So lately I write more about PK learning math than I do about his writing. This is because it’s math that’s the challenge for me as his teacher; I’m not fluent with math, I have no experience teaching it, so I’m fumbling around trying to figure out how to ensure that PK continues to learn math outside of school given that he loathes textbooks and that I don’t know the math he needs to learn.
Writing is a whole different story, for three reasons.
- I know how to teach writing.
- I’m not “teaching” PK “writing” at all.
- I can tell that PK is nonetheless a good writer–though he almost never willingly writes more than a paragraph–and is getting better all the time.
Both of those points hinge on the first one, but how point three hinges on point two is the real subject of this post.
“Writing,” see, means two different things. When you’re a kid, and to far too many adults, it means “using a pencil or pen to put marks on a piece of paper that represent words, which represent the ideas that you want to communicate.”
To writers, to college writing instructors, and to good k-12 writing instructors, “writing” means “communicating your ideas using written words.” Whether you use a pen, a pencil, a typewriter, a computer keyboard, dictation software, or an amanuensis is irrelevant, as long as the ideas end up in the written form somehow. Back in the old days, writers may have handwritten their stuff–or they may have dictated it to a secretary, partner, child, or friend. Once typewriters came along, they could handwrite, dictate, or type (and their secretaries could either handwrite or type). In any of those situations, though, getting the words into print meant that editors, typesetters (often, in the early days, typesetters were actually illiterate), proofreaders and printers got their hands on it at some point, too.
Now, though, we have computers. Which, for writers, means that you can skip the pen(cil) and paper stuff altogether; hell, you can get your writing to your audience without even touching a keyboard, if you have decent dictation software and know how to use it. You also don’t need editors, proofreaders, typesetters, printers, or secretaries. The words you are reading right this minute went through no other minds but mine before they reached yours (though of course their reaching you does depend on other people maintaining servers, power grids, and so forth–much as with original proofreaders, they could in theory be illiterate, though it’s unlikely).
So, from the point of view of writers (and college writing instructors, and good K12 writing teachers), “writing” doesn’t have to involve your hands or paper. It just has to involve translating your ideas into the written word somehow.
But for elementary-school-aged children, “writing” means “pen or pencil in hand with paper in front of me sitting at a desk.” And for most elementary school teachers, “writing” means “words written on paper by a pen or pencil by the child him- or herself.” (In high school and college we start to differentiate formal writing, which is typed, from informal writing, which is handwritten, but there’s still a general expectation that the student do the manual labor him- or herself. Though it used to be considered totally okay for [male] students to have their [female] partners, parents or friends do the manual part.)
This is a problem. Elementary school kids tend to lack motor skills and patience, which are the things that make writing with a pencil or pen reasonably easy; as a result, the writing they do for school is not nearly as complicated, sophisticated, or interesting (to them or their audiences) as their ideas.
For some kids, that’s not a huge deal; their motor skills develop pretty quickly and/or they love communicating their ideas enough and/or they are book-oriented enough that the hurdle of writing by hand doesn’t unduly impair their production. They, and we, end up saying that those kids “love to write.” Other kids may not love it, but they are patient enough and/or have good enough fine motor coordination that they are okay with “writing.”
A lot of kids, though, develop motor skills more slowly, or they have lower frustration thresholds or less patience, or they develop verbal skills more quickly so that the gap between their motor skills (which may be perfectly normal) and their verbal skills is huge enough that they find “writing”–in the sense of putting words on paper with a pen or pencil–incredibly frustrating. Maybe even impossible, if they have serious motor impairments. Those kids usually end up “hating writing” and considering themselves (and being considered) “bad writers.”
When I used to teach college writing, those kids used to make. me. crazy. Not as crazy, though, as the “good writers” who had so internalized the idea that “writing” was about fluency that they actively resisted being asked to actually think. See, from the point of view that thinks of “writing” as “communicating ideas,” “bad” writing is writing that is boring. If it’s interesting, it’s good enough writing, or at least promising writing.
And that’s the thing that trips up way too many kids. They don’t like writing, or think they are bad writers, because to them the writing they produce is boring; it’s not nearly as interesting or complicated as the stuff they can say or the ideas they can think.
The awesome thing, if you teach college writing, is that those kids can often–not always–revise their opinions about writing, once you get them to realize that grammar and fluency are less important than interesting ideas. If you have something to say, most people aren’t going to get too bent if you have the occasional comma splice any more than they’re going to worry about you occasionally mispronouncing a word or saying “uh” in the middle of a sentence. If your grammar or fluency are bad enough they’re impediments, just as a strong accent or stammer might be an impediment in spoken communication; but if anything, written language is more forgiving, because things like editors and secretaries do exist.
What sucks in writing instruction is that the only reason that kids learn to think of “writing” as “pencil and paper,” and therefore one of the major reasons kids learn to hate writing or to think of it as boring, is because we are too damn cheap to provide the tools we have–tools that most middle-class adults take for granted–to children in public schools. Kids could produce much more interesting and sophisticated writing if there were enough adults to let the kids talk out their ideas while the grownups wrote them down, or if there were a computer and excellent dictation software for every kid, or a computer and some fun typing software so they could learn to touch type instead of practicing making letters. (Interestingly, one of PK’s first teachers told me that handwriting is primarily taught in order to give kids motor skills rather than as a reading/writing issue; dunno if that’s a truism or just his opinion, but it seems true to me.) If we could avoid introducing the pencil-and-paper hurdle until kids are old enough to be reasonably patient, they could learn that the primary distinction between spoken and written communication is the ability to revise, to hone and words so that ideas are not only communicated but communicated clearly. Maybe even with some grace or humor or beauty.
Luckily for PK, his mom knows a bit about that. So even though he hates putting pencil to paper (in his particular case, he is actually far slower at it than his peers, for reasons we don’t fully understand), he is not learning to “hate writing”–because I don’t make him write.
I do make him explain things, and I do ask him questions about his phrasing or arguments. I occasionally rephrase something he’s said in a more succinct way. I let him know when he’s taking too long to get to his point, or if he needs to give me an example to help illustrate the point he’s trying to make. I ask him to clarify if something he’s saying is in his words or if he’s repeating something someone else said. Because I’ve taught writing, I make a point of explaining to him that what he’s learning when we do that are specific communication skills that apply to written communication as well as spoken, and because he is quite bright and incredibly verbal, he understands those explanations and is learning to modify his speaking accordingly.
So though he’s impatient and has some kind of weird “processing” issue that makes putting words on paper ridiculously slow for him, I feel pretty confident that he is, in fact, learning to write very well. God knows that I look forward to the day that he also learns how to touch type, or how to use dictation software properly (right now he’s too impatient of formal instruction for me to have been able to get him to do either, but I think we’re very close to my insisting he start practicing typing most days), so that I no longer have to be his only audience most of the time. But I have no worries that he’ll get there.
For those of you who don’t have a background in teaching writing but want to help your kids/students be better writers, here are three links that might help, in order of my personal preference. All three are ostensibly about “gifted” children but imo and experience, the writing issues I’m talking about are very common for all sorts of kids. Help Children Avoid Writing Phobia says basically what I’m saying here, and has a link to a free online typing program. Tips for Parents: Writing and the Gifted Child is a lot more focused on formal writing instruction than I am, but might be very helpful for those working with kids who are less resistant than PK is, or who feel about teaching writing the way I feel about teaching math (that is, they need some kind of structure that lets them ensure learning is happening because they’re not equipped or confident that they can do it without help). Finally, Helping Your Child With Handwriting has suggestions for specific physical therapy type exercises that can help kids develop the motor skills for the pencil-and-paper stuff (which are good skills to have, after all).