Raising writers at home is deceptively simple, no matter the age of your children. Here’s a guide to family literacy at every age.
I want you to raise your children as writers, and I’m going to help you do it.
For far too long, the world has misunderstood what it means to be a writer. It doesn’t mean that you hit the New York Times Bestseller List or that your blog posts go viral. It doesn’t mean that you get straight As in your composition courses or can write a five paragraph essay with ease.
When you are a writer, you are a thinker. And our culture is desperate for critical minds.
If my challenge to you feels overwhelming, rest assured that raising a writer is one of the easiest things you will ever do. Communication and story are part of who we are as humans. This is why family literacy is key: it is the catalyst for raising thoughtful, moral, empathetic children who know the truth not because they have memorized it, but because they have encountered it, engaged it, challenged it, and found it still to be true.
Raising Writers at Home: a Guide for Every Age
It’s easy to write off the smallest members of the family as illiterate. Language skills may be developing at breakneck speed, but your average 12 month old isn’t going to sit down at the table, pen in hand, and produce the next great American novel. But here’s the kicker:
Little guys write, just not in the way we expect.
As a baby or toddler explores his world, he’s building new pathways. Making new connections. Discovering people and places and things. Your little guy is observing his surroundings, making inferences about them, and synthesizing the information into an actionable plan. He’s not only thinking, he’s communicating, and this is the first step toward writing
Even the youngest members of the family have a story to tell. Their actions are their words; a scribe makes them permanent record. How does your little one love? What makes your little one laugh? What beauty does your little one bring out in other people, from family members to strangers in the grocery store? These are the details that form a young child’s first foray into writing, and they are all worthy of writing down.
A parent’s role in facilitating a child’s story lessens somewhat by preschool. When children begin to experiment with letter and word formation, they develop a sense of ownership over the process of writing. Children also begin to form attitudes toward the writing process. Low pressure exploration is key.
While preschoolers are able to record their ideas on paper through drawings and scribbles, they’ll still need you as an interpreter or scribe. My daughters’ preschool excelled in this. Rather than ask outright about the subject of a child’s drawing, the teachers encouraged storytelling: “Tell me about this beautiful picture! You have lots of great colors here.” They would copy the child’s response at the top of the page, leading to gems like B’s “Trashcan at Night:” a late night representation of our family’s outdoor garbage can.
Encouraging verbal storytelling in preschoolers provides a window into their crazy, beautiful world. I still have no idea why B was so fascinated with moonlit trash receptacles, but just the very fact she sought to write about it revealed her observations, her inferences, and her conclusions. To implement the same technique in your home, invite your emergent writer to tell stories using pictures, either hand-drawn or cut and pasted from magazines. Let them lead, and let them have fun.
By grade school, children begin to compartmentalize. Relationships become more complicated, communication is more nuanced, and responsibilities become more prevalent. This is the point in which children begin to associate writing with school. For a child whose talents and interests lean away from the humanities and toward STEM, this can also be the point at which a child decides she can’t write.
This is what has happened to G. She loves to craft stories and illustrations of imaginative worlds, but shuts down the minute I ask her to write something scholarly. I’m no longer a scribe but a cheerleader, fostering a love of writing through role modeling and creativity. G stands over my should while I write, reading and critiquing at will. She has several journals and writing spaces, affording a measure of privacy and ownership. G also enjoys playing writing games, building family relationships while we work on writing skills. I’ve worked to make writing an enjoyable part of everyday life, not just an onerous task reserved for grading.
If you take the difficulties inherent in writing for elementary age children and multiply them five, you’ll have the plight of the writing teenager. This is the point when critical discussion is paramount: not only are teens longing for validation of opinions and ideas, they are also in need of direction in developing true analytical thought.
At this point, writing will shift from expressive to communicative. It’s no longer about how a person feels (though that is still a part of it), but rather what a person has to say. The hows and the whys of communication take center stage, and the act of writing itself becomes the art of conversation. I encourage parents and teens to discuss ideas and arguments, to read and analyze opposing points of view, and to explore the ways in which other writers communicate their thoughts. This will help teens see their opinions as valued and connect their writing with a greater purpose.
When you embrace literacy as a family, you aren’t just raising writers – you’re raising thinkers. You are teaching your children to think critically about the world around them, providing them with the tools to express those thoughts effectively, efficiently, creatively and uniquely. Raising a writer is raising a thinker, and the best part is – it starts at home, with you.