"We emphasize reading and seeing more than writing. We do not demand that the children write until they are mature enough to have something to say and some reason to say it in writing. Consequently, writing comes much later for them than it does for the conventionally schooled. It astonished us to see how much writing the schools demand of young children these days. .....
We've done some tutoring of middle school students and we see how often these students confront more writing assignments than we think are healthy for a middle schooler. They show us notebooks with homework assignments to quotations from Herodotus, essays on "picture prompts", book reports and more. The little middle schoolers produce what is demanded of them as well as they can, usually cranking it out in simple declarative sentences without attention to style or concrete details. One such student came to our daughter Bridget, pleading, "Help me to be more creative! My teacher says I need to be more creative."
For us, writing is not a subject assignment but an ancillary part of other activities....
from Homeschooling: A Family's Journey, which I'm enjoying.
The authors' blog is here; a quick review, here.
Why did I pick out this quote?
I think for the same reason that I appreciated it when a physical therapist who consulted about Aidan recently expressed reservations about the brace he wears on his left leg. I had inquired of different therapists and orthopedists, several times, if the brace wasn't causing some of the problems it was meant to help with. For one thing, he walks with a stiff knee, hauling up his hip in order to proceed. For another thing, his left calf muscle is significantly smaller than his right one. I couldn't help being reminded of my football-playing son when he had broken his leg. While he was wearing a cast he walked with a stiff-kneed, heel-strike pattern. When they removed the cast, his healed leg was an inch smaller around the calf than the other one. Until this therapist of Aidan's mentioned her concerns, no one had really been willing to converse about possible drawbacks to brace-wearing, which left me feeling weird. Anyway, that is beside the point for now; it's just that having my longtime concern addressed and affirmed for the first time in regard to the brace was a relief.
With the writing, I had often said "We unschooled writing and the kids all learned to write well and enjoy writing when they saw a reason for it." But I'd often felt a bit troubled about it. I had often read especially at the beginning of my own homeschooling journey that one of the advantages of homeschooling was that kids wrote more -- that the conventional school usually skimped on writing in the curriculum. The reason was that teachers didn't have time to grade writing assignments so they tended to assign multiple-choice or short answers from a textbook.
This quote above seems to say the opposite. Now, what is with that? My speculation, based on often looking at teacher's lesson plans on the internet, is that "journaling" has become a trend. The kids are writing in response to prompts, etc. Perhaps volume of writing has gone up, but it doesn't seem to have completely solved the basic problem. Maybe the problem with kids' composition is something besides volume of written work, or lack of it? Maybe it has more to do with relative lack of reading-literature and back-and-forth talking experience, now that so many children are in school or other places for the bulk of the day, and spend another good part of the day watching TV? (the book says the average child watches something like 4 hours of television a day, which seems quite high to me, but is corroborated here). I don't know the answer, but it's an interesting question.
In my family, my kids usually did not write a significant amount until they were in high school. Before that, they attempted little stories for their own amusement, practiced handwriting through small amounts of copywork, and sometimes worked on written narrations or small research reports. The main focus for these was just bridging the gap between thinking and putting thoughts down on paper, and in finding projects that are meaningful. The child usually makes plenty of mistakes at this age. I prefer to think of them as "approximations" similar to the mistakes a toddler makes when just learning to talk. Sure, you can address the mistakes; I usually went lightly on this, jotting down difficulties privately so that I could tailor a future grammar or punctuation lesson towards the difficulty. My young children needed sympathy and encouragement of their "voice" more than they needed direct critical feedback.
Perhaps emphasizing too much writing at too early an age forces the child to use a different part of his brain for developing skills than he would use for writing later. I'm not talking here about how some children love to write stories and letters and copy things out. Children develop different skills on different timetables, and have different interests. I'm talking about the school-child who is writing a lot without much developmental readiness.
At school, I wonder if some middle school kids are doing a lot of "journaling" and "responding" without much chance to read excellent literature and soak it in. Sometimes, teachers prepare well-intentioned literary analysis lessons for kids who simply haven't had a background of appreciative, receptive reading. The analysis becomes a trick without understanding, and the child looking at a journal prompt may well wonder what the teacher expects of him. He might end up spilling out things one imagines the teacher wants to hear, just to have a filled page. This sense of falsity is debilitating, I would imagine, and falsity is an enemy to good writing.
Now back to my own family's experience.... at some point, usually in the early high school years, my three older kids all started writing for their own purposes. Lots of good reading and discussion with family and friends prepared them to want to say something. At this point they usually asked for some feedback. Again, it was much like the development of verbal skills -- lots of opportunities and interest in what they had to say, and a bit of tactful correction IF the child seemed open to it.
My husband and I sometimes point out poor language in the media or elsewhere. Often, it is in the context of poor thinking, so our emphasis is not on micro-details of syntax but on shoddy workmanship in general. This probably helps young teenagers start thinking about WHY people use language in a particular way and how to get their own writing to work for what they want to say.
Not requiring much writing isn't the same thing as just sitting back and waiting for writing to appear like a full-grown tree. It's true, I did a lot of waiting, but I realize now that there was a process going on, even if it wasn't systematic. The Millmans, in Homeschooling: A Family Journey, say that they put an emphasis on Rhetoric. Their daughters and sons joined a debate team, memorized speeches and learned to improvise them quickly, and thus mastered many of the basic skills necessary for writing.
"Weekly debate practice included impromptu practice, in which they had three minutes to organize a five-point speech in response to a quotation. This practice gave them the skills and confidence to compose essays under time pressure, for testst, college admission, scholarship applications, and the like.. In turn, memorization of good models of rhetoric quicly improved the way they spoke and wrote. We suspect that the pressure on student in to write early may be as damaging as the pressure to read early. In any case, our patient and tactical approach seems to have served our children well."As for us, we do not have access to debate clubs in our area, and I do not think our kids would thrive in that environment. In our home, our "writing curriculum" seems to consist of reading and discussions, starting with picture books and pursuing "why" questions that the little ones ask about the book content, repeating lines from favorite stories or sometimes making up our own stories. It carries through read-alouds of chapter books and small research follow-ups and conversations after the chapters are read. During this time the children usually try their hand at simple keyboarded creative stories which they usually share with the family and sometimes with friends and relatives as well. It proceeds all the way up to the pre-college level where the children read books that have been major influences in the lives of their parents, and we have some great discussions. At that point, the projects get more ambitious. One child wrote a novel, another wrote extensively for newsletters and online story forums. Even now, when my son who is a senior in college calls on the phone, I often end up discussing books with him, or literary theory. He is even writing his senior dissertation on a topic related to literature.
I think this interactive, conversational format can improve mental composition skills as the child is developmentally ready, and according to his or her own unique temperament. Each child has his own different focus and gifts in how he (usually "he" in my house) approaches things mentally. One child has a terse, active style of writing; another is master of vivid, tiny details; another likes to think through things on paper; and so on. These interactions sharpen my own ability too, and when the children do start writing on their own in the high school years, our writing meetings are on a fairly equal level. Quite often their writing is better than mine and my major advantage is simply experience.
When you are teaching a child to read, there are two "streams" of learning. One is a wide, pleasant exposure to many books in a context of relationship and love for reading. The other is brief phonics practice as the child seems ready (it doesn't have to be a workbook -- refrigerator magnets and letter games work, too). When the child is ready, the two streams come together.
I am thinking that this is similar to writing. A child needs motor skills to learn to form letters properly and develop handwriting fluency. My kids are late on this, generally, and from Aidan's therapy I have learned there are a lot of foundational things you can do to work on this -- large motor exercise like crawling, chalk circles, mazes and dot to dots, etc. At an older age, copywork and dictation may be nice, though I admit we don't practice this regularly in our home. But at the same time, the child can be learning to arrange thoughts and express them in a natural manner. When the child is ready, again, the two streams come together.
Narration is a time-honored way to improve composition skills verbally. We've used narration patchily. So far in my homeschooling, I've had most success with conversational narrations, where I or the child throws a question related to the reading into the conversational ring and we discuss it back and forth. The point is not to lecture the child but to model thoughtful interaction with a book. The parent does not have to be an expert. Being willing to discuss and mostly, listen, is the main focus. Almost any topic of interest can become a natural "extension". This conversation makes bridges between different subject areas.
Julie Bogart's Bravewriting Lifestyle exercises show some of the ways you can work on composition without sitting the child down to a piece of paper and a topic he could care less about. Her blog discusses and chronicles the writing life in a perceptive and respectful way. I haven't used her materials, because they weren't around when we were working out our family method by trial and error, and now I have what works for us basically in place. But I know many people I trust recommend her programs highly. Her online courses and forums probably give many children a chance to share their writing and get response.
We usually do things less formally.
We've had success with an informal family Story Society.
Novel in a Month is another activity some of my family have participated in. It's going on right now, as most of you probably know! Someone on my classical group shared the link to its Young Novelist Workbooks.
I personally am fascinated with the progym, as I've often mentioned here. It seems like a wonderful developmental outline, and it is pretty much the only "structured" writing method that has not been a complete wash-out for our family.
If you have any thoughts on this, pro or con, I'd love to hear them! There are different perspectives on these things and some of them are informed by our own perceptions of our kids and how they learn best. Some kids and parents thrive on structure and clear assignments. I guess my point would be that some of the fear or rigor associated with "writing" in the homeschool isn't necessary. You can address some of the composition goals by informal methods that suit your own family.