I have some radical notions about how kids can become
writers. These notions didn’t come from my school experiences as a kid,
or my years as an elementary school teacher. They came, instead, from fifteen
years spent homeschooling with my own kids – now nineteen, sixteen, and
ten – and watching them become writers. They come from a dozen years of
facilitating writer’s workshops for homeschoolers – a dozen years of word-tinkering
with kids. They come from twenty years spent trying to make a writer of
Writing is an area that seems to prickle at the doubts
of homeschooling parents – even the most radical life learners. How can
kids learn a skill as complicated as writing if it isn’t forced upon them?
Here’s what my kids and my experiences have taught me.
What Kids DON’T Need to Become Writers:
Kids don’t need to master the mechanical
skills of writing before developing voices as writers.
So much “writing” time in school is spent learning
the mechanics of writing: penmanship, spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
Often, these skills are emphasized over developing written self-expression.
The how of writing takes precedence over the what; words- on-paper skills
matter more than what a child has to say. Schools push kids to write at
six and seven because written communication helps teachers track the progress
of twenty to thirty students. There’s no reason for a homeschooled child
to take on these skills at such a young age. Learning to write is hard,
perhaps one of the most challenging tasks a young person will undertake.
When the power of a child’s motivation isn’t behind it, mastery of mechanical
skills can seem like insurmountable acts of drudgery – which is why so many
kids learn to dislike writing.
On the other hand, if you focus first on what the
child wants to express, the mechanical skills will fall into place over
time. Kids needn’t actually transcribe to get their thoughts on paper and
screen: They can dictate their ideas to a willing adult. This allows them
to say more, express higher-level thoughts, and use richer vocabulary than
they’d be likely to if required to write on their own. Young children tend
to have lively, expressive, imaginative speaking voices; transcribing their
words to the page or screen allows them to develop a vivid writing voice
at a very young age. Meanwhile, their mechanical skills can develop more
organically than they might in a classroom, as the child makes signs for
lemonade stands, labels for rock collections, dialogue bubbles for comics,
keep out signs for bedroom doors. Taking dictation is also helpful for older
kids who are reluctant writers, or for beginning a challenging project.
Also, when kids struggle with physical writing, it
can be helpful to introduce keyboarding as an alternative. Digital writing
drives the world they’re growing up in, after all.
Kids don’t need daily, or even weekly
The concept of learning through routine practice
is mostly a school notion. Practicing small pieces of a larger skill day
after day is a way of ensuring that a large group of children will eventually
learn that same skill. The assumption is that the child will learn the multiplication
table, or the rules of grammar, or the parts of the body if he or she works
at them repeatedly. The teacher can’t be aware of learning that happens
outside of the classroom, in daily life; all learning gets focused into
a lesson format. Many of us who grew up in schools have unwittingly become
convinced that a person needs this sort of routine practice in order to
learn skills such as writing.
But adult-driven, routine-practice learning rarely
takes a child’s interest and motivation into account. In fact, in most cases,
the child isn’t terribly engaged in this sort of practice. He or she does
it simply because it is required. However, when a child’s interest and motivation
are there, that child can often pick up concepts and skills rather quickly.
Repeated practice isn’t necessary. Your daughter figures out how to multiply
mentally because she wants to win at Yahtzee; your son understands how different
ancient civilizations affected one another because he enjoys reading
The Cartoon History of the Universe.
The same goes for writing. Occasional, child-oriented forays into writing
are rich, like a piece of good, dark chocolate: a little goes a long way.
The signs your daughter letters for her make-believe candy shop, the Lego
haiku your son writes for a contest are authentic, meaningful writing experiences
and your kids learn deeply from them. They don’t need to be replicated on
a daily or even weekly basis. The learning, because it has value for the
child, accumulates gradually over time.
In my years working with young homeschooled writers,
I’ve seen this play out again and again. Kids who don’t practice writing
formally or regularly still develop into unique, effective writers in their
preteen and teen years – and often before. How does this happen? Read on.
Kids don’t need to practice writing in various formats.
Learning to write in a variety of formats – fiction,
poetry, persuasive essays, narrative essays, and so on – matters less than
allowing the child to write in formats that matter to him or her. Engagement
is key. When a child finds topics and formats that appeal, the writing begins
to matter to the child. He’ll be compelled to play with the words, and will
learn to manipulate them for his own purposes. This is what matters. Once
a child has crafted with words and learned to control them, she’ll be able
to apply these skills to other styles of writing – like formal essays –
when the need arises. There’s no need to rush into these formats. (In other
words, don’t worry if your child wants to write nothing but poetry for two
years. That’s pretty much what my daughter did at eleven and twelve, and
she eventually moved into other types of writing. Meanwhile, she learned
what all poets know: Every word matters.)
Allowing kids to focus on topics and genres of interest
will naturally help them develop unique, powerful writing voices. This,
I’d argue, is the most essential writing skill of all.
Kids don’t need to write to develop as
A most radical notion, I know, but I believe it!
Here’s why: Writing skills are based in thinking and speaking skills. If
kids live in homes where people talk, discuss, and debate – especially on
topics important to the kids – those kids will learn to express themselves
clearly and passionately. And this verbal expression will carry over into
written expression when the time comes. Even kids who are not terribly verbal,
but are quite logical, can naturally develop into strong writers if they
understand that clear writing follows from logical thinking.
An unschooling friend shares the following story:
“My seventeen-year-old wrote hardly at all but grew up in a household full
of discussion, debate, literature, and content. When, at about fifteen,
he wanted to write, lo and behold, he really knew how to put words together.
He knew how to think and speak clearly from years of doing just that. It
translated perfectly well to paper. The mechanics of writing (especially
the ridiculousness of English spelling) were something of a stumbling block
but those are getting rapidly better with time and experience and they seem
to be coming together in far less time than if he’d been studying them or
practicing them for years.”
In my years of facilitating workshops, I’ve seen
a similar progression with many kids.
If kids don’t need these writing experiences, why have we become so convinced
that they do?
As parents, we often worry about preparing our kids. We understand that
writing is an essential skill for life, so we take on the burden of assuring
they’ll gain that skill. But focusing on what our kids may need tomorrow
confounds our sense of what they need today. This quote, by writer, researcher,
and English professor Thomas Newkirk, always puts this in perspective for
me: “The good writers I see in college have often developed their skill
in self-sponsored writing projects like journals or epic, book-length adventure
stories they wrote on their own.”
If you hope your child will become an effective writer tomorrow, concentrate
on making writing – and the broader skills of writing – a vital part of
your child’s life today.
So, How Can You Help Kids Develop Into Writers?
Raise them in a literature-rich, word-loving home.
Visit the library often and check out armloads. Read aloud and listen
to audiobooks together. Encourage independent audiobook listening if your
child can’t yet read, or doesn’t enjoy reading. Have deep discussions about
books and films – not based on someone else’s “comprehension questions,”
but on your own wonderings. Tell stories. Read and recite poetry. Engage
in word play like rhyming games, puns and riddles, Mad Libs, verbal poetry
composed on the spot, and so on.
Talk about what interests them.
Let them go on and on about ballet or Roman legionaries or Smurfs if
that’s what excites them. Ask questions. Let them explain in intricate detail.
Debate them, gently, on fine details if they enjoy defending their beliefs.
Ask for their take on important, real-world issues. This will develop their
skills of explanation and argument, which will eventually factor into their
Make the distinction between getting-words-on-the-paper skills
and written expression.
In other words, remember that learning to form letters and spell words
are not the same skills as developing a voice as a writer – the more important
skill in the long run. Help make the mechanics of writing as easy as possible
for your child. Let those getting-words-on- the-paper skills develop slowly,
ignoring public education’s timetable. In the meanwhile, explore dictation
as a means of developing your child’s written expression. Encourage keyboarding
as an alternative to writing by hand.
Encourage them to write about what interests them, and in
genres that they enjoy.
Even if what interests them is Magic, The Gathering
or the characters from Glee. This is what they know. This is what
excites them. They understand every detail, which will make the writing
vivid. If they want to write fantasy stories because they love Tolkien or
Harry Potter, they’ll understand how the genre works. And, of course, this
is the most likely way to make the act of writing engaging, which will draw
kids in and make them want to continue. That will lead to those “self-sponsored
writing projects” that Thomas Newkirk values. (After all, don’t you prefer
writing on topics that interest you?)
Explore intriguing nonfiction.
Rather than pushing dry reports and formulaic essay writing assignments
on your kids, search for well-written nonfiction books on their favorite
topics. Unlike formula-bound essays, good nonfiction employs the tools of
fiction; it absorbs us because it tells a story. Find history told with
time-traveling comic characters, and science explained with zombies. Look
for Shakespeare explored through silly top ten lists. Nowadays, the children’s
nonfiction section of the library bulges with such books – books that dare
to capture a kid’s attention. They delve into content, as did the old report-ready
nonfiction of our childhoods, while also modeling style, tone, and even
humor in writing. They’ll teach your kids how to move beyond the dull five-paragraph
essay approach to nonfiction, and into writing that engages.
Help them find meaningful, authentic reasons to write.
Writing because Mom or Dad thinks it’s a good idea is not a meaningful,
authentic reason! Generally, we write to communicate with others. We write
to connect. (Unless, of course, we find fulfillment in personal writing
such as journaling. If you have a journal-loving kid, value that! See Newkirk,
above.) We write, very often, because we’re seeking a response. Find real
writing opportunities that engage your child and invite response: letters
and e-mails, family newsletters, blogs on personal interests, signs and
props for make-believe play, displays of favorite collections to share with
friends and family, rules for self-designed games.
Make opportunities for your kids: Host a writer’s workshop; organize
a science or history fair; form clubs based on their interests, such as
oceanography, insects, rock and roll music; help them gather a group to
write a baseball newsletter; form a team and create a homeschooling yearbook.
(Those are all examples of actual activities organized by my local homeschool
support group!) If you don’t have enough local possibilities, use the Internet:
Find websites of interest to your child with writing opportunities; set
up group-written blogs or wikis; let your kids explore online forums if
you think they’re ready for it; look for fan sites based on their passions;
allow them to post reviews on music, books, films, video games; explore
the online writing community for young people at
This is a long list, yet it’s just a beginning. Your child’s own quirky
interests will unearth other possibilities.
To become writers, kids need something to say, the means to say it, and
a reason to say it. Schools tend to focus on the means – the how-tos of
writing. If you concentrate instead on what kids have to say, and on helping
them find real reasons to express that on paper and screen, the rest will
fall into place over time. It really will.
Patricia Zaballos is a longtime homeschooling parent and
a writer living in Northern California. She once taught elementary school,
but her three kids gradually beat the schoolteacher out of her. For many
years, she has facilitated writing workshops for home-educated children.
Patricia’s writing about homeschooling, kids’ writing, and child-led learning
has appeared in Mothering, Get Born! Magazine, Natural
Life Magazine, and on her
website. She has also written a book on nurturing
the voices of homeschooled writers.