Teaching Writing to Children: An Introduction

by Dr. Wayne Lance

Remember when…

Remember the exhilaration you felt when you wrote your first book? I’m not referring to the publication of a bound volume after entering your adult years, but of the childhood experience of putting to paper the creation of your mind.

Most likely those first efforts at authorship were only two or three pages of uneven manuscript printing or faltering cursive, an illustration or two, bound with a homemade cover and held together with brass fasteners or by the use of Dad’s stapler. This was “my” book! Can you remember the pure joy you derived from this endeavor?

I hope you are one of those who can remember such an experience. In moments of reflection, I can still resurrect that feeling of accomplishment. And it helps me to understand the reasons for the new directions in the teaching of writing to children. Recognition of the sense of empowerment that comes from putting one’s thoughts to paper is at the heart of the success being experienced by many teachers of writing today.

Children who develop good writing skills and continue to use them during their elementary and secondary school years — and on into adult life — are those who have maintained the natural inclination to express themselves in writing. They write because they have something to say — and have been encouraged to do so in the home and in school. And they derive satisfaction from the process.

Natural process

When given the opportunity, children approach writing as they approach learning to talk, and wise parents recognize this fact. In acquiring oral language, children are given freedom to make sounds, sounds that begin to approximate words and later are formed into word combinations to express ideas or make requests.

We don’t expect perfection the first time a child makes a sound or says a word or puts words together in a sentence. Yet we sometimes forget this when teaching another aspect of language development, the teaching of writing. We have often imposed standards of perfection far above the child’s level of readiness.

We have equated good writing with perfect spelling, neat papers, and good penmanship. No matter that the content of the child’s writing is stilted and too closely resembles something the teacher wrote on the board or copied from a book — just so it meets some artificial criteria of “correctness.”

As I look back on my days as a classroom teacher (many years ago, I must confess), I recall many students whom I know had much within themselves they wanted to express, and given the right circumstances, they did so orally.

The Way it Was

Yet those same students seemed completely inept at expressing their thoughts in written form. My liberal use of a red pencil — identifying misspelled words, improper punctuation, and poor syntax, coupled with a request that the student recopy the whole essay without error — did little to encourage the student to want to write again. I realize now that I put much more emphasis on the finished product than on the process and the content of writing.

Please don’t jump to the conclusion that I am suggesting we should not teach children how to spell or to use punctuation, or that we hold up messy papers as the norm. I am suggesting that many of us in the past have placed so much emphasis on what a finished paper should look like (you know, the kind that gets posted on the bulletin board for Open House), that we lost sight of the real objective of writing: communicating content that an individual really wants to express.

The result is that all too many graduates in today’s work place do not write letters, memos, or reports which meet the expectations of the supervisor, nor do they experience the joy and fulfillment of writing as a normal part of adult life. Two strands of research have assisted educators in efforts to improve writing instruction. Lucy McCormick Calkins, in her book The Art of Teaching Writing (1986), classifies these studies into (1) those demonstrating how students go about writing and (2) those showing how professional writers go about writing.

Looking ahead

From these sources of information comes a process described in different ways by various researchers. Essentially it is a process encompassing rehearsal, drafting, revision, and editing. Teaching children how to use this process results in better writers than the old method of focusing primarily on mechanics.

In future parts of this article we will suggest some ways parents can implement this process with young children, elementary-age pupils, and junior and senior high students.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.