Friday, July 13, 2012

Beginning Writers

When children are first learning to write and spell, they frequently run into conflicts between the "rules" of the English Language and the actualities of the English Language.  It is for this reason that many kids (including my Alice) become frustrated with the whole endeavor right from the start.  It is so important for their mental well being at this stage, not to be a perfectionist.

All it took was one writing assignment with her Dad (who simply didn't know any better) correcting every letter and every word that wasn't just right, for Alice to completely lose interest in any sort of writing, ever.  I was remiss in not assuming he did not know a few things Elementary School teachers are taught about writing skills and their young students.  

One disadvantage to home schooling is the loss of regular access to a wealth of experience and knowledge teachers gain during their training and years teaching that is pretty useful.  There are forms of virtual schooling now that offer this kind of support weekly (our school is one of those) but if only one parent takes the lead on this connection, the other parent is left in the dark.  

I had already made a few mistakes that were already requiring some "re-doing" and I’m sorry I did not go over a few more things with hubby before asking him to take over on this lesson one day when I was not feeling well because it pushed a delicate situation over the edge.  It has taken a lot longer to ease Alice back into the writing fold than it took to chase her out.

To help you avoid having this problem, I thought I'd share a few bits of information and offer up some things to consider while you work on writing skills with your beginner.  Writing is HARD.  It is one of the toughest things kids have to learn.  When taking an SAT or similar standardized test, the score on the portions of the test related to language skills have a larger impact on the overall average than do the scores on math skills because there are more kids that get perfect scores in the math arena than do on the verbal portion.  That has always been true - even before a writing portion was added to the verbal section.  So go easy on your beginner, don't forget how hard what they are doing really is.  

When writing, you must know how to form the letters you are creating.  This alone takes countless tiny muscles and their coordination - something new to your child's brain.  It is already very difficult for your child to keep up with his or her thoughts just with needing to form the letters.  Consider how much longer it takes you to write something than to simply say it - and you are an expert at writing.  Even when typing, kids have to know where to find the letters on the keyboard - still an acquired skill that takes a lot of practice.

Handwriting practice is all about learning how to form all the symbols for sound, but a child also has to learn the symbols we use for different kinds of pauses and certain vocal changes we make as we speak.  Not only is writing these new to kids too, but even to early readers, they may not have yet really noticed punctuation at all and the idea of symbols for these other aspects of written language is probably new altogether.

Writing also requires that a child order his or her words in such a way that they make sense (grammar, and mechanics).  Also something newer to their little brains.  They've probably only had a fluency in the spoken language for two-three years and even then, they still have not truly mastered the language - I'm not entirely sure I have.  I am certainly no Martin Luther King, or John F. Kennedy.  
When a child attempts to write words and sentences he or she must figure out how to spell everything in a language that does not follow its own rules a good percentage of the time.  They also have to slow down and listen carefully in order to hear all the sounds.  In the example below, you can see where this child missed the sound in the "mp" blend in "jumped" other than that, the words are all either spelled conventionally or accurately according to the rules of phonics.
For most of us, writing mastery never really comes.  Most of us simply achieve “proficient” and can write well enough to achieve at our careers.  Even many published authors don’t consider themselves “Masters” of the written word.  Which brings me to the part of the article where I make a suggestion.  

Smarty Spelling above, Conventional Spelling below
I jumped out of the jet.  I counted to three.
First, I'll suggest using "Phonetic Spelling" with your beginning writers.  Phonetic Spelling has many names but my favorite was introduced to me by a friend that is a Kindergarten classroom teacher.  She referred to it as "Smarty Spelling" with me during a conversation we were having about the struggles I was experiencing in motivating Alice to write and I've used it ever since (thanks Ali).  This "smarty spelling" is the kind of spelling kids use when they have to sound out words in order to get their thoughts on paper.  A smarty spelled version of “cat”, might be “Kat.”  Or a smarty speller might use “rite” instead of “right”.  At this point, I am still over looking these kinds of spellings and preferring different kinds of "corrections" when she gives me a writing sample.

That is in fact, my key suggestion.  Pick your "corrections" carefully.  Every time you have your child writing, know your objective and consider that objective before offering up feedback.  Your objective in having your child write two sentences about their history lesson that day is very different from an objective like.  “Learn that sentences begin with a capital”, but capitalizing sentences becomes relevant to the history lesson too.  
When having a beginning writer write, try to make it fun and relevant to something they enjoy as much as you can. Try to separate objectives as often as possible.  Using games and resources that don't require handwriting if you are working on sentence structure, spelling and other kinds of "grammar skills" can be really helpful because it narrows the work required in your child's brain.  For example, we really enjoy scrabble junior for a fun, but educational family day activity.  One side has words ready for you, the other makes the child think of the words, so it even grows with your kids as they learn.


Pencil to paper writing is important too, so when you do have your child  write, I suggest choosing no more than two writing objectives on which to focus (plus your objective relating to the other subject, such as "Will describe one reason civilizations appeared mostly near major rivers and waterways"). 

If your child is writing two sentences about his/her history lesson, choose two things that are writing skills oriented to consistently correct and ignore other types of errors.  If your language arts lesson was about capitalization of sentences, correct them for not using this skill in their history writing, but then don’t worry about misspellings or “i’s” that weren’t dotted.  If you do choose a second “writing objective” make it one that really counts.  For example, if in handwriting you’ve really been working on getting “j’s” to hook going to the left, focus on that one handwriting correction and only that one.  Or, if yesterday’s grammar lesson was about end punctuation focus on that and capitalization and let handwriting errors go for the day, week or even month.  Once you've chosen one - two writing objectives, stick with them for awhile.  It might be a day, a week or a month of overlooking certain "mistakes" while focusing in on, and correcting only mistakes related to the same two objectives, but it will help prevent a child who is already working really hard just to get their thoughts down from becoming overwhelmed and overly frustrated.  Believe it or not, they have time to practice, learn and get it right.  

Observing this suggestion will help you know which battles to choose on any given day with your child in his or her writing.   When it comes to grammar rules, I’d also suggest keeping it to a minimum.  If your child gets a rule and applies it right away consistently, move on.  If your child is struggling with something like end marks, spend as much time as you need on end marks before moving on to the next grammar rule if you can.

Mastery is elusive, so even when it appears your child has acquired a habit or skill, you may later see backsliding.  When you see this in your child, correct the mistake that is above and beyond your two "chosen objectives" knowing this is one your child usually has a pretty good handle on.  Please do so gently though - use a sense of humor about it and make sure your kid knows you make mistakes when you are learning something new too.  Give them time.  They will get it eventually.

I also have chosen to let my child work on learning to type.  Alice's writing is just really slow and it frustrates her.  She loves history and in history and science she has "journals" she is supposed to keep so she will be using handwriting in her History Journal, and her Science Log, but for Language Arts writing assignments where we are focusing on grammar, usage or mechanics, she can type.  This allows me to cover an extra objective during typed assignments without making new grammar objectives feel overwhelming to her.  I hope this will help her confidence while still ensuring she is getting practice with pencil and paper writing too.  

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