Putting Words on Paper

I’m trying to work out what I think about writing and how to teach it to two children new to writing.  I’m mostly spewing thoughts onto screen at this point, so I can’t promise that my musings on writing are all that well-done, but here they are anyway.  A few things are bouncing about in my head about this.

First of all,  I’m influenced by a couple of things.  I used to teach writing to middle schoolers and I developed a lot of ideas about how to do it.  I taught essay writing and creative writing and I think I did a decent job of it, though I have to say that many kids I taught seemed to have abysmal writing skills in various ways.  Secondly, as is always the case for a teacher, I’m deeply influenced by my own education in this regard.  In my early elementary school years, I was turned loose with paper and pencil and encouraged to write whatever I wanted.  Teachers praised what I did and gave little mini-lessons about vocabulary, punctuation and grammar, but mostly just encouraged me.  It was very whole language.  I think it worked for me extremely well, a fact that is hard for me to ignore.  I’m sure that reading as much as I did also influenced my sense of good writing.

There’s a lot different ideas about elementary school writing floating around out there.  I know that in public schools, they’ve moved to having kids writing more and more at a younger and younger age.  I’ve heard of 1st and 2nd graders who have to write multiple pages every week.  I’m sure it’s developmentally appropriate for a few of the superstars among them, but when you consider that many of these are kids who are still struggling through early readers, it’s just patently absurd.  The focus is obviously on showing off the very ultimate they can do in the moment, not on building skills for the long run, one of my perpetual frustrations with public education these days.

In the other corner, many homeschoolers, especially of the classical persuasion, believe that children new to writing should spend a large portion of their writing time at copywork or dictation, writing down well-written passages so that they understand how a well-written sentence or paragraph works.  There’s more to the method than that, including narrations, which encourages children to learn how to mentally and orally organize their thoughts before learning how to put them on paper.  I like the idea of narrations, which we have informally incorporated into our learning.  However, I know that I would have loathed having to copy like that at any level of my education.  I can’t take copywork as a means to better essay writing seriously (better handwriting, perhaps?).  Then there’s the fact that this approach discounts the importance of creative writing or child-led writing.  This is where I butt up against the very top down approach of classical educators, who particularly dismiss any need for analysis, questioning or child-led study by young students.  (By the way, the blog Strewing had an excellent post that dealt with unschooling and classical education recently that touched on this issue as well.)  Many classical educators also completely discount the importance of emotional experience in learning, again, especially among younger students.  I don’t think all learning has to be made fun and easy.  However, I think a positive experience, especially with something as individual as writing, which is, after all, an art form as well as an essential skill, is something that can help develop that skill and voice down the road.

So here are a few of the things I know.  I don’t want my kids doing pages of completely pointless writing just for the sake of saying they can.  I want to keep talking with them, using our informal narrations, and leading them to good books in order to encourage their sense of what makes well-organized, interesting writing so they can emulate it down the road.  I want to find new ways to encourage them to put their own words on paper.  In order to help them, I recognize that they need structures to support them in learning how to put words on paper.

While I would love to just let this happen organically, that’s what I did this year and it honestly hasn’t been happening quite enough, though we’ve enjoyed several of the activities from the classic Peggy Kaye book Games for Writing.  That’s fine for this year, but I know I need a program of some sort for the future.  The problem is, I don’t like anything I see out there so far.  And in the last week or so, since I started percolating about this, thinking ahead to the summer and next year, I have looked at a huge number of samples from first and second grade writing curricula.

Perhaps the right thing (pardon me while I resist making a “write thing” pun) will present itself or perhaps I’ll make my own.

8 thoughts on “Putting Words on Paper

  1. I’m really interested in this perspective on the writing thing from someone who’s taught middle school writing. I taught freshman comp in grad school, so that’s what I know: whatever schools (even the very good ones, even when they have bright students to work with) are doing, it’s mostly not working. I have a decent idea of what I want my kids doing for writing in high school, but I flounder a bit in figuring out how to get them there. And this is perhaps why I’m putting off starting school today…my 9 year old is supposed to somehow be writing a 5 paragraph essay for Paragraph Town today. Eek!

    1. I was pretty shocked when I got to college and saw how poorly many of my fellow students wrote. I couldn’t help but wonder how these kids even got into a good college with that level of writing skills. Since then, I feel like it has just gotten worse and worse. You put the problem really well, though. I know what I want their writing to look like eventually, but I don’t know what the baby steps should be to get them there. I’m not persuaded by the current thinking in schools or the classical approach (at least for the early grades). MCT does look good… but that’s still a year or two down the road for us.

  2. With my eldest I muddled my way through copywork, oral narrations, and dictation. I was never particularly methodical because it never occurred to me then that this WAS his writing/grammar/spelling foundation. With my younger two I kept on, but in far less hesitant ways, because I could see where I should have put more effort in. We never engaged in formal essay writing pursuits, per se, preferring instead to concentrate on narrations of all kinds (oral, written), but lately they’ve had to write speeches for 4-H, so I’ve had the opportunity to see the results of my experiments, lol. They are all quite decent writers, particularly the late reader (who I often despaired of). If I had to credit anything for their writing skills, I’d say it was the oral narrations. They give the brain the concept of form and coherence, so when it comes time to spit it out, the structure is already there.

    1. Yes, it’s the oral narrations that I feel the best about in terms of the whole classical method, though I know we’re doing them more casually – I don’t write them down, though I may start. Right now I’m just trying to focus on the fact that I’ve helped fix several atrocious 6th and 7th grade writers’ skills, so if I screw it up, at least there’s that.

  3. Make your own and I’ll buy it from you 🙂

    I 100% truly think children who read/are read quality books and who have the opportunity to narrate either formally or informally in their younger years will be great candidates for formal writing programs later on.

  4. I loathed the minimal copywork I was given as a kid. I dictated stories to my grandmother though, then illustrated them; I still have them, and I treasure them. My girls have dictated a few stories to me, and we’ve cowritten a few with Tell Me a Story cards, which have been fun.

    Have you looked at http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/workbooks ? I really like their emphasis on the creative process. I hope to use them with my girls for Nanowrimo next year. They dictated their story this last fall, but it could have used a little more cohesion! 😉

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