Friday, November 07, 2008

Too Little, Too Much?

"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.


Kerry said...

I agree with you completely, although my children are younger (11, 7,1) so we haven't reached the high school levels of writing yet. We pulled my ds out of school during fourth grade, and I can tell you there wasn't too much writing going on up to that point. There were lots of little "reports", which didn't seem to do much in the way of writing instruction. Ds loves to write and has written 20 pages so far of a book he is working on. As he works, his interest in grammar, usage, and mechanics is naturally growing. We have done a couple of short writing exercises, and some journaling, as well. I have taught him how to outline, so that he can learn how to pull information out of books and organize it. In my way of thinking, if you can read, outline, and write grammatically correct sentences, you will be ready to do a lot of the writing you'll need to do later. I don't want my kids to hate writing!
By the way, I am reading the same book right now, but I think you are ahead of me!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Willa. Having young boys I don't have any experiences to share, but the more informal approach (which is great to hear has worked in your family) is how we intent to approach writing.

Tracey (Connections)

Katie said...

I'm thinking about this same subject more and more lately. I have a middle schooler, an upper elementary and a young elementary, and they are all interested in writing stories.

The older two are doing Bravewriter writing assignments this year (from The Writer's Jungle), one per month. I like that pace. The assignments are spaced out enough that they don't take over school time, but there is still something required. She classifies children according to which writing stage they are in, instead of grade level-- something else I like.

I admit I am scared that the kids won't be good writers in college-- I'm not worried about their writing skills, just about their ability to write on a deadline. This seems to be the biggest struggle we have so far. It is more time management than writing, really.

shaun said...

I often worry about how we don't do writing much. My experience with our elementary schools around here is that they make a big deal out of early writing activities, and a lot of it is journaling. Having taught college composition, I worry that all this journaling leads to a lot of muddy college "opinion papers," but who knows?

Writing and language are my DD9s strengths, and she has written reams of stories. She's basically in high school, but I have not done much with writing, because though she is certifiably profoundly gifted, it just hasn't felt right to push on essay skills.

She loves to write in response to history readings, something we started way back when we started homeschooling, but they are usually in fictional diary or letter form -- sometimes a play, and sometimes part of a series of time travel stories with a recurring character.

I have at times tried to push her to do a more straightforward "narration," but it seems so churlish and backwards besides. For history she seems able to answer questions successfully in a fiction format, which strikes me as a pretty cool skill, even if it's not an essay.

I wish we did more copywork, but when we do it feels really stale. We tried Bravewriter, but again, it just felt really canned for us. I think we are a very writing and lit-rich family, and I was trying to force something on us rather than trust what was already going on.

Funny, this seems to sum up our homeschool experience: we worry about it, yet we don't seem to be able to bring ourselves do anything that feels forced. If I could just get past the worrying, that would be great!

Laura A said...

Willa, I am so glad to hear someone else say what's been in my heart all along! I do agree that schools push a lot of writing. At least that's my impression of what they do here in Manhattan. And I think that reading and discussion are probably the best thing a parent can do, especially for a reluctant writer, but probably for any child.

That said, I'm probably not one to share our writing experiences. Writing has long been one of the sore points in our family's educational life. Did I push too much, too soon, or not enough? It was hard to believe that less would have been conscionable, yet with this child it might really have been better, because she developed a dread of writing. I loved to write as a young teen, but there are genuine personality and learning-style differences between me and my only child.

As it stands now, she doesn't even like Bravewriter. It's not just the writing aspect. She doesn't like any curriculum, and never has.

Because she disliked everything we tried and I felt she just needed to get comfortable with pen and paper, I *did* give her a journal, and asked that she write in it most days. But I told her she didn't have to show it to me. The idea was to make getting the words on paper more enjoyable for her, and keep my hyper-editing (which I enjoy, but she doesn't) out of the matter. I have no idea what she's writing in there, but I suspect that almost 100% of it is about orchestration, and I probably wouldn't understand a word of it!

I just keep thinking that the story isn't over yet. There's a lot going on in that head, and she used to come out with the loveliest metaphors, but lately I think if it can't be written in musical notation, it doesn't exist for her!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Theresa said...

Lots to think about here, as usual. For us, writing happens in fits and bursts, with long dry spells in between. I worry about the dry spells sometimes, but I think they are just natural shifts in thought processes being favored at different times, and may even be necessary.

Susan L said...

I just loved reading this. I printed it when I first read it, and I read it again tonight while I ate dinner. I don't have time to say anything in response here (but I don't think one is needed!). My thinking about this is exactly along the same lines as yours. I'm definitely going to post a link to this at my blog tomorrow. A week or so ago, I posted just a little bit about writing in our homeschool, and the next day I started to compose a more detailed post about writing and my family, but it just wasn't coming out well. So, I'll post a link to your post instead! :-)

Thanks for sharing all of this wisdom,

Us! said...

I agree with you too Willa (which seems to be quite often!). This comes at a good time as well as writing is something that has been more on the backburner lately and I have random guilt over it.

I am amazed at my now 13 year old son, and how much he enjoys to write. This was the same child that a couple years ago would approach writing like a tooth extraction. Some of his comfort has to do with his comfort now with the physical process, but it also is largely due to his desire to put thoughts to paper.

Thank you and glad once again that my worrying has been in vain (it is so good to hear from someone farther down the homeschooling road!)


Shelley said...

My son, age 10, left ps 2 years ago, burned out on reading and writing.

Now he loves both. We are reading aloud and on his own lots of great books, we do not use textbooks for social studies or science either, but rather living books, much more interesting. He loves to be read to and we had really stopped doing it much once he could read to himself...thought he needed the practice.

As for writing, he had an idea for a book series several months ago. He started dictating the book to me and I type what he says. He loves to "write" this way. Interestingly, this is how many professional authors write as well. He dictates so fast that I have to abbreviate and go back later and type out the words. I type about 70 wpm, can you imagine how he would keep up with himself at 8 wpm?

The whole time he is dictating, he paces the room, has to be moving every single minute of it...helps him stay focused I think. So, as of now, he has "written" 8 books (short stories) in a series with ideas for many more. I print them out and he gives them proudly as gifts and everyone raves about his writing.

Btw, typically if he has to write for some sort of assignment, he uses the shortest, most unimaginative words possible, but when he dictates to me, he uses vocabulary well beyond a fifth grader and his writing is imaginative and descriptive.

When he was in ps, they used AR reading and he had to keep a log of it. He used to choose the books with the shortest titles and shortest authors name, just because he hated writing in that silly log! No wonder he didn't enjoy the books! Or reading!