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Colfax Corner

by David and Micki Colfax

Dear Colfaxes:
Iíve attended a couple of homeschooling conferences where a number of writing programs were for sale. Which, if any, of these do you recommend? My 10-year-old hates to write anything and I need some help.
— J.N. Elko, NV

Dear J.N:

We must have had at least two dozen books on writing around the house when the boys were growing up, any one of which, it might be said, might have turned them into "I hate to write" teenagers if taken very seriously. Obviously, that statement requires some explanation.

From our experience and research, we believe that a child learns to write by writing, and becomes better at it if he or she believes that doing it is worthwhile. Writing is not, most writers will agree, something is taught, but rather needs to be encouraged. For example, we recommend that parents help their very young children to appreciate the relationship between thinking and writing by encouraging them to keep a journal even before they know their letters: Johnny tells mom about what he liked most about his trip to the zoo, and mom writes it down and reads it back to him. Jenny draws a sun on the page on which dad has written down her account of how she spent her afternoon. As they become a little older, they begin to add a word or two to their accounts, copying short words such as "sun" or "car" that mom or dad have printed out for them. Eventually mom and dad donít need to take dictation; Johnny and Jenny are writing two-liners about their pets, their adventures, their friends. The journal entries become longer as do once-dictated (and illustrated) notes to relatives and friends. Writing is perceived as a way of capturing and expressing thoughts and experience, as natural as speaking.

So why the dozens of books that have the potential to undermine this process? Because at some point — and this will vary from child to child — questions about how to distinguish good writing from bad, how to develop oneís voice, how to write for different audiences, how to rewrite and how to edit will arise, and books such as Theodore Bernsteinís The Careful Writer; William Strunk and E.B. Whiteís The Elements of Style and Diana Hackerís Rules for Writers, are there to provide guidance when it is felt to be necessary. Nothing, in our opinion, contributes more to an undermining of the natural impulse to write than books such as these — and their many far worse counterparts — when they are imposed on a young person as part of a set of misguided writing "exercises." Robert Gravesí The Reader Over Your Shoulder and Herbert Readís English Prose Style, both authoritative and filled with wonderful examples, are not likely to inspire the young person who does not writer, but will almost certainly inspire and guide the young writer who is looking for a way of sharpening and clarifying his or her work.

What, then, about those writing programs being sold at those conferences? Weíd advise you to look them over, talk to their developers, carefully read the program descriptions (sometimes they inadvertently reveal that the would-be teacher of writing is not much of a writer himself!). And avoid anything that promises quick and easy results or offers 17 (or 34 or 70) fun-filled lessons.

As for your child who has developed an aversion to writing: Donít push it, go slow, and merely encourage him to write short and simple accounts of what is important to him, if only once a week or so. Restrain the impulse to criticize, and support whatever he produces, however fragmentary or muddled; there will be plenty of time for editing and rewriting once he (and you, we suspect) gets over the fear of putting words down on paper (or on a monitor). Think of the two of you as being involved in a kind of 12-step writing recovery program, each step requiring only one thing: That he write -- utterly unencumbered by received notions of what constitutes good, fine, proper or correct writing. Once he learns that it is "no big deal" you might, very carefully, point him in the direction of Strunk & White or, later, Read & Graves, who will provide him with just about all the guidance anyone needs.

Copyright © 1999 by David & Micki Colfax

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media