Once upon a time, I looked forward to arriving on the other side of this unschooling journey. I thought that if I would only wait and watch and learn long enough, I would eventually reach a point where I could fully articulate how a child learns.
In the fall issue of home/school/life, Amy shared a list of books on writing. I believe she was right on target when she wrote, “The best books for young writers inspire as much as they instruct, giving kids enthusiasm for writing as well as tools they can use to improve their stories, essays, poems, scripts, and other work.”
Inspiration, enthusiasm, and tools are all words that have been common to my vocabulary over the years, and I have learned that it is as important (maybe more) for me as mom to be inspired and enthused as it is for my kids. The tools for gaining knowledge are the ultimate goal, after all. It is not nearly as important that kids pick up the various facts and figures that are so commonly thought of as scholarly matter as it is that they gain practice and skill with the many tools of knowledge acquisition.
I now live in a house with three young people who are certainly independent writers and I’m still not sure I can explain it exactly. They are three very different kinds of writers even though they have enjoyed many of same introductions to reading and writing activities over the years.
I thought I would share a few of those activities and my thoughts about growing writers here:
Read, read, read, and read some more. There is no substitute for reading together and reading out loud. Every day you should be reading together, and don’t stick to age-appropriate books alone. Read the stories you remember loving as a kid. Read the stories your kids pick up at the library. Read even the bad ones, and when somebody says, “I really don’t like this book,” stop and have a discussion about what makes it a bad book. Put that book down and start another. I read to my kids from the newspaper, from news magazines, and often from the books I was reading for my own pleasure. As soon as they began reading on their own, we took turns reading out loud together. Books on tape are great, too, but the real power comes from reading with your own voice.
Make your own books. Starting as early as ages 3 and 4, I encouraged my kids to tell stories that I would write down. I returned these stories to them in booklet form. Their stories would be divided by scenes that they could illustrate. We made copies of these books to share with grandparents, aunts and uncles. The books we made went on the shelves beside other books and we were just as likely to read the stories they had written as others. This taught them that they had the power to manipulate words and that their efforts were legitimate.
Play word games while on the go. Mad Libs is the bomb. It is simply fun and no homeschooling family should be without a book or two of Mad Libs. It is easy to keep in a copy in a bag to pull out when entertainment is needed to fill some time. Most word games, however, require nothing more than your imagination. Time in the car, for our family, was typically filled with word games. Make it rhyme – I have a pet snake, his name is Jake; I have a pet flea, his name is Larry… Add it alphabetically – I’m going to the store and I’ve got an apple in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple and a banana in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple, a banana, and a cucumber in my cart… Tell round-robin stories!
Give them reasons to write. Here’s the thing about writing. The power of words can quickly be diminished when they are turned into worksheets and steps you are required to learn. My kids learned about punctuation when they asked, “Why do they put those dots in there? Why does the dot sometimes have that little tail that drops below the line? What’s that squiggle mean?” If I had to name the single most powerful tool my children received early on, in regards to their development as writers, it was power over the list. We moved our grocery list to kid height and announced that everyone in the house should add to it when they saw there was something we needed from the store. The list was one area where I didn’t take dictation, at least not throughout the week. If you wanted it, you had to put it there.
But don’t force them to write. I just wrote that the list was the one area where I didn’t take dictation. I should emphasize, however, that I did take dictation. I took a lot of dictation when my kids were young. I wrote whole stories as they were told to me. I typed letters that they mailed to their cousins. I encouraged storytelling, both fact and fiction, and I preserved those stories in printed form until they had mastered the skills to preserve what they wanted on their own. And gradually, as they did begin to write, I found myself taking less and less dictation (though occasionally they still came to me because I typed faster, or perhaps they just felt the need for some one-on-one time with mom…) There were times in my life where I was writing by hand for one kid and spelling words out loud for another while reviewing the third kid’s email because she wanted it to be “all right” and I thought my brain might explode from all the different directions it was going. Then, almost as quickly, I realized that nobody was asking me for help anymore. Last week, I proofed one college composition paper the morning it was to be turned in and reviewed an email my son had written for an event he was organizing. That was it. An entire week, and nobody needed any real help with writing.
Withhold judgment, at least until they ask for it. When you homeschool, it is tempting to turn every moment into a teachable lesson. Learn to bite your tongue. If your child brings you a handwritten note, a love letter, a book they made, a poem, whatever… simply observe and appreciate. Don’t point out the words they have misspelled, or the fact that it’s hard to read because they haven’t really put any spaces between their words. If they ask what you think about it, start with what you like. Then ask what they think about it. Children will often recognize their own mistakes, and if you start a conversation about the work they have written, the conversation becomes the lesson they need at that moment.