As a writer, I am passionate about how the language arts are taught. I feel that most programs take the joy out of the natural desire to share knowledge by asking kids to write too soon.
Every child talks. They talk about their favorite things, they talk about what they did at grandma’s house, they tell stories about their stuffed animals and Lego creations. Unfortunately, we tend to assume that a child of six or seven years of age can “talk” on paper. But, writing well requires many skills that have nothing to do with talking. Let them talk. Don’t teach little kids to write.
Don’t teach little kids to write
Young children, those under ten years old, tend to be focused on forming letters correctly, remembering proper spelling, and checking capitals and periods. They think that all those things are super important because they get red marks on their papers if they don’t remember. They are important, but not for a young child full of imaginative stories to tell. They can go on and on without taking a breath if you let them. Why, then, do they struggle to write just one interesting sentence? We get upset and say things like, “Come on! I know you can write more. Just write one more sentence.” They huff and scribble out one more sentence that makes you cringe—I ate. Again, I say, don’t teach little kids to write.
Reasons not to teach them.
Underdeveloped fine motor skills.
Writing by hand requires fine motor skills that take a while to develop. Kids not only have to learn how to hold the pencil (usually before age five), but they have to learn proper pressure so their hands don’t hurt. Their hands get tired easily. A little boy’s fine motor skills may not be fully developed until he is ten. Typing is not much better. They have to learn to type and type quick enough. If the child can’t spell well, the keyboard may end up being slower than hand writing.
Reading skills are still developing.
You can’t write well unless you’ve read a LOT of books. And, writing ability rarely supersedes reading level. In other words, if a seven-year-old is at the easy reader level, it will be difficult for him to write at the level of his thoughts. This is extremely frustrating for a child. Spelling ability and vocabulary often go hand in hand with reading ability.
Vocabulary, spelling, and sentence mechanics are not automatic.
If a child has to think too much about how to spell a word, whether or not to use a comma, and the rules of sentence structure such as what constitutes a complete thought, the writing itself suffers. Her attitude about writing suffers, too. I can tell you that I always wanted to be a writer, but when I was nine years old, I purposely wrote as short a story as I could get away with. I hated the arduous task of hand writing it. Red marks for forgetting a period or a comma discouraged me. The writing topics were boring. I wished I could will the stories in my head on to the paper.
What to do instead
Engage in hands-on play.
Help them develop their fine motor skills through playing with clay or putty. Learn finger weaving, crochet, or knitting. Try small hand-sewn projects. Play Operation or Pick Up Sticks type games that require a steady hand. The point is to allow them to have fun learning new skills while also strengthening their fingers for typing or handwriting.
Read. Read. Read.
This is kind of a no-brainer. Even when they can read books on their own, have a special read-aloud time. If you are struggling with this, get audiobooks (Jim Weiss is a great storyteller), kids’ podcasts, or check out Read Aloud Revival. The more exposure to good books, the better.
I do not advocate summer reading programs because many of them are set up on a faulty system. They encourage a certain number of books instead of time. Kids often choose books well below their reading level just so they can rack up points. Umm. No. I also feel that books are a joy unto themselves and do not need external rewards. A book is a world you get to visit over and over again. If you choose to participate in a Pizza Hut or Six Flags reading program, I recommend keeping it to yourself. You keep track and spring the surprise on them just because you wanted to treat them, not because they read a certain number of pages.
Play word games.
Magnetic poetry tiles, Scrabble, word finds, Silly Sentences, hangman, Mad Libs and other games allow children to have fun with language in a non-threatening way. Remember, if kids are having fun, they will associate fun and happiness with the language arts. They may even come up with silly games themselves. Encourage their efforts at storytelling and reserve the red pen for when they are over twelve.
So, don’t teach little kids to write. Play with them and read to them. A lot. They will be enthusiastic storytellers when they are older.