How Kids Learn to Write: You Can’t Run Before You Can Walk

Writing grows in fits and starts

During the last week, I’ve had some emails and forum questions that tend in the same direction:

How does all this freedom of expression translate into the writing forms I’ve heard so much about and feel my child must learn, I mean, he does have to write an essay at some point, right?

Let’s begin at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

Writing ought to be compared with learning to talk. Lots of mistakes and babbling accompany the first attempts to speak. Lots of spelling errors, incomplete thoughts and poor idea development attend the first efforts to write. Like speech, writing grows in fits and starts. Speakers babble and make funny sounding sentences for the first three years of speech (1-4). Usually by age five, they are highly fluent speakers, even though they don’t yet have an adult’s vocabulary.

Writers usually begin to write at age 9 or 10. (They may have begun handwriting at ages 5-7, which is a different skill than writing). If we give them the same amount of time to grow in writing as speaking, we could say that by the ages of 12-13, our young writers are becoming somewhat fluent in their ability to get words onto paper. These words may be poorly spelled and punctuated, but by and large, our kids can sit down and write a sentence without straining to think of how to form the letters or how to spell their regular vocabulary. (This is not the same thing as being a good speller, however, because most kids make some shocking spelling errors right up to 18.)

Kids who are writing without struggle at ages 12-14 have been given a gift. It means that they have not been scarred by poor writing programs, teacher feedback and grades, or canned assignments that blunted what could have been their natural inclination toward self-expression in writing.

Imagine if you tried to teach your young speaker to talk by correcting every sentence/phrase, by parsing the grammar and commenting on the organization? What if you determined the topics for speaking and deemed certain topics “off limits”? What if speaking were limited to one portion of the day?

Am I taking this analogy too far?

I don’t think so. Speaking is seen as a necessity because it is modeled around us all the time by everyone. We assume that all kids will learn to speak and that every topic is relevant because speaking is about communicating…

Hmmmm. Are you starting to see what we’ve done to writing?

Imagine another scenario. You see writing the same way you see speaking. You write because it is a vehicle for communication. You enjoy writing, you read your writing to your husband when it’s funny, you write notes to your kids when you leave money from the tooth fairy, your send email and cards to family and friends, you keep lists and you journal in your scrapbooks. In short, writing is a natural means of communication that you use in daily life and everyone knows it. No off limits topics there either.

Kids will write if they see it as a vehicle for communication
with as much relevance to them as speaking.

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Your kids will write… if they see that writing is a vehicle for communication that has as much relevance to them as speaking. We must regain our trust that writing is a natural process and that it has intrinsic value at any and every level. (It isn’t only valuable when it is packaged in an academic format.)

Yeah, but Julie, I want to know about essays?

Okay, I’m getting to that.

So now you see the connection between writing and speaking as long as we’re talking about “non-school” fare.

Let’s take it a step further. Once you have a fluent speaker, there are opportunities to use “speech” for other purposes besides asking for money to buy a computer game or to order pizza. These include things like speech and debate, acting, oral reports, leading Bible studies, hosting a party, making a toast, giving a presentation, leading a meeting, working as a hostess or tour guide…

These are all ways that people take the skill called “speech” and order it to fit a certain format. Native speakers can easily learn the formats, and they will be able to execute those skills with success. We don’t expect the same level of “formatted speech” from our 3-5 year olds.

Writers learn writing craft once they are comfortable and fluent with written self-expression. I believe that high school and college are the times for that training. Some kids will naturally begin in junior high and will follow patterns they’ve observed in the writing they read. But really, if you think about it, kids who’ve been writing for 4-5 years will be the most able to relax when faced with the essay format or the research paper. They won’t be struggling with the basic experience of writing. They will know how to get their words onto paper. In turn, they will be ready to follow a set of specific writing requirements.

That’s the order of the process.

I’ll post more about how that transition occurs some other day. For now, can you start to see how this works?


The Writer's Jungle Online


One Response to “How Kids Learn to Write: You Can’t Run Before You Can Walk”

  1. […] talked last time about the natural process of becoming a fluent writer. We discussed that there will be a time to […]