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How Children Learn to Write

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

How do children learn to write, then? Our analogy to children's learning to talk, or children's language acquisition, has so far suggested two things. First, children have a powerful capacity to discover how language works, a capacity that surely applies to written language as well. Second, parents and other older people make special efforts to model a kind of language with children that is more easily learned than the language they use with other adults. This sort of simplified modeling—or scaffolding, as it has been called—is a significant factor in the acquisition of written language, as well as speech.

But there is a third source of learning that we haven't mentioned yet: other children. Children influence and learn from each other to a degree that is gaining more appreciation all the time. Let us give an example.

If making scribbles is Rob's way of writing, he'll scribble consistently and enthusiastically every time he has occasion to write, as, say, when he is writing his classmate's tricycle a parking ticket in a kindergarten play area, or writing a caption underneath the big blob of orange he has just painted on his paper. But imagine that at sharing time Michelle holds up the big orange blob that she has just painted. She's written a caption under hers, too. But her caption consists not of scribbles but of individual squiggles that resemble letters.

"What are those?" asks Rob, meaning the individual squiggles.
"Those are letters, 'cause this is writing," answers Michelle.

Before long, squiggles begin to show up in Rob's writing, though he may continue to use scribbling when "he is writing a lot," as he puts it.

Let us highlight, then, some conclusions about children's learning to write that flow from the preceding discussion.

Children learn to write by means of discovery—by actively venturing their own strategies for writing. With any encouragement at all, most children will not hesitate to produce things that they call "writing," even if they have not been taught to spell words or even how to form letters. It is important therefore that teachers offer children opportunities and encouragement to engage in writing activities, especially informal ones, early on—even before regular reading, handwriting, and spelling instruction is begun.

Children "write" by using certain strategies for writing. Often, these strategies don't look much like adult writing. But when a child "writes," at any given time she is trying out certain unspoken rules or patterns that she believes will produce written language. She may draw a picture or embellish it with letters; she may spell words almost by abbreviating them; she may match names of alphabet letters with sounds she hears in words; she may write a story by naming a character and then saying something about him. All of these acts reveal a strategy, an underlying idea—for now, at least—about how writing works.

Children move developmentally from strategy to strategy as they grow in experience and sophistication as writers. The younger the child, the more possible it is to plot that child's progress along a known continuum of development in writing. Knowing "where a child is" makes it possible to offer her or him appropriate help and encouragement as a writer. Thus, it is important for teachers to know the developmental benchmarks in learning to write and what is appropriate teaching for each level. This book will describe both.

Children don't discover writing strategies in a vacuum; they need plenty meaningful examples of writing. The typical inner-city street corner has a lot more print—and a lot more people reading—than many preschool and kindergarten classrooms. If children are going to get curious enough about print to go to the trouble to figure out how it works, they must see lots of print around them, and many people making use of it. Progressive preschool and kindergarten teachers are beginning to work print into the classroom in ingenious ways—not just in reading to children and posting labels on things, but by setting up activity centers where children pretend to read and write naturally, as part of their play. We will discuss ways to do this in later chapters.

Children learn from each other as they try to figure out how to write. As noted psychologist Jean Piaget pointed out, it is often easier to learn something new from someone who is only slightly ahead of us. For a child just starting out, is easier to learn about invented spelling from someone who is actively sounding out words than from someone who already can spell virtually everything by heart. And it is easier to learn a new strategy for writing a story from someone who is talking excitedly about a new technique she has just discovered than it is from reading a professional author who dazzles us in a dozen ways at once. Children need opportunities to share their writing and talk about how they write. In this book, we will discuss strategies for managing this sharing.

When children are learning about writing and learning to write, discovery learning "works"; moreover, it is good for children. When process-writing approaches and the practice of invented spelling were widely introduced in school a dozen years ago, many teachers worried that children, if permitted to write words and letters incorrectly, would surely "overlearn" or memorize these incorrect forms and be sidetracked from normal progress toward learning the correct forms. It was much better, many teachers thought, not to allow children to do any writing until they had been explicitly taught the correct ways to make letters, spell words, craft sentences, and arrange them on the page.

This, progressive teachers protested, was likely to be a very long wait, Besides, if children learning to talk were similarly made to hold off speaking until they could speak correctly, they would never learn to speak at all.

Learning to talk, then, offered an encouraging parallel case that could be applied to learning to write. Since all children quite naturally use incorrect forms of speech (such as "all-gone milk" or "I got two foots"), which they readily discard as their ability to use language matures, wouldn't children do the same with writing strategies if they were allowed to use immature forms of writing? Teaching experience and formal research results offer resounding proof that this hunch is correct. Children who are encouraged to write early using pretend writing and invented spelling learn to write more words correctly than children who are taught conventionally.12

Two living and breathing examples of this hunch are Annabrook and Jessica, two children whose inventive writings as preschoolers were collected for the first edition of this book (and also appear in this edition) and who were both winning spelling bees by fourth grade. By late elementary school they were avid readers and skillful writers and were singled out repeatedly for writing honors throughout elementary and high school. Both left high school with advanced placement credit in English, high verbal SATs, and scholarships to very competitive colleges.

But children do not need to come from highly literate families to benefit from early writing. One careful study13 showed that being encouraged to use invented writing led to even greater gains in children who came to school less verbally advanced.

Not only are the fears about inventive writing unfounded, but the benefits are clear. Two benefits deserve special mention.

First, children who are encouraged to write early and often, not surprisingly, write more text—more imaginative and interesting text—than children who spend their early years copying letters and short phrases off the board.

But there is another benefit that may surprise you. Children who are encouraged to write early and inventively perform better in reading, especially in word recognition, than children who do not have this practice.14 Why this is so relates to the alphabetic nature of our English writing system, a topic we will explore shortly. The finding is extremely important, though, since early writing seems to exercise a core of abilities where written and spoken language intersect. This core of abilities, or the lack of them, is increasingly being pointed to as the source of later reading failure of the kind called dyslexia.

So the answer to the question of whether discovery learning of writing is good for children turns out to be a resounding yes!

But is discovery learning enough? Given opportunity and encouragement, will children learn to write—to form legible letters, to spell correctly, and to compose texts effectively—without formal instruction? This question evades a categorical answer.

It helps to ask, first, what is meant by instruction. Formal instruction traditionally includes a commercial spelling program with workbooks containing a whole range of activities—everything from memorizing spelling words to exercises in alphabetizing to working crossword puzzles. The activities are designed as much for management concerns—they have to occupy the children more or less productively for fifteen to twenty minutes a day, five days a week—as for pedagogical ones.

Traditional instruction also includes language textbooks that teach children the names of the parts of speech, stress errors to avoid, and, perhaps, show the form of a friendly letter.

It is easy to see that neither the traditional language program nor much of the traditional spelling program is necessary for a child to learn to write. In fact, much of both has been shown to be a waste of time; and now that teachers have begun encouraging children to write and read and share, they increasingly resent workbook and skills-based programs that tie up so much the children's time to no obvious real purpose.

But is it true that no direct instruction in handwriting, spelling, or mechanics of language is needed by children learning to write? There is frustratingly little research evidence on this question.

On the issue of handwriting, research has always shown that

  • some systematic instruction can help children write legibly;
  • what matters most is that children be encouraged to write legibly, not stick slavishly to some form or other; and
  • many children need refresher lessons in legible writing even past third grade, when formal spelling instruction usually stops.15
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