Babies are exposed to a wide variety of sounds, from the cooker whistling, to pets barking and meowing, to cartoon characters emitting funny noises. Somehow, they manage to sort through all of these alien noises, and take away what is necessary for their own survival on earth – human language. They listen carefully and are soon able to not just respond, but also produce, meaningful words on their own. Children manage to figure out so much on their own – eating, standing, walking. Why, then, should reading and writing take any concentrated effort on the adult’s part? How come the child doesn’t just manifest these processes independently too?
In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori says that for children below the age of six, ‘…nature grants them (of) learning to write without making special and conscious efforts of application and will.’ She talks about an ‘explosion’ into writing which starts when the child learns to talk, and culminates in their joyfully and spontaneously forming words, sentences, paragraphs, all on their own.
This may seem like a completely unreal ideal to parents who are struggling with children resisting writing. There’s no denying that writing is a far more nuanced task than the physiological tasks I quoted as examples earlier, such as eating or walking. These tasks are purely mechanical. Writing, on the other hand, requires dexterity that’s not just manual, but also intellectual. Both the hand and the mind have to be prepared in order for the child to eventually write. Rather than waiting until the age of five or six to start, the beauty of the Montessori method lies in the child slowly being prepared over the years, isolating one level of difficulty at a time.
When you pause to think about it, so much goes into writing. A writing instrument has to be grasped in a perfect pincer, with enough force to make a mark on the paper without tearing through it. Hand-eye coordination is required to move that pencil in the way you want it to. Visual cognition ensures the symbols we call letters are mapped clearly, while memory skills are required to associate each to the appropriate sound. Neural connections and auditory discrimination need to be finetuned to translate those visual memories onto paper in a recognizable sequence, in the left-to-right, top-to-bottom manner in which we write as a society. On top of all this, the emerging writer needs to have the resilience and discipline to labour through each of these steps any time they want to put a thought onto paper. Which brings us to the most important consideration – the person writing needs to have something to write about in the first place.
Over the three years a child spends in the Primary classroom, each of these skills are isolated and practiced in a myriad of beautiful, instinctive, developmentally appropriate ways. I won’t get into the mechanics, because I firmly believe it is the school’s responsibility to ensure these aspects get addressed.
Instead, I want to talk about something close to my heart – just because someone knows how to write doesn’t mean they will. When children don’t write despite the mechanics being in place, it’s an opportunity to reflect.
Is there a point to their writing? We all agree that writing ‘I will not talk in class’ 100 times is a punishment. However, how is it that different from writing words like ‘cat’ or ‘dog’ multiple times? Worksheets and word lists rarely motivate children after the novelty value fades off. There’s no end goal other than submitting them for an adult to evaluate and be pleased about.
Compare this, instead, to writing out a grocery list of ingredients, which the child then takes to the store and gathers. Making up a recipe, dreaming up an experiment, creating an invitation to a playdate: all of these are examples of children writing down their own thoughts, and expressing their own preferences. It is a privilege witnessing a child’s first incredulous realization that the ideas in their head can be understood by someone looking at a piece of paper they worked on!
Of course, in order for this to succeed, the child needs to have ample practice having opinions and expressing themselves. Technically, the process of writing starts when your child is born, and you start talking to them – using rich vocabulary and expressing opinions, you are modeling the process of communication for them.
Do invite dialogue at every opportunity. It is vital to encourage children to talk for themselves rather than rushing to fill in the gaps in their sentences, or answering for them. This translates into them knowing their opinions are valued, and gives them the confidence to eventually transfer their thoughts onto paper when they are equipped with the tools to do so.
Are they the only ones writing? Children are remarkably astute. Just as they know to hold mobile phones carefully because the adults around them do, they also know what the adults consider unimportant for themselves. No amount of talking about how important writing is can inspire them as much as modeling writing can. Model writing exactly how you’d like your child to write – not as a chore, on a scrap of paper torn off randomly, or in a tearing hurry.
Treat yourself to good quality stationery. Find a dedicated spot in your house with good lighting and a flat surface to place your paper on. Play music, if that works for you. Consider your words carefully. Delight in taking the time to write in your best handwriting. Make it a ritual you genuinely find joy in for yourself, rather than a ‘teaching’ opportunity for your child. Children are good at sensing authenticity 🙂
When my daughter was just starting to identify sounds with letters, we would take turns forming words with magnetic lowercase letters on our fridge. I would also make her lunchbox doodles that were phonetic (‘big hug’ etc).
As she started forming letters, we would take turns giving each other challenges (‘List all the things you see which are red’ etc). We would write on a chalkboard easel to begin with, so that she could freely move around in between writing. Another favourite at this time was writing word labels for the things in the room (‘window,’ ‘curtain’ etc) and scrambling them, then matching each label to the object as quickly as we could.
We would also make posters for her room that were mind-maps on discussions we had, such as what she wanted to be when she grew up, or what to remember to do daily. When she was able to form sentences, we set up a post box in our home, and started writing letters to each other. She also has a writing station where she has pre-cut ruled and unruled paper in various colours with ribbons and other book-making supplies. All of these little ideas help us write whenever inspiration strikes, without any elaborate prep work.
Honestly, there are plenty of incredible ideas for pre-writers on online forums and Pinterest boards. If I were to sum up what worked for us, however, it was this: watch your child, follow your instincts, and enjoy yourself. Don’t stress about the mechanics such as handwriting or spelling. Remember that’s the school’s job, and they’ll reach out if they need further help from home. As parents, we get to enjoy sparking passion in our children and watching them find their own motivation for writing!