Learning how to write

This is going to be shocking, so please hold on to something steady: kids learn at different paces.

Wait, there’s more…They learn from doing things, rather than just being told how to do things.

And here’s the most terrifying, overwhelming part: they don’t really need to be “taught.”

Lisa Nielsen, the well-known education and technology expert,  writes about how problematic standardized reading tests are. They fail to measure how well a student will be able to read (which is usually quite well, given some time and support), and instead place enormous amounts of pressure on students to be at the same level as their peers, even when we have plenty of information about how the factors that influence when students will begin to read fluently have nothing to do with the classroom.

And what about writing? Nielsen worries that too much emphasis is being placed on formalized written communication. She suggests that writing doesn’t feel relevant for students, because their projects stay within the classroom, rather than relating to the world outside it. They could be writing blogs and columns and letters to the editor. But they write essays that begin with a thesis statement, are followed with two points in defense of the thesis, then a counterpoint, a summary, and a neat conclusion.

She asked me how I learned to write. Which is something I remember much better than I remember a lot of things that happened that long ago.

But first, this is how I learned to read: my parents read to me. All the time.

(My dad was a pro at reading this one. source)

Books were exciting and mysterious and magical. I don’t know a single unschooled kid who didn’t learn to love reading. We learned at different ages, of course, but no one had to take a test, and so no one got left behind.

Teachers are sometimes amazed to learn that a kid who started reading at four and a kid who started learning at twelve will read with the same fluency at thirteen.

As the founder and leader of The Manhattan Free School, Pat Werner recently explained to a group of educators, kids never stop learning. They are learning all along. They don’t “learn to read” the moment when they pick up a book and can sound out the words. They’ve been processing relevant information since they were born, and that moment is only the moment when the information begins to fit together in a way others can plainly observe and categorize.

My mother worked with me, showing me how to shape letters with my pen. And then she gave me a journal. Every day, from the time I turned seven or so, I wrote a sentence or two in my journal. I wrote about my life. What toys I wanted for the next big holiday. Why my brother had hurt my feelings. How much it was snowing. How much I enjoyed going to the Sam’s Club because of the free snacks they gave out. Lots of scintillating, forbidden, and provocative pieces about my secret desire for more ice cream. The subject matter wasn’t the point– what was important was my connection to it.

(I always wanted one that looked like this.  source)

Later, when I was nine or so,  I wrote stories about stories. Stories inspired by the books we were reading together and I was reading on my own. And I illustrated those stories. There aren’t very many stories from that time in my life that aren’t accompanied by marker and colored pencil sketches of princesses in gowns speckled with fat pearls. I don’t know why, but they always had pearls on their dresses. I think that meant they were really rich.

It seems like I shouldn’t have any concept of grammar. Mom used to sit me down with a purple grammar book, and one with a picture of an owl on the cover. I memorized a string of prepositions once. But we weren’t thorough. And we didn’t need to be. I already knew how to write in complete sentences. Grammar was memorization. It was meaningless. Writing was expression. It was natural.

I learned grammar from every book I read, from the way my parents spoke, from Mom reading over what I wrote and saying, “Why does this sound wrong? What would you change to make it sound right?” Grammar is what sounds right. You know how words fit together when you read for hours every day. You also get pretty good at punctuating.

My very smart schooled friends sometimes make grammar jokes that I don’t get. They reference past participles, dangling modifiers, and synecdoches. I put in a polite laugh and nod to show that I’m educated. And then when I write something that doesn’t seem right I read it aloud. How does it sound?

My grammar isn’t perfect. But not a single college professor has ever had a problem with it.  Freshman year, one of them even nominated me for a writing fellowship.

It sounds too simple. How can people learn things if they aren’t taught the proper way? If information isn’t broken down for them into bite-sized, manageable little chunks? It’s almost like magic, and no one seems willing to believe in it. No one seems willing to believe in how much children are capable of learning and doing when they’re permitted to exist in a world where everything is interconnected.

As a kid, everything I wrote was related to my life. Everything I wrote was part of something bigger. It was never an isolated essay, it was part of a collection; a journal, an illustrated fairytale about a larger fairytale with much sturdier binding and better cover design.

Writing was connected to drawing which was connected to reading which was connected to experiencing the world which was connected to fairy princesses. The world could not be separated from writing the world. Even now, I want to write about all of the interesting things I read. Luckily, I no longer have the urge to draw princesses in pearled gowns in the margins.

So Lisa, I hope that helps answer your question.


17 comments to Learning how to write

  • Kathryn

    I learned the same way–by reading enough that I developed an ear for writing–and I think it’s called the whole language approach? (I may be wrong there.) However, this “osmosis” method, which my school subscribed to, didn’t work for some of my classmates, who needed direct instruction. It also didn’t work for my middle schoolers in Newark, whose parents were working multiple jobs and caring for family members and trying to figure out how to make rent next month–and, I’ll wager, didn’t know that copiously reading and talking to their children during their early childhood development was so beneficial and formative. What then? Your point may be that traditional schooling failed my students; I would wholeheartedly agree. But I would also say that for many poor students who are desparately behind, who for better or worse are in the traditional public schools without other option, magic isn’t enough. Or hasn’t come through before. Or something.

    • Kathryn

      And…I hope that doesn’t sound too confrontational. You’re asking me to think about unschooling in a new way, and I love it. I follow both of your blogs and often look forward to your perspective. I’m also personally invested in thinking about how school (in any form) can work for poor students, and in figuring out the way that privilege works in educating citizens.

    • kate

      You’re absolutely right. And the issue of poor students is something else entirely, something that I don’t feel qualified to talk about and that leaves me sometimes feeling like, “I hope they can all get a spot in a KIPP school!!”

      But there are so many kids in the middle, who seem unnecessarily trapped in a system that doesn’t have time to trust them.

  • Mariana

    I find the point about fluency interesting. I think part of this may have to do with the precieved reading level.

  • Joe

    Great post that made me reflect on how I learned to read and write as well. In many ways you’re describing a Reading and Writing Workshop instructional approach. We have been using this with both our students of poverty, as well as our affluent students with great results both in terms of student achievement and the development of authentic writing.

  • I have been looking for more information about unschooling, and I’ve enjoyed reading about your experiences. Thank you for sharing!

  • Emelie

    I have been reading your blogs here and at eat the damn cake for a month or so now and I love, love, love them all. I’m home-schooled and I love how your educational past is somewhat like mine, but different obviously, you being a completely different person.

    I hope you keep writing forever! I love the way you write, not all proper and perfect, but with personality. May God bless!

  • Marina

    My brother “learned” to read “late”. But the thing is, he knew how to read. He consistently read street signs, store names, things that were, you know, relevant in his life. He didn’t read books, because he loved having my parents read to him. That was special bonding time. Reading books to himself would have meant giving that up. And like you said, once he started reading on his own, there was no difference between his fluency and the fluency of someone who’d started reading years earlier.

    The thing is, he was never told he was stupid for not knowing how to read. He never had to worry about it, never was told there was something wrong with him. I think one of the most damaging things school can do is teach kids who are at a different place than their peers that something is wrong with them, that they’re stupid, that because they can’t do it now means they’ll never be able to do it. If that’s the message my brother had gotten when he was 6 and 7 and 8, I’m sure he would have had a much more difficult time. For kids who are “behind” and going to middle school, I think it’s much more difficult for them to overcome those messages than to learn the mechanics of reading.

  • Victoria

    That’s how I learned to read and write as well! By reading and writing. And knowing that my grammar was off at times because it sounds wrong.

    I spent K – 6th grade in the Philippines, but as children, we spoke both English and Filipino at home. When I started 7th grade in the US (small parochial school in West LA), my classmates were surprised that I, according to one US-born Filipino classmate, “talked good” and won spelling bees.

    I don’t remember being taught prepositions and subjunctives, etc, and none of my Filipino grade school classmates remember it either; but we speak and write English as good as we speak and write Filipino.

    The “proper way” of learning to read and write is basically a formality, isn’t it? So students can pass a test so that they can move on to the next grade.

    As for poor students, maybe they can make use of public libraries? In the Philippines, there are no public libraries – nothing like American public libraries, anyway, so a lot of parents who cannot afford books (many adults cannot afford books as they are expensive here) resort to second hand bookstores or newspapers. One thing colleagues and I do is buy books and when it’s been passed around among friends, we pass it on (to schools, to street vendors, to anyone who wants to read). Of course it helps that we are adults who enjoy a good “young adult” authors, like Kate DiCamillo and Rick Riordan :-)

  • I am in. lurv. with this post.

  • Mere

    I love this post too. We are following (or trying to) the Charlotte Mason philosophy where schooling is done through great literature, using our natural world as our base and any writing is about experiences that are real to us (like your journal) and not writing random topics that we have no knowledge or understanding of.
    Unfortunately so many books written for kids these days are just empty. Thats the best word I can use to describe them. I suppose it’s better to read something rather than nothing, and some days a light quick read is great, but the books that I remember as a kid are those ones that got to my soul. That made me imagine, and hope and dream. They are books that I would read again in a heart beat and probably still cry at the ending. (I’m a wuss).
    Now that everything is turned into a movie kids don’t have to read great books and all the picture making is done for them.
    Formal classroom learning gets it done for lots of kids I agree, and not all parents can or would provide that for their children if it isn’t available but sometimes it’s really nice to imagine a world where children were surrounded by nature and great books and their own imaginations and…would butterflies be carrying this fantasy too far?
    Anyways probably way off topic but your post led me to a lovely little happy place of my own that I am now trying to also give to my children.

  • Amy

    There is nothing I’d rather do than Unschool my 6 year old son. However, I’m a single Mom who has to work. It is so hard coming home at night and helping him with his homework and he is already becoming bored and uninterested in what is going on at school. I can feel his rebellious spirit. It is hard because I know how bright he is and he cries that he doesn’t want to write his alphabet repeatedly all week. On the weekends I take him to museums, library, plays, ect and let him soak up the environment as much as possible. It’s sad to me that this boy running around spouting off all of the names of Jupiter’s Moons is the same one who I am told at teacher conferences has trouble “focusing”. Doesn’t make any sense…One day I hope I’m able to bring him home and out into the “real” world. Love your blogs. Thanks for sharing.

    • kate

      The whole “trouble focusing” thing makes me so sad. What a shame!
      It’s amazing that you take the time to take your son out so much. I’m positive that that will help him learn to like learning, even if he’s bored at school. I wish we lived in the world where everyone had the option of giving their children whichever educational option worked best for them. Sigh…

  • let’s make it that world. let’s make unschooling happen in public school.

    we can. let’s do.

  • […] never used words like that outside of a classroom setting.   As over simplified as it sounds, grammar is what sounds right.  She’s learning how to practically use language and the written word.  And that’s […]

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