and ideas distinct from editing and correcting. Otherwise, they’re just going to be feeding that editor sitting on your child’s shoulder and it’s going to be that much harder for your child to find pleasure and learning in writing.

And that, really, is all it takes to become a good writer.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Writing.


10 Responses

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  1. laura says

    Thank you Suki for the reassurance that I am on the right path. My 7th gr homeschooler is a ferocious reader, wants to be a writer- yet doesn’t yet put pen to paper to produce anything beyond a couple of paragraphs. “I” am having trouble waiting for him to blossom. I am wanting to push him past the transcribing phase. I suppose I will continue to encourage and to be patient! Thank you.

  2. Suki says

    Hi Laura, I assume he’s 12/13 years old? If he’s having trouble getting thoughts on paper at that age, you might want to start looking at why that is. The key questions I would ask are:
    – Did he have a bad experience with writing that may be blocking him from writing now? Stopping at a paragraph often means that the “editor on his shoulder” is yelling way too loudly, and he could do with some freewriting exercises. I would highly recommend Peter Elbow’s “Writing without teachers” in this case.
    – Is there any concern that he has an undiagnosed problem such as dyslexia or dysgraphia? Probably not dyslexia if he’s a voracious reader (though this is still possible). He’s old enough to learn to touch type. I’d suggest you get him learning immediately if he doesn’t do it already and compare his writing output by hand and by keyboard.
    – Do you get him into situations which inspire writing? If he loves reading, and aspires to be a writer, a low-pressure creative writing group can be very inspiring. This is what I’m doing for my 7th grader this year. He went to a weekend writing workshop last year and got very inspired, so I’m hoping he’ll react similarly when our group starts up. There are also online creative writing forums for teens, but I’d be wary of those if he’s already reluctant, as there’s no one monitoring the way the teens treat each other.
    – Also at his age, communication with other people is a great motivator. Does he use e-mail? If yes, perhaps you could enlist a favorite relative or friend to engage him via e-mail. A short prompt like “hey, I hear you had a great time on your vacation. Can you tell me something about it?” can get a kid writing a lot in order to communicate.
    Good luck!
    Suki

  3. Deb says

    Suki, this is so clear and right on. It makes me smile.

    So many kids say, “I hate writing.” When I talk to most of them, especially about books, I hear the writer in them so clearly. Taking the pen or keyboard in hand to write with kids at any age can deeply repair their belief that they hate to write.

    Imagine a child at a piano. We say, “Play this Mozart concerto.” We walk away, After twenty minutes, we say: “Show me what you’ve got.” Then we point out all their short-comings and mistakes, show them a few notes or chords, tell them to try harder, and walk away again.

    Sitting with a developing writer we can not only write down their words at a rate more compatible with their thinking, but also we can read them back, asking “Is this what you said?” or “Wait, wait. What did it sound like?” or “Yes! That will leave the reader on the edge of her seat!” In other words, not only do we separate the complex development of what and how to say what they think or imagine or know from the mechanics, but also we engage with them, moment-by-moment, like a piano teacher.

    If the work with the mentor is satisfying, liberating, and challenging, the kids sit down at every piano they see. They even make mistakes in front of people. They try again and again to figure out what they’ve forgotten, coax their fingers to become fluent, train their ear or their “reading music” eye. They want to show everyone what they can do. They play just for themselves.

    What they want is to play songs. We clap at their recitals. We never boo.

    If the work with the mentor is miserable, and if we force them to practice every day, criticize the results, force them to practice more… some of them will get over the misery and become life-long pianists. But most will quit as soon as we let them.

    The more accomplished the young pianist, the more sophisticated the lesson they need with their mentor. Similarly, the more serious pianist will be more willing to take on the basics as well as playing songs, but few find playing scales to be the true joy of playing piano. This is true of writing as well. The need to improve the basics grows as they learn and want to master more complex pieces.

    I don’t actually play the piano, have never had a lesson, and I’ve never had the discipline to stick with a musical instrument. Yet. I spent a lot of time tooling around at the piano as a child, though, because it was fun. Both my siblings got lessons, and I didn’t. As a child, I assumed that was because I wasn’t talented.

    What if writing works the same way?

  4. Suki says

    Hi Deb,

    You are so right! We should have writing recitals. Hey, how about a public reading? There’s a good idea. The first time I gave a public reading of my work, I was in graduate school. But that seems silly — why not earlier? And just like at a recital, the aim wouldn’t be to criticize the work. (Can you imagine at your kid’s piano recital, a child finishes and their teacher now says, “Comments, anyone? What about that flubbed ending and the missed notes in the middle section?”) If we celebrated even half as much as we criticize, more kids would love writing just for the fun. And the more you write, the better writer you become…

    Suki

  5. Suki says

    Here’s another perspective on teaching writing, one that aligns well with mine. Although the writer is still talking about “teaching writing” in elementary school, she’s given in to the fact that the way kids learn to write is by having something to say! http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/09/21/04stacey.h31.html?tkn=LLWFXCotiHDKc1Q1skAZmvCV5dLFk4ogMpLQ&cmp=ENL-EU-VIEWS1

  6. Caryn Coleman says

    Thank you, Suki! There is so much good advice in your essay and speech. Like everything home-school, I will be using it for my kids and for myself. I admire the way you handle comments too. One feels like part of a continuing dialog, even as your contributions are fully formed. Neat.

  7. Suki says

    I love getting responses to my posts, and it’s fun to respond back! Parenting is a continuing dialogue; homeschooling even more. I’m glad my ideas helped.

  8. Suki says

    Here’s another blog post I like on the same subject: http://patriciazaballos.com/2012/05/31/how-do-kids-really-learn-to-write-2-0/

Continuing the Discussion

  1. 1st/2nd grade reading and writing linked to this post on September 26, 2012

    […] I have to disagree about assigning writing to a second grader. Yes, schools do this, but anyone who has studied how kids develop knows that giving writing assignments to young kids is absolutely developmentally inappropriate. Your kids will grow up to be better, happier writers if you encourage them to express themselves however they'd like to until they are old enough that doing writing assignments makes any sense to them. (For most kids, that means mid-teens at the earliest.) I took a great workshop with Julie of Bravewriter.com and I was very impressed with her viewpoint. She doesn't make kids write about anything but their own ideas until they are teens. And not only that, they should write for the joy of it, not to be graded and have their writing "fixed." No matter how badly spelled and punctuated, a little kid's ideas are always perfect if they wrote them just because they liked writing them down. Good writers come out of good readers. If your kids are reading or being read to a lot, and if they recognize good writing, they will eventually be able to produce good writing. But if you make them hate writing when they're 7, you're doing them a huge disservice. Don't make them write about anything they don't want to write about. Don't *make* them write at all! Let them dictate stories while you type, make videos, do puppet shows. Talk to them and listen to their answers. It really amazes me that homeschool charter schools and curriculum require kids to write at this age. There's plenty of time to torture them with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Make sure they enjoy writing first! Suki ps: More on this topic at Teaching writing in the elementary years – Avant Parenting […]

  2. Writing Strands- or other recommendations linked to this post on October 18, 2012

    […] blog: how do kids REALLY learn to write, 2.0 and I wrote this post (about kids slightly younger): Teaching writing in the elementary years – Avant Parenting […]



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