By Mary Hood, Ph.D.
At workshops, many people ask me questions concerning the development of writing skills. Often, when I dig a little deeper, I am surprised to discover that they are really talking about penmanship. These are two different things that need to be looked at separately.
In my opinion, most people overemphasize penmanship in the early years. Neither my husband nor any of my three sons writes with cursive letters, except for signing their names on checks. In this computer age, it isn’t as important as some people believe.
Once, my youngest son and I were at a baseball tournament. It was a national all-star tournament where they were trying to make sure nobody had brought in any “ringers.” One by one they were grilling our players. The first one didn’t know his mother’s maiden name. The second one didn’t respond to his own name, since he always went by a nickname. It was starting to look like we had put together an entire team composed of ineligible players. As my son got closer to the front of the line, he started becoming agitated. I thought he was worried about the questions he would be asked, but just before we reached the front of the line, he turned to me and said: “MOM! I don’t know how to write my name in cursive!”
I pulled him to the side and showed him, and he went back to the line to sign up. It didn’t take three years of primary school to accomplish that task.
On the other hand, both of my daughters have beautiful cursive writing. They learned as soon as they had a genuine desire to do so. One thing that encouraged them was our use of pen pals. As the pen pals began to write in cursive, the girls asked to learn, and I got them a book that showed them how.
Obviously, I believe more in the development of genuine writing than penmanship. However, I do believe in helping children develop fine motor control. This often works better through the use of artwork, especially calligraphy, or in the workshop, using tools. Why torture small boys with exercises in penmanship when they could develop the same fine motor skills using a hammer and chisel?
Writing skills, on the other hand, are very important to me. I believe there are a couple of reasons many young children are resistant to writing. First, some of them have so much trouble with the penmanship issue that they have been turned off to the process of writing.
Second, some of them simply don’t have any stories to tell yet. They might just need a little more time. My brother, who has no children of his own, once shared a startling observation with me. I was bemoaning the tendency of a couple of my children to make up lies. My brother said: “You know, they are only making up stories because they hear all the older people telling stories. Since they don’t have any real ones yet, they are just making up some of their own. They don’t even realize it is lying.” He was right!
The two most important things for mothers of young children to do are (1) to read to them and (2) have interesting experiences together. Both of these investments will lay the groundwork for the development of successful writing skills. Here are some ideas that I’ve put to good use in our family:
- Real writing begins with oral communication. In kindergartens, the teachers use “experience charts.” To do this, get an easel with a flip chart, preferably one that uses lines similar to those used on primary paper. (They are often available at teacher’s supply stores.) Then, after you have had an interesting experience, such as going to the zoo, the park, or the grocery store, have the children sit down on the floor in front of you, and “write” a story about it together. You are simply the scribe, writing down what they tell you to write. Then you can read it back together, even if they can’t really read yet, because they will remember the lines they just “wrote.”
- One of the best ways to encourage beginning writers is to provide blank booklets. For those with any desire at all, there is something almost magical about a whole booklet of blank pages. I used to get 11″ x 17″ primary paper from Miller Pads & Paper (the type that has lines at the bottom and a place for a picture at the top), fold over several sheets, and staple them together. (One great resource for making more elaborate books is Creating Books with Children by Valerie Bendt.)
- We used to read The Story Bible by Pearl S. Buck at the breakfast table. My children would then write their own Bible entries, a little at a time, using these booklets. At first, all they would do was draw a picture. Then they would progress to titles, then captions, then a couple of words, and finally they would be writing whole sentences and paragraphs.
- Once children are writing, it is best to work with them as an editor, using common sense. Very few young writers want to get their work back with red lines all over it and then be asked to re-do everything until it is perfect. On the other hand, they have an innate desire to grow and develop. One time I might say: “Great story! By the way, have we ever talked about how to indent the first line of a paragraph? You do it like this (and then I’d do it on my own work, not mess up theirs with red marks).” The next time I might say: “Oh, Grandma will love this letter. By the way, you spell sincerely with an e.”
The development of writing takes time. Let your kids enjoy the process by not expecting too much, too early. All of my children eventually became great writers. As always, relax just a bit, and enjoy the process together!
Mary Hood, Ph.D., and her husband, Roy, homeschooled their five children since the early 1980s. All have successfully made the transition to adulthood. Mary has a Ph.D. in education and is the director of ARCHERS for the Lord, Inc. (The Association of Relaxed Christian Home Educators). She is the author of The Relaxes Home School, The Joyful Home Schooler, and other books, and is available for speaking engagements. Contact her via her website, www.archersforthelord.org.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.