One of the things very young children are encouraged to do in my local schools is creative writing. Putting your personal ideas on paper is a highly valued skill in our education system.
Of course, the kids I work with can’t do it. They stare at the blank page and get some chicken scratchings down, but their letters are poorly formed, they can’t spell the words they want to write, and quite often when they’re finished, even they can’t read it. The whole process makes them feel like failures.
These children have creative ideas, all right, and all but the language-impaired ones can easily tell you about them. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to stop them from talking about their creative ideas long enough to get some written work done. I’m currently a working with one Grade 2 group which is an exercise in hilarity, as they riff off the words we’re working on spelling, one-up each other with funny stories, and devise alternative endings for my decodable books.
I recently came across the following by teacher Fay Maglen in the very useful but now apparently out-of-print book Wordswork:
“…adults expect written evidence of work and creative expression too early, to the point, perhaps, of inhibiting the free flow of oral expression. Certainly it would seem that in some classrooms more value is placed on what children write than on what they say…
“If…the teacher wants the children to share their ideas with the class, why can’t they simply tell them, using as they do all their idiosyncratic verbal and non-verbal expressions to add to the enjoyment of the story? This is much more interesting for the audience than listening to the stilted, unnatural reading-out of personal stories, and it saves the agony of those children who cannot make head or tail of their own writing.”
To Maglen, the argument “ideas are more important than spelling so let’s forget about spelling” is facile (hear, hear!). She goes on: “It is absurd to persist with the idea that children’s thoughts should simply flow onto the page when, spelling apart, the physical act of forming letters is a slow difficult process for many children in the first few years at school.”
The other major problem with encouraging very young children to write in an open-ended, creative way, even though they can’t spell the words they want to use, is that it encourages them to practise mistakes.
Every time you write “hed” or “mowse” or “brij”, you are reinforcing and remembering versions of these words which later will need to be unlearnt.
It would be a whole lot better if these words could be learnt right first time.
Of course it’s not possible to prevent every spelling mistake, but I think adults should do their best on the prevention front, because (sorry to use a cliche, but) it’s a heck of a lot better than cure.
Errors children do make should be quickly corrected e.g. if a child writes “mowse” instead of “mouse”, tell her or him that “ow” is one way to write this sound (as in now, cow and brown) but in the word “mouse” the spelling is “ou” (try to say the sound and write the spelling, rather than saying the letter names). If you have your movable alphabet handy you can also demonstrate this, as shown here.
If you have time and the child is interested, you might also like to show them that this pattern applies to other words that rhyme with mouse e.g. house, louse, douse, spouse, grouse.
Vote 1 creative dictating to an adult, followed by copying
The argument that structured writing/spelling work stifles children’s creativity, and open-ended writing fosters creativity and self-expression, doesn’t stand a lot of scrutiny.
Weak spellers of any age tend to avoid tricky words, and stick to writing words they can confidently spell.
This can lead to pretty stilted prose, as anyone who’s tried to write decodable books can readily tell you. But decodable books are not pretending to be authentic self-expression or quality literature, they’re just books with L plates on, for learner readers.
If your goal is self-expression and an interesting narrative, then get a child to dictate a story to you, for them to copy. Young children usually enjoy this – you’re their secretary, and you’d better listen up, because this is a story worth spelling correctly, writing neatly and illustrating beautifully. In a classroom situation, this usually requires taking turns, because one teacher can’t take dictation from 20 children at once. But little school kids have usually learnt to take turns, and are interested in each other’s stories.
The child comes up with the ideas, you help with the spelling and stop them from practicing mistakes, and they produce a quality product for everyone to admire on the fridge door.
Along the way they practice their handwriting, and reinforce spelling patterns previously learnt, plus meet new ones in a task that doesn’t set them up to make mistakes.
Because there’s no word-avoidance involved, the end product of the you-dictate-then-copy task is likely to be a more authentic and interesting piece of writing than what you get when you ask a very young child to write a story from scratch, especially when it’s a child who is struggling with spelling.
Meanwhile, their main spelling-learning is done at another time, in structured activities that systematically introduce them to all the main spelling patterns of English, working from simple to complex, such as the activities in this website’s shop and those listed under Phonics Resources above.
Once they have a good grasp of the major spelling patterns, they can knock themselves out tackling the blank page independently.
Title image is from flickr, by torbakhopper