Do you remember what your first response was in elementary school when your teacher asked you to write about what you did over summer vacation? Many of us get sweaty palms, because we remember not knowing how to begin and then worrying about spelling and our handwriting. As parents and teachers, we have a unique opportunity to help children create more positive memories before they enter elementary school by taking a more developmental approach to writing. A good place to start is by asking ourselves what it means to be a writer and how we can nurture these qualities in our children.
It is so important to focus on the real purpose of putting something in writing, which is to communicate a message in a format that can be saved and shared with others. We want our children to have the desire to express themselves in writing. How can we help children learn what it means to become a real writer? I’d like to dispel three common myths that just may put that very question into perspective.
Myth #1 – Penmanship is the same as writing.
Although in the early grades they are often seen as one in the same, penmanship and writing are in fact, quite different. Penmanship is a fine motor skill that focuses on how letters are perfectly formed. Writing or being an author involves thought, creativity and the desire to express something that is meaningful. What can we do to build a foundation that will enable children to develop their confidence and desire to express themselves in witting? Let’s begin by teaching children that writing is not the same thing as penmanship practice. Rather than focus on children’s handwriting, emphasize the message and stories children want to communicate in their writing. Otherwise we can send the false message that we value being able to “write” on the lines more than the meaning.
Myth #2 – The best place to practice writing is on lined paper.
Lined paper can greatly restrict children’s writing, especially if we expect them to write their letters “correctly” on the lines. Some children can do it, but for most, the muscles they need to write on and within the lines are still developing. Attempting to write on lined paper is a struggle, and children end up thinking “writing” is hard. They can practice best on unlined paper that provides lots of room to draw at the same time. Having different kinds of unlined paper available will motivate children to write. You don’t have to stop at just paper. Providing bath crayons, sidewalk chalk or finger paint (all of which will help develop fine motor skills) will motivate them to “try their hands” at writing. Computers are another helpful tool for young writers because they reduce many of the fine motor letter formation demands required when writing by hand. They also relieve children of a self-conscious concern over how their writing looks.
Myth # 3 – The best way for young writers to learn letter formation is through handwriting drills.
Let’s face it, handwriting drills are pretty boring. However, children do need to learn how to form letters if they are to write. Children constantly observe adults, and they see that writing is an important adult activity. At a very young age most children love to make marks on paper or any other handy surface. With encouragement and support, what begins as imitation becomes a desire to communicate in writing. As they begin to develop their fine motor coordination, you can show them how to form letters correctly. Introduce and reinforce correct letter formation as you write by inviting them to “help” you create a shopping list. Ask children to imitate your motions to practice forming the letters in the air or on the palms of their hands at the same time. Writers practice what they have learned about forming letters by writing their stories.