Posts Tagged ‘Mechanics’

Invented spelling?

spelling test
I do not advocate “invented spelling” the way schools used to teach it. Schools recognized (based on the excellent work of Orton-Gillingham) at some point in educational theory that children were inhibited to write if they had to keep figuring out how to spell, handwrite, and punctuate everything “perfectly” before they could get any attention for their content, before they had mastered those skills. They unconsciously “dumbed down” their content to match their mechanics, OR they ran rough-shod over correct mechanics to protect their sophisticated English thinking skills, and got back a page of red pen marks.

As a result, teachers were told: “Let children invent the spellings. Don’t mock or correct them. Allow them to use whatever spelling they can find to get their complex ideas out.”

So far so good.

Issues arose when students did not retire these invented spellings quickly enough for schools. Assessment is much more precise when measuring and valuing mechanics than when appreciating the nuances of content and personal ownership of writing.

Hence, in schools, a hybrid approach emerged: a period of invented spelling was often allowed in journaling and some freewriting, but an expectation that the child would master the mechanics some how some way, and that this mastery would show itself in a child’s original writing encroached on this freer approach.

Many schools have discarded this methodology, now, returning to traditional instruction, believing that the earlier we can “get kids to spell correctly,” the easier it will be for them to write their original thoughts without hindrance or the formation of bad spelling habits. Naturally, the return of writer’s block has taken hold with a vengeance.

Enter how I understand mechanics and original writing: I don’t call what we do with our kids: “invented spelling.” I don’t relegate some contexts to correct spellings and others to invented. There is no duality in our approach. Kids write using the skills they have. All spelling is invented (in that sense)! Kids use the spellings they can muster—and do their best to be accurate (to match current conventions) based on what they know, have surmised, and can guess. Their choices are much more amazing, if you take time to see their hard work to apply what they know.

This is not “invention,” then, as educators define it, but sheer grit in an attempt to match developing skills with sophisticated language.

So: in original writing, you permit it all—whatever the mechanics skill level of the child, you support, honor, and nurture it. YOU, the parent, pay attention to what is congruent with current spelling and punctuation conventions, and what is not. You take notes (both literal—on paper, and mental—that you store in your head). You might note that the child doesn’t know how to spell certain repeated key terms (like “What” or “because” or “horse”—and this piece is about horses).

You might note that your child is unaware of how capitalization works.

Surely there are other issues as well, but for now, you isolate one or two and leave the rest which will magically reappear in future writing, so don’t worry. If they don’t, then you just saved yourself a lot of trouble.

Now, using someone else’s writing, you teach to these specific mechanics and spelling issues. You find a bit of copywork that includes the words: “what,” “because,” and “horse.” You may spend the next three weeks on this, one sentence per week, that features one of the words. You let your child copy the sentence. Later you use our “French-style dictation” method ((for more about how to practice French-style dictation, see The Writer’s Jungle or the Guidelines that come with the language arts programs). Then you might try traditional dictation, to really solidify the words.

Next week you focus on capitalization—you find a passage with capitals at the start of each sentence (virtually every sentence ever published – piece of cake). You discuss capitalization: you point to a capital and ask what it is, you ask the child to find other capitals in the sentence, you ask the child if he or she knows why they are there—inductive, conversational, friendly.

Once the child has spent time with “what,” “because,” and “horse,” and knows capitals go at the start of sentences, guess what you can do?

The next time a child does a freewrite that will be revised, you ask your child to double check spellings for “what,” “because,” and “horse.” If they need a notecard to help, offer it with the correct spellings for comparison. Now, once that is done, ask the child to double check for capitals. Ask where they should go, then send the child back to his or her paper to ensure they are there. The child makes the corrections—your pen never touches the page.

THIS is how you coordinate the need for correct mechanics WITH original writing—painstakingly, taking forever, slowly ensuring that your child TAKES RESPONSIBILITY for everything he or she knows, but sequentially, thoughtfully, carefully, a bit at a time.

Yes, it takes forever… for awhile. Until, one day your child unconsciously starts applying what he or she is learning in copywork and dictation naturally to original writing…which always happens! You just have to be patient to see it emerge (about 12-13).


So don’t let any teacher say to you: “Oh we already tried invented spelling. It doesn’t work.”

What we do? NOT THAT.

Now go forth and be awesome with your kids!

Image by elginwx

Grammar ain’t everything don’t show that grammar instruction is bad or wrong—only that the systems of grammar instruction used in traditional education have had a deleterious effect on the freedom of self-expression children feel when asked to write (from scratch- original writing).

A grasp of grammar can be fascinating and useful to anyone interested in the systems of language. Knowing how your language functions is fabulous! It’s like knowing the mechanics of a sport—talent gets you a good distance, but mastering the mechanics takes you further, still.

But if you started teaching sports through mechanical perfection, and never let your kids play the game until they showed mastery of the mechanics for any given position, you’d not see much interest in athletics.

Mechanics in sports enhance talent and contribute to skill, but they do not replace hunger to play, commitment, the willingness to risk, and the energy to win!

Likewise, in writing, creative story-telling, inspired vision, quality vocabulary, and masterful recreation of facts does not come from understanding the structure of a sentence. Native speakers are already quite skilled in sentence construction. Enhancing that skill through an understanding of grammar is fine (good, necessary at some point) , but it is no substitute for the writing voice.

The worst side of grammar instruction, though, is the way it creates snobbery in/condescension toward writing. When people prioritize grammar and pride themselves on a flawless understanding of the system, however, their corrections can produce feelings of insecurity, fear, and even anger which work against the free flow of ideas needed to write well. When we put presentation of the writing ahead of the content, we are paying attention to manners ahead of the person. This attitude is the one from which kids shrink. This is the attitude that curbs risk-taking in writing.

It’s great that any of us can identify typos and mistakes in published writing, but that skill doesn’t make anyone inherently superior as a human being. Some of the best writing in history is by individuals who cater to their spoken dialects, giving voice to grammatically “incorrect” usage deliberately, and powerfully.

Accuracy is not more critical than power in writing. It matters to see/read/hear the content ahead of the mistakes in spelling or sentence structure. No one reads a book and says, “What a satisfying read—every comma in its right location, perfectly placed modifiers, lovely use of capitalization, not a single sentence ending in a preposition. I hope there’s a sequel!”

Accurate grammar and punctuation serves a purpose—the proper use of mechanics is invisible, supporting the communication intentions of the writer. But mechanics can’t tell a story by themselves. The original thought lives of writers must be free to explore and express their creative impulses, first. From there, we can help enhance the communication power through a gentle, compassionate, supportive use of grammar instruction.

Power in writing comes from the ability to use, command, and manipulate language. Knowing grammar well enough to surprise, compel, and impact readers ought to be the goal of good grammar instruction, not just accuracy. Accuracy matters, but it’s a subset of power in writing.

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image © Brad Calkins |

How Writing is Like Sewing

How Writing is like Sewing

A fundamental confusion exists around how to teach writing. I’ve spent two decades looking for just the right metaphor to explain how a parent facilitates writing growth. Then the other day, on the phone, I stumbled upon a perfect metaphor.

Let’s look at learning to use a sewing machine.

A sewing machine makes it possible to create all kinds of sewing products—anything from hemming a pair of pants, to constructing a crazy quilt, to producing an evening gown. The machine doesn’t do it for you. You have to know how to use the machine, and you have to develop skills: how to sew straight seams or how to drop in a sleeve or how to gather a drape. You need to learn how to create casings, and how to use the zig zag, and what the tension dial does.

When learning the skills needed for sewing, students start with scrap fabric. They don’t pick a dress pattern and then sit down to the machine. Usually they have to learn how to thread the needle and bobbin, they have to sew lots of straight lines and learn how to turn corners and how to backstitch the end of a seam so that it doesn’t unravel.

No one can learn all she needs to know in one sitting or even one year of sewing. There are levels of skill that are gained over time, as comfort with the machinery, and dexterity, and familiarity with the properties of sewing are internalized and mastered.

How Writing is like Sewing

But it is possible at each stage of development to introduce a little project. At first, these might be things like bean bags (squares) or a string dress (no pattern, but the dress uses casings). As the student gets comfortable, making an a-line dress for a doll from a pattern becomes possible and a thrill! Producing a doll quilt is the first step toward making one for a bed.

Eventually, the seamstress learns tricks to make the process easier and faster. The student of sewing can size up a pattern to know if it’s too difficult or too easy, and can make changes to make the pattern work.

Sewing is not about the dress patterns or quilts. Sewing is a set of skills that can be applied to patterns.

Let’s drive home the analogy to writing.

In Brave Writer, The Writer’s Jungle is the sewing machine. In that manual are all kinds of functions the student learns about the writing process. These are discovered using scrap language—whatever is in the mind and mouth of the child at the time. The writing is interest-driven and exploratory. The child is gaining facility with the practice of accessing language, ideas, insights, and information from within and getting those words to the page in a variety of ways (all different styles of “language stitching”). Each week, the parent reads a chapter of the manual and then tries the practice with the child. This is how you would teach sewing – try one stitch at a time, try button-holing on scrap fabric, try dropping in a sleeve with a doll dress.

The Wand, The Arrow or The Boomerang (our language arts products that teach the mechanics of writing) would be similar to needle and thread. You learn how to use the mechanics of writing in these products. Students learn to handwrite, punctuate, spell, and manage the mechanical demands of writing. In sewing, the student has to learn to use the machine——how to thread the bobbin, how much pressure to put on the pedal, how to backstitch, how to zig zag, how to set up the button holer, and how to adjust the tensioner. These skills enable sewing.

Similarly, the functional skills needed to run the machinery of writing are spelling, grammar, punctuation, handwriting and/or typing.

The writing assignments (like we offer in Jot it Down! and Partnership Writing, or the ones found in our online classes) are the dress patterns of writing. Now that your student understands how the machine works and can use it with evolving skill, now that the student can manage the demands of the machine, it’s time to make a dress or placemat or crazy quilt!

How Writing is like Sewing

In writing, once the student knows how to find language within, knows how to get that language to the page, and how to handwrite, expand, revise, and edit it, he or she is ready to “make something” —to write a report or letter, to write a poem or a dialog, to write a story or ad copy, to write an essay.

The point is—don’t hand your brand-new-to-writing student the equivalent of an evening gown dress pattern and expect it to turn out right on the first try, just because there are “clear instructions.” Writing is a set of skills practiced independently of assignments, leading up to developmentally appropriate writing projects that reinforce and expand evolving skills.

3 components of a complete writing/language arts program:

1. Mastery of the original writing process (The Writer’s Jungle)
2. Rehearsing the mechanics of writing (Wand, Arrow, Boomerang)
3. Writing projects to put mechanics and original writing together (Online classes, Help for High School, Jot it Down! and Partnership Writing)

Learn more about Brave Writer products

Email: Spelling

Hello, Julie.

I have some samples and questions regarding my son’s horrid spelling that I was hoping you would not mind giving me some guidance with.  My son, Clay, just turned 9 in March and he says he hates to write (and read).  He reads at grade level (3rd) or a little below.  He enjoys stories ~ he says he hates reading however because he stresses himself out regarding the length of the story and the amount of writing per page.  He does plenty of copy work and has very neat writing.  He is struggling with creative writing because he is challenged to get his thoughts out of his head and onto paper.  We don’t do a lot of creative/freewriting becasue he is young and I don’t push him.


Voice and Mechanics

The distance between voice and mechanics

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Seems like this week, I’ve had a lot of email and a couple of phone calls expressing anxiety about writing. Nothing unusual about that in my in-box. But the concerns overlapped in the type of anxiety they expressed. Moms new to Brave Writer find it really hard to believe that it is possible to nurture your child’s writing voice without worrying about the mechanics of writing. They wonder if they are fostering a carelessness in their children’s writing habits. Shouldn’t they learn to care about how they spell, how they punctuate, how they construct their sentences and paragraphs? Isn’t attentiveness to the form as important as attentiveness to the content?

It’s true that meticulous care about mechanics is a final step in every writing process. When students in high school turn in papers to me, I always tell them that they can make sure it is error free. They have spell-check, parents, friends – all who can lend support to finding spelling errors, missed punctuation and typos. The presentation of the final paper is a psychologically important part of grading a paper, in fact. A teacher, parent or professor is put at ease when the writing is without error. The mechanical perfection of the paper renders the form invisible and frees the reader to focus exclusively on content. What a joy that is!

So yes, mechanics matter a lot in writing and there’s nothing at all wrong with expecting a high standard in the final product. Far be it from me to ever have associated with my name a carelessness about how the final paper is presented!

On the other hand, there is a peculiar challenge in writing. To find one’s meaning, to explore and excavate one’s ideas requires a letting go of the wheel.

It’s hard to focus on the end marks and spellings when your inner eye is trained on an idea and where it is going. For your kids, who are even less skilled as writers, it’s even harder for them to pat their stomachs and rub their heads simultaneously. They haven’t got years of writing and reading under their belts. The conventions of punctuation aren’t automatic for them. To write “correctly” requires effort and attentiveness.

If they focus on how to put it on paper,
they lose touch with what they want to say.

The quickest way to kill a writer’s inspiration is to ask him or her to think about how to write before the writer has thought about what to write. Start with their:

  • ideas,
  • images,
  • thoughts,
  • fantasies.

Later, once all that mess is out there, it’s possible to shift gears and give full attention to editing. In fact, it’s surprisingly satisfying to clean up the mess of creativity once it is on paper. Editing is relaxing in the way that mowing the lawn or ironing a wrinkled shirt is. You see progress instantly!

So save mechanics and instruction in how to execute them for copywork, dictation, and other people’s writing. And for those who like more structure, we suggest using a dedicated program only once in elementary school (something like Nitty-Gritty Grammar), once in junior high (Winston Grammar), and a foreign language in high school.

In the meantime, while you are growing a young writer, give full attention to what that writer wants to say and how he or she wants to say it. Mess with meanings, play with words, wriggle around in disorder and creativity. Then, once the words are all over the page in their glorious chaotic sense, impose a little order by editing for spelling, punctuation and grammar.

That’s the best (and I daresay, only) way to cultivate writing voice while giving some attention to the mechanics of writing.

Learn about our literature-based language arts programs
and check out our Groovy Grammar online workshop!

Groovy Grammar Workshop