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Alison McKee's Unschooling Ourselves

Writing Skills the Unschooled Way

When my children were little, I was often struck by what I saw. I didn’t understand how they accomplished so much with so little direction. For instance, I spent time wondering how my children would ever become writers without formal instruction. When worry got the better of me, I tried to direct the development of this process. At other times I simply let it be. It was during those times that I learned just how children learn to write. 

Writing is a process that involves two distinct tasks. The first is the physical process of creating letters and the second is the process of learning to express one’s thoughts in a clear and coherent manner. Those of us who have been steeped in the rubrics of traditional education “know” that mastery of forming one’s letters must come first. Once that skill has been mastered, the emerging writer is ready to begin the process of stringing together letters to create words, words to create sentences, and so forth. According to the experts, this is simply the way writing develops. According to my observations and numerous conversations with other unschoolers, I’m not convinced the experts are right. 

Like most parents who unschool, my husband, David, and I spent numerous hours nurturing our children’s curiosity and creativity. We didn’t do anything fancy, we simply exposed them to the community, provided them with toys (not video games or computer games), read to them, took them on walks, and let them be a part of our lives as much as we could. Our children, like most other children, wanted to be a part of the interesting world that these experiences offered. They had a genuine interest in being meaningful participants in all aspects of what they experienced. This meant that when our children, Christian and Georgina, saw David or me writing as we composed letters, paid bills, made grocery lists or left one another notes, they incorporated similar activities into their play. Well before Georgina could read or write she had set up a library in our living room. Using a stamp set and her own scribbles, she’d check out “library books” to anyone who would play the game of “going to the library.” At other times, long before he could write well, Christian would leave me notes telling me he was out playing with his friends. Back then Christian was capable of printing a few primitive letters and nothing more. It didn’t seem to matter to him, though. He knew I’d understand his note, and I did. In these and in other ways our children slowly became writers.

Like learning to walk and talk, writing is a process which will evolve quite naturally if we simply provide the opportunity for it to happen. There is no need to do anything fancy. Even more importantly, there is no need to invest in curriculum materials or mandate that your child do a writing lesson. In fact, this sort of approach to helping a child learn to write, and write well, seems to be counter-productive. I learned this the hard way. 

When Christian was small, I tried to formalize certain aspects of writing instruction that I thought were difficult for him. Like so many children, Christian seemed to have difficulty with reversals. He often recognized this and became frustrated. I felt as though his expressed frustration was a plea for formalized instruction. With good intention, I’d set out to help him master the skill of writing. This frustrated Christian. I could see the expression on his face change from being a relaxed and happy one to a look of tension and sadness. Eventually, I learned that Christian would directly ask me for instruction when he wanted it. At other times, I simply needed to lay low. Eventually Christian figured things out for himself. He got a friend to teach him cursive and the reversals disappeared! From that point on, Christian’s writing skills evolved with ease.

The stumbling blocks that Christian, and later Georgina, came up against as they set out to master the skills of writing were nothing to be concerned about. By the time they were demonstrating, through their own imaginative play, an interest in learning to write, David and I were becoming acutely aware of the necessity to give our children space to learn what interested them, rather than confine their interests in learning to our traditional, preset notions, of how children learn. A frame of reference we often used to guide this process was that of how our children learned to walk and talk. They children had taught themselves these two very important skills with little more than loving support from the two of us. In the best of times, when we saw them trying to write, we’d try to offer similar loving support. 
At the outset, our children demonstrated, as I mentioned previously, an interest in emulating the adult activity of writing in their play. This meant that, when they were quite young, they’d use crayons or pencils to make very primitive markings on paper. Those markings were their stories. Just as one would never criticize a child’s first attempts at saying their first words correctly or taking their first steps correctly, we never criticized the first writings of our children. The kids felt pride in their primitive writings and we reflected that same feeling back to them. Over the course of months and years these scribbles became recognizable. Sometimes the scribbles were actual letters and sometimes they were simply geometric forms. When the children spent time writing their stories, using their primitive scribble, they wrote with intent. Pride in their work shone when they read their stories to us. Although David and I were unable to recognize true letters or geometric shapes on the page, our children knew the meaning of their written language. This was proven over and over again, when hours after a first reading of their story, they’d pick it up and read it to us again, word for word. These first attempts at writing assured David and me that, in their own time, Christian and Georgina would become writers, just as we knew they’d walk and talk when they began to babble and roll over so many years earlier. 

As our children became more aware of the differences between their scribbles and the scribbles that Mom and Dad made, they asked us to show them how to write letters and numbers. David and I were more than willing to help our children learn to write and yet we learned, over the course of time, that when they asked us to teach them something we had better go only as far with the lesson as the children asked us to go, and no further. If we overstepped our bounds and tried to take over the process, we often killed their motivation to learn to write in a legible fashion. When our children were between the ages of about three and nine, David and I walked the line between helping and “taking over” very carefully. 

Of course, during the time that our children were becoming writers, their awareness of their limitations as writers soared. Christian, an avid little reader, knew that he didn’t have the ability to lay down a story as authors do, yet he also knew that he had stories he wanted to write. This awareness surfaced when he was about three or four years old. In order to help him maintain a sense of the possibility of achieving the goal of becoming a writer we carefully stepped in and helped out. David and I became good at taking dictation! I liken this to the child who is just learning to talk yet often screams in frustration when they are trying to express something that they do not have the vocabulary for. How many times have we all helped our children through these frustrating times by questioning the them or pointing to things we think they want. “Mary, do you want milk or water?” helps the child complete the communication without necessarily having the verbal skills to do so. When David and I took dictation, we were providing a similar sort of support for our children’s emerging writing skills. 

Taking dictation from a child can provide an opportunity for them to get a first-hand look at the process of writing. When I wrote down the stories that my children dictated, I often talked about why I was using particular letters or punctuation. This could be a problem, though. The minute I sensed that my child had no interest in knowing those things, I’d back off and revert to simply taking dictation. I learned early on that if I made a habit of embedding phonics/grammar lessons in dictation sessions, I risked the chance of causing them to loose interest in telling me their story. I never wanted this to happen. I knew that a desire to tell others a story was the necessary motivation to want to learn to write. Without this desire, they’d lose interest in writing.

I wanted my children to want to write, so I found other ways to help them learn some basic phonics. Sometimes we played formal and informal games that taught phonics skills. ABC Lotto, ABC Memory, read aloud time, rhyming games or grocery shopping times provided many opportunities to work on phonics without having to insert phonics lessons into dictation sessions.

Young writers, like young walkers and talkers, are quite capable of moving through the developmental stages of becoming proficient writers with little interference from adults. From the primitive stages of scribbles on a page, and with a gentle guiding hand from time to time, children soon begin to write recognizable letters. Initially, these letters are scattered across the page. This is normal. Just as a child learning to talk babbles without any understandable meaning, so too will the emerging writer. As we all know, a babbling child, in our culture, will soon begin to pronounce the consonant sounds da and ma. Not surprisingly, the “babbling writer” soon brings consonants into their writing. Often times, just as with babies learning to talk, we adults can make sense of these early primitive writings. Messages like, I LK U (I like you), may be hard to decipher, but with a little study the message is clear. All our children need to experience is a smile from us and they are motivated to continue writing.
With time, writing with consonants gives way to writing with consonants and vowels. At this stage of the developmental process children may be becoming aware of the need for a capital letter or period, but again we need not correct spelling or grammar errors. Rather, we need to focus on helping our children become interested in sharing written messages with others. When my children were young, we devised opportunities for those things to happen. Our children were encouraged to write things on the grocery list, or write aunts and grandparents. When notes went to aunts and grandparents, I’d copy the notes so the message was clear to the recipient. In this way, our children were sure to get letters of response that referred to the letter they had written. Quite naturally, then, our children learned that being able to write had real value, in and of itself. 

While observing my children master the skill of writing I learned and re-learned some significant lessons. First, learning to write is rather painless if we don’t force our children to move beyond where they are developmentally. In other words, don’t let schooled notions of how children learn to write drive the process of helping your child learn to write. Second, spelling and punctuation should NEVER be the focus when children begin writing. The hardest thing for a writer to do is to develop a strong desire to want to get their words on paper. If they are constantly reminded of the fact that they cannot spell and do not punctuate correctly, they will develop a fear of trying to write anything at all. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling until the teen years. Third, with a few pointers regarding the use of punctuation children will eventually develop an instinctual sense of where to place periods, commas, colons etc., if they are amply read to, listen to audiobooks and do some reading on their own. Fourth, children are quite capable of knowing which audience needs to have a proofread document. Not every piece that a child writes needs to be perfect, and insisting that they be so kills the desire to write anything at all. If a child misjudges who needs to have a perfectly written document, let the recipient let the writer know, not you. In this way children will rarely make the same error twice. Finally, parents are best able to help their children become strong writers if they take the lead from their children. Focusing on errors that an emergent writer may make, rather than on the motivation to communicate with writing, will surely make the child fearful of trying to do so at all. Remember, keeping the desire to communicate with writing alive is your main objective. -- A.Mc.