|"IRHCXZHCGHX." writes five-year-old Nathaniel in March
of his kindergarten year. The teacher, Jan, comes over to him as
he is illustrating his story.
"Howdy, Nate, how's your story coming along?"
"Good," he replies. He continues to work with deep
commitment on the details of a large, red vehicle.
"Would you share your story with me?" asks Jan,
pointing to his series of letters.
"OK." He puts down his pencil and, running his finger
from left to right under his string of letters, remarks,
"This says, "I went to the firehouse and I had
"You liked that trip, did you? What was the best
part?" responds his teacher, helping Nate to expand his story
"I liked when they turned on the sirens! Wheeeeeeee!"
came the enthusiastic response.
"That was fun! Noisy, too!" agrees Jan.
"Perhaps you'd like to show that sound coming out of your
fire engine when you're finished drawing. I'm going to write your
story down here, so that other people who don't know how to read
invented spelling can enjoy it, too."
"OK, 'cause I'm going to send this one to my nana."
Nate resumes his drawing while Jan moves on to another young
In September of first grade, one of my students, Meghann,
writes, "IMEFPDEVLDK." I circulate around the room, as
does Jan in kindergarten, and look over Meghann's shoulder.
"You're afraid of the dark, are you, Meghann?"
"Yeah. Sometimes when all the lights are out, I hear
noises and I don't know what they are."
"That's a good topic to write about. Sometimes it helps to
write about things you're afraid of."
"I know, that's why I wrote, 'I'm afraid of the dark.'
See?" and she carefully rereads her piece, pointing to each
group of letters that represents the individual words.
"I can see that, Meghann. Your invented spelling is so
close to standard that I can read it, too. I see I - M, which are
the standard letters for 'I'm', and there are the most important
letters for 'afraid' - you've got the f and the r
and the d; and 'of' does have that v sound in it;
and 'dark' starts with d and ends with k."
Meghann grins, and returns to her drawing. I move on, making a
mental note that in another week or two, when she gains confidence
and starts writing more, I will ask her to look at one or two
words each time I check in, and help her to listen for more medial
consonants and an occasional long vowel.
These children have a tool for writing that we call
Breaking with Tradition
When my son was in second grade, I was teaching first grade in
the same school. Because he was quick with his work, he spent a
fair amount of time in the hallway playing board games with other
children who had finished ahead of time. I asked the teacher if
she would let these children do some writing in their free time.
"Oh no," she said. "I can't do that. I haven't the
time to do all that correcting. You know, they just can't spell
This attitude is traditional - no writing until children can
spell. As a result, children seldom wrote, except for workbook
exercises, until the upper grades. The first composition I wrote
was in ninth grade. But attitudes are changing now. We realize
that writing, like speech, is a developmental process; and denying
a child the opportunity to write is like forbidding a young child
from talking until he or she is able to pronounce every word
perfectly, something no parent would ever consider doing. In fact,
just the opposite occurs: we take great pleasure in hearing our
children's efforts to approximate standard speech. So why are we
so rigid about early writing?
The answer is tradition. We have routinely been told that our
spelling and our handwriting reflect aspects of our personality:
neat, tidy, careful, correct writing presumably indicates a
conscientious, sociable, well-educated person. There is no doubt
that illegible handwriting is irritating for the reader who must
decipher it, and poor spelling does jar a reader to the point of
losing the impact of the message. But is it right to impose such
expectations on young children who are just learning the highly
complex process of writing?
Two recent developments surpass the customary considerations of
"tradition". The first is our new-found respect for the
quality of ideas. With the increase in overall education and the
enormous quantities of published material now universally
available, we are becoming a nation of critical readers. We are
starting to demand a higher quality of thinking behind the written
material we choose to read. No longer able to believe everything
we hear and read, we are learning to discriminate between a
well-researched article and a diatribe.
The second is our new awareness of the developmental aspects of
learning. We realize that children go through stages toward
mastery. "Knowledge" is not imprinted on their brains in
its finished form. Children need to work through processes such as
walking, talking, reading, and writing. Beginning with general
approximations of each process, they gradually refine and perfect
them until they are able to manipulate the standard that is
modeled in their environment. Think of children learning to walk
-hands, furniture, walls. Then, they take a few tentative steps on
their own, before dropping to hands and knees again to scramble
the rest of the way in security. Once they are walking, they do so
with an ungainly, stiff-kneed, spread-eagled gait. Gradually, the
joints become more flexible, the legs come together, and balance
is maintained. All learning proceeds the same way,
including reading and writing. The rule is: whole to part, overall
idea to refinement of the details.
If what we write is as important as the mechanics of
getting our message down on paper, and if writing is a
developmental process, then it is essential to encourage writing
behavior as early as possible. After all, it takes time to become
comfortable with expressing oneself in writing. Writing, as a
process, involves consideration of what is important and what is
not, what is of interest to others and what is boring, what needs
expanding for clarity and what is so overexplained that nothing is
left to the reader's imagination. Writing has become too important
for us to waste precious time waiting for our writers to first
become perfect spellers.
Children Love to Write
By the end of first grade, most six-year-olds love writing
it has been treated as a no-risk activity. Meghann, who wrote one
sentence, "IMEFRDEVLDK" in September, wrote the
following in January: "I am GoiNg to aftar SKol GimNastikS
lam IGSatiD VaRe VaRe IGSatiD I hoP that SKol is ovar soN I hoP We
Do the RoP clim I hiK it wil be faN vare fan."
In four months of daily writing, during which she chose her own
topics, shared her writing often with her neighbors and
occasionally with the whole class, and received a bit of coaching
every other week or so from me, Meghann made enormous progress.
She learned word spacing, the regular - though not perfected - use
of lower case letters, many standard spellings, sound-letter
representations for all syllabic units, and appropriate placing of
vowels. Furthermore, almost anyone could read her message. (Did
you figure out "IGSatiD" [excited] and "hiK"
[think]?) Although plenty of room for refinement still remained in
punctuation, vowel choice, and so forth, who could complain with
progress like this?
Four months later, at the end of May, Meghann wrote: "I'Am
on the YMCA Swim teme. tonight IAm going to the Smith Calig Pool
for a rela Meat. I'Am very icsatid abawt it. My Parinc Are Coming
to hwath Me and My Brathar Swim My Bast frand is on it too."
The refinements were coming along steadily: punctuation marks,
including apostrophes, began to appear; she was becoming aware
that c can have an s sound; and she was learning
about silent e endings ("teme") and two-vowel
combinations ("Meat"). And all of this without a formal
spelling lesson! Had she been restricted to using only words that
she could spell, think of how dry her writing would have been.
Invented spelling enabled her to use any word in her spoken
vocabulary. It allowed her to record her emotions and the
important events in her life. Already she could see herself as a
writer, and she was a writer!
Parents can encourage their children to write as easily as they
can encourage them to learn to speak. The key word is
"encourage." Even as a teacher, I do not
"teach" writing to my six- and seven-year-olds. I simply
provide them with the environment, the modeling, and the questions
that guide their own learning. Consequently, I have 20 writers at
20 different stages of development - their development.
To parents who wish to help their children on their way to
becoming writers, I offer the following recommendations:
encouragement, acceptance, sensitivity, and common sense. These
four elements that made it possible for your children to learn to
listen, understand, walk, and speak are the same ones that will
enable them to write.
Encouragement means providing opportunities and purposes for
writing. Children do not do anything without purpose. When they
see writing as a necessary, purposeful, and enjoyable activity,
they pursue it eagerly. They must see you use writing and must
understand why you use it: as a memory aid (lists, recipes,
reminders, birthdays, addresses), for record-keeping (checkbooks),
for communication (letters, memos, announcements, invitations),
for giving information (reports), and for entertainment (stories,
poems). Tell your children what you are writing and why. Encourage
them to write with you. Suggest that they draw first, and then
label, if this seems easier. Let them help write the shopping
list. When they ask you to buy something for them, ask them to
write it down and put it on the refrigerator. Encourage them to
write memos and make signs. Give them all the support they need.
If you accept the idea of invented spelling and the purpose
behind it, then you will be able to accept, without question,
all writing and spelling efforts that your child makes. There must
be no hesitation, no doubt, because children are uncanny in their
ability to pick up nonverbal cues. My student teachers often find
this difficult because, they say, they are "no good at
lying." I remind them to always refer to a child's spelling
by its full title, invented spelling, to help them
distinguish it from standard. This way, they can legitimately say
to a child, "That's an excellent invented spelling of that
word." Invented spelling and standard spelling are two very
different skills. One is a problem-solving skill, the other is
a rote memory skill.
For very young children, writing will consist of drawinglike
"scribbles" that the child labels as writing. Always
respond to such efforts as though they were real, for to the child
they are real writing, just as their early babblings were real
speech. Ask, "Tell me what you wrote!" or "Will you
read your writing to me?"
As children learn some of the alphabet from listening to
alphabet books, from playing with magnetic letters and alphabet
blocks, and from casual discussions about letters, they will begin
to use approximations of letter forms, mixed with invented
letters, as part of their scribbles. Do not worry about reversals,
upside-down letters, or placement all over the page. Just continue
to model the correct form whenever you write something down
for your child. Children are great imitators and inventors (how
else would they learn to speak?), and eventually they will pick up
the pattern. Just keep focusing on the message, not the
Be as sensitive toward your children's struggles with writing
as you were toward their early attempts at walking and talking.
Encourage and model, but draw back and take off any pressure the
moment you detect fatigue or overload. Remember, there is no
urgency. When in doubt, ask yourself, "How did I handle
this sort of situation when they were learning to talk?"
This is the element that you have relied on in raising your
children so far. Keep using it in helping to develop the writing
process. Common sense is Mother Nature's greatest gift to parents,
and as long as we pay attention to her nudgings, we do a fine job
of raising our young. It is when we listen too closely to the
advice of "experts" (yes, including me!) that we can get
confused. Only you know the limitations of your child and
yourself. It is up to you to keep the balance. If your child is
showing signs of frustration, stop. If he or she wants more,
provide more. Also take into account the fact that children have
very different styles from one another.
One last word about relatives and outsiders who disapprove. If
you find that you cannot convince Great-aunt Mary that the letters
she is receiving from your children are a valuable part of their
development, then quietly rewrite them in standard spelling and
keep the invented versions in your private treasure chest.
Usually, however, receiving the original with a translation is
appreciated by most relatives. As for friends and acquaintances
who may disapprove, remember that you have brought up your
children your way this far, and they are healthy and happy. When
it comes down to it, who knows best, anyway?