Literacy at Home
Kindling Your Child's Love for Writing
by Catherine St. Denis
Most parents know that they can play an important role in helping their children develop a love for reading. Experts tell us to read to and with our children from an early age, visit libraries often, and provide good modeling by reading. Indeed, these strategies promote literacy, and most teachers will attest to the fact that students who come from homes where reading is valued tend to read at higher levels and express a greater enjoyment of literature.
Parents can encourage an equally important component of literacy in the home: writing. While reading gives us the capacity to receive others’ ideas, images and information, it is writing that allows us to express our creativity, voice and experience. Writing is vital to our functioning as literate human beings, letting us not only “listen” but also “speak” in text.
Parents can help cultivate a love for writing in their children just as effectively as they do a love for reading. The key is play. Too often children become bogged down in the mechanics of writing as they try to express themselves, losing the sense of fun and wonder that motivated them to write in the first place. The following suggestions aim to help make writing a part of your child’s home life while fostering a playful and passionate attitude towards the art.
“Off the Cuff” Stories
Younger children may not be ready for writing out their ideas themselves, but they’re certainly capable of voicing them. As an alternative to reading a picture book at bedtime, try modeling storytelling for your child. If you can’t think of a topic, start by telling a story that you know (for example, The Frog Prince) and changing the ending or key details (perhaps The Cucumber Prince). After storytelling begins to come more easily for you, start to ask your child for details they want to add to the story. (Parent: “Once upon a time there was a dog named...” Child: “Fred!” Parent: “Fred went to the beach one day with his owner and started digging in the sand and he uncovered...” Child: “A mermaid!” And so on.)
You’ll find that your children will love having details from their own lives included in the stories as much as possible (for example, the main character is the family pet or the problem is a problem your child has been having lately). Soon they will want to tell the whole story on their own. Older kids appreciate this activity, too. Over time, you can begin to ask questions that guide your child in the elements of storytelling, for instance by asking what the main “problem” is in the tale, asking what the characters would say to one another in key parts (encouraging the use of dialogue), wondering aloud what the characters’ personalities are like, and pointing out what you noticed about the setting of the story.
Preschoolers will also develop an appreciation for writing when their parents offer to scribe for them. For example, when your child shows you a piece of art and begins to tell you about it, ask if they’d like you to write their ideas on the bottom or back of the page (“This is my airplane flying really high. It has lots of windows.”) Some children, both preschoolers and school-aged alike, will love the idea of putting together their own book full of illustrations, with the captions written out by either them or you, depending on readiness. If you help with the process of adding a cover, a back page, and an “about the author” section at the back, even better! These books make great Christmas and birthday gifts, and can even be reproduced fairly easily with the help of an office supply store’s colour copier. Variation: the computer-savvy child can make illustrations or collages using Paint, Photoshop, or online images pasted into Word. You can type the text together either before or after the artistic process.
Another idea for scribing is letter writing. If you’re already sending a letter or e-mail to a friend or family member, ask your preschooler if they want to add something, and write their comments down verbatim. Be sure to read back to the child what they “wrote,” and point to the words as you read them. Soon, they’ll realize that they too can write letters and words, and will want to write things out themselves.
Sometimes older children also prefer to have their stories and letters scribed. Even for adults, ideas flow much more quickly than our hands can write them down, and children often appreciate having the chance to express themselves at thinking speed rather than labouring over letter formation, spelling and punctuation. Overall, this will add to their enjoyment of the writing experience.
For artistically-inclined children, exploring words and writing in multimedia can help to develop vocabulary and poetry skills. Model for your child the process of “painting” a word. For instance, the word “frustrated.” What colour(s) would the word be? What shape would the letters have? What images come into one’s mind when one thinks of the word? What other words might surround it? Exercises like this are a pressure-free way of getting children to think about the nuances of language.
Variations include using sentences rather than individual words, which can either be made up by the child or taken from poetry or literature. Word art can also be done using clay, computer graphics, or Window Writer markers on windows or mirrors.
Kids love writing on sticky notes! Help your older child use them to:
• write compliments for family members and post in random places to be “discovered”
• write clues for scavenger hunts
• write suggestions for family meetings (for example, to begin a family movie night) and post on the fridge
• write funny limericks or haikus and post in high-traffic areas
Children also love to write on whiteboards and chalkboards. If you mount one or more in your home and start dialogues (for instance, post a quote and your response to it, asking for feedback, or post a big question about a world or family issue), you may be surprised how often they write back.
Ultimately, no matter what writing activities you choose to incorporate into your home life, your child will benefit if you model an attitude of playfulness and appreciation towards writing. Let your child catch you writing, and involve them in it as often as possible. Relay to them the message that you believe they are and will be skilled writers. And let your child know how much you value their attempts at expressing themselves. All of these things will encourage a love of writing in your child, which will benefit them enormously throughout their school experiences and beyond.
Catherine St. Denis is a teacher, writer and mother in Victoria.