Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 20 Most Popular Posts in Five Years of Blogging

I started this blog on the 26th December 2007. I wrote the first half dozen posts while on holidays in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. My aim was simple, I wanted to offer posts that might be of use to teachers, parents, university students and their lecturers. The aim was to offer a strong emphasis on literature because in 2007 it seemed to me that there was reduced interest in books and holistic approaches to creating passionate, critical and effective readers and writers. There were few readers at first but eventually, people found the blog. I have written 288 posts since at the rate of approximately one per week (all I have time for). There were just 11,322 visitors in 2008. This has risen to over 150,000 in 2012.

In honour of being the most read post
I haven't always been able to tell exactly which posts people will read most. Sometimes I'm surprised how simple posts written quickly can strike a chord and bring many visitors. At other times I labour for hour over a post and receive less visits. Anyway, here are the 20 most read posts in the last 5 years (with unique visitor numbers in brackets).

Mr Men Turns 40 (43634)
Your Baby Can Read, Part 1 (36105)
Chapter Books for Girls 6-12 Years Old (16904)
The Wind in the Willows Turns 100! (12933)
Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five (12195) 
When Do Children Start Writing? (10154)
Key Themes in Children's Books: Conquering Fears (9619)
Your Baby Can Read, Part 2 (9232)
250 Great Children's Books (8379)
A Search for Meaning, the Heart of Literacy (7948)
The Role of Adults in Children's Play (7830)
Eight Strategies to Help Children Become Better Spellers (7711)
Ten Great non-fiction Books for Children aged 5-12 years (6940) 
Author Focus: Pamela Allen (6304)
Making Reading Exciting for Boys (6225)
25 Great Children's Apps to Stimulate Literacy, Learning & Creativity (5987)
Alice the iPad and New Ways to Read Picture Books (5825)
2012 Newbery & Caldecott Medal Winners Announced (5604)
Enrichment for Gifted & Talented Children (3879)
Your Baby Can Read - Part 3 (3013)

Thank you for reading my blog. Thank you especially for those who link to my site, recommend it to others, make comments, tweet posts, and for faithful followers who come back again and again. I look forward to having you drop in again during 2013.

 Happy New Year to all!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Stories of Christmas: 24 Great Books for Children

I did a post on children's picture books for Christmas in 2008 as part of my 'Key Themes in Literature' series (here), which I updated in 2009 and 2011.  This post is another update of previous posts with the addition of a number of wonderful new books published in recent times. Some of the books that follow are quite faithful to the traditional Christmas story, while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, including love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. Here are some of best examples that you can find. Many of these books can be used even with children aged 8-12 years. The illustration below is used by permission of Walker Books and is from Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' illustrated brilliantly by Robert Ingpen (reviewed in this post).

At the heart of the Christmas story is the celebration of the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

Parents or teachers who want to share the traditional Christmas story can use one of the many wonderful children's Bibles available for children of varying ages in modern translations. For example, Lion Hudson has published a variety of versions that paraphrase the Bible accurately and with illustrations that children will find meaningful and enjoyable (more information here). You can also use an adult Bible with primary aged children and can simply read the appropriate section from the gospels of Matthew (here) or Luke (here).

1. Books based closely on the biblical story of Jesus birth

The Life of Our Lord, by Charles Dickens.

First published in 1934 (64 years after his death), this is the story of the life of Jesus and was written by Dickens for his children. While rarely included in his complete works, it is a delightful retelling of the Bible's account of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection. Dickens takes the King James (Authorized) version of the gospel of Jesus, and makes it accessible to his children. There are elements of his telling of the biblical tale that some Christians might feel offers only some of the many facets of Jesus character. But, as well as being a beautifully written retelling of the Bible's account, what I love about it is that it offers an insight into the man Dickens writing in the middle of the 19th century. It shows his Christian faith, his love for his children and even some of the family prayers. Lovers of Dickens will enjoy the book, as will children, who will respond well to the story itself, as well as its literary qualities, and the personal nature of the telling. There are a number of editions of the book including the Simon & Schuster (1999) version pictured left that is still available.

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Dick Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their ideas of what Jesus looked like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.

2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching; for example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The Christmas Eve Ghost, by Shirley Hughes (2010)

Walker Books has just published this wonderful book in time for Christmas. It is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. At 83 years of age Shirley is still producing wonderful books. It is a classic example of books in this category. It doesn't really mention the Christmas story at all but uses Christmas as one of its themes to highlight kindness against the background of sectarian differences between Catholic and Protestant residents of Liverpool in the 1930s (the place and time of her childhood). Without saying it, Hughes offers the message that Christmas is a time when people should connect with one another in love, kindness and service.

The book tells the story of a mother and her two children, living in poverty. The mother cares for the children and earns just enough to survive by washing other people's clothing. On Christmas Eve 'Mam' has to leave the children in bed while she goes off to deliver a batch of washing. The children awake to strange noises (as it turns out they are 'natural' noises) and flee the house in fear straight into the arms of Mrs O'Riley from next door, a person their mother doesn't speak to for reasons not clear until the end. It's a wonderful book with a touching resolution.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2008). This probably deserves to be in a category of its own. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. Published in 2008 this new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree that offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (my daughter did a post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley. But he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.

3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Baillie Tolkien)

This book is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children over a period of 23 years. Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or painting. The letters were from Father Christmas.

Tolkien shares wonderful tales of life at the North Pole. A reindeer gets loose and scatters presents all over the place, an accident-prone North Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof, Santa accidentally breaks the moon into four pieces and the Man (in the moon!) falls into the back garden and many more. This is Tolkien at his creative best, but what's special is that they are personal communications between him and his children. His last letter is a beautiful farewell from Father Christmas with an underlying message of hope and continuity. If you love Tolkien you will like this collection. It's available in an enhanced eBook format as well, which has a number of other features (see video below). These include audio recordings of many of the letters read by Sir Derek Jacobi and the ability to expand each of the images of the original letters and envelopes
(some never published before). 

The Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010). This is a wonderful new release from Walker Books. Just the mention of Robert Ingpen's name will get me excited, because surely he is one of Australia's greatest illustrators. This is the best illustrated version of the classic Clement Moore poem that I know of. Moore wrote the poem for his children and first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.  A friend sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper in 1823 and once published it quickly became well known. Only in 1844 did Moore claim authorship. Many attribute much of our contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus to this poem. Who can forget the start:

'Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse...

Ingpen's depiction of Santa as a mischievous and happy old man sits well with the traditional myth. His usual immaculate line drawings are in evidence, but this time they are softened by a gentle wash that gives an ethereal feel to the drawings. The 'soft' lines also sit well with the traditional northern white Christmas.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, by Petr Horacek (2010).  This is another new release from Walker Books. It is a perfect book for preschoolers or young children up to 6 or 7 years. Suzy and her farmyard friends are gathered on Christmas Eve around their Christmas tree and she notices that something is missing - a star on top of the tree! She cries to her friends, "It needs a star on top....Just like the one in the sky. I'll get it." So she sets off to 'get it' with some amusing episodes along the way before the surprising solution. Young kids will love this book. It is well written and beautifully illustrated by Petr Horacek. Again, it barely mentions Christmas, but parents and teachers could speak more about Christmas using this story as the springboard.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of a little girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! What does a spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what they will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley. It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!

Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald. This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.

Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun

The Nutcracker by Janet Schulman & E. T. A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Renee Graef. A version of the classic tale.
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical train ride on Christmas Eve takes a boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. This book won the 1986 Caldecott Medal and of course has been made into a movie.

Summing Up
There are endless books that have written about Christmas. When choosing a suitable book to read to your children try to find one that is faithful to the Christmas story and which is appropriate for your children's age. Even those books that mention only tangentially the real Christmas story can be a good springboard for the discussion of the central meaning of Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Creating readers from birth: Why we should read to babies

Our family had the joy of welcoming a 6th grandchild Lydia last June. I posted on this great event back then (here) and included a wonderful photo of Lydia's sister reading to her within minutes of meeting her in the delivery room. At just two hours she had been read her first book!

It's now 18 months later and I thought I'd share a video of Lydia 'reading' herself. From those first days Lydia has been read to by her parents, her siblings and anyone else that Lydia can persuade to read. She loves books and is rarely far from a pile. By 12 months she would sit with books, turn the pages, lift the flaps and try to vocalize as she revisited a story that someone else had read to her.

She has now moved beyond the page turning, pointing and listening stage, to active participation.  At this stage children will listen to the whole story, attempt to participate by saying words, making appropriate noises at the right time, and running their fingers over images, words and other features of the book. They will also pick up the books themselves and attempt to 'read' them. The video segment below shows Lydia re-reading one of her favourite books at the moment 'That's Not My Dolly' by Fiona Watt (illustrated by Rachel Wells).  In this case she becomes distracted part way through so her mum prompts her to close the cycle on the book. "Which one's your dolly?" 

So why is it important to read to babies?

1. It teaches them about language and the world.
2. It teaches them about books - their purposes, features, the way they work, the joy they give.
3. It creates a desire for them to read the books as well.
4. It builds your relationship with your child creating common ground and shared experiences.

Seven 'how to' tips?

1. Read from birth (some read while babies are in the womb!).
2. Read as if you assume that your child gets what you're doing.
3. Read as if you love the book!
4. Look at your child as much as you can, your eyes and your voice work in a kind of unison inviting reaction, sustaining mood and interest.
5. Make it as exciting as you can. Emphasize words, vary tone, volume, use pauses, change the pace, and provide gestures with your hands, arms, face and movement. Be silly if you have to! Reading aloud has a poetic or musical structure to it, which children will want to copy.
6. With more complex picture books be prepared to improvise by skipping pages (as the child takes over), shortening the text, emphasizing repetition, using your voice to help the child anticipate and predict. But try to sustain any patterns and the framework of the story.
7. Start in short bursts and build over time. When your child is 3 months you might not get more than a page or two before they try to eat the book! Persevere.

Above: Lydia's sister Elsie reading 'Where's the Green Sheep' Mem Fox, when aged 2

Other posts on early reading

'The importance of reading to and with your children' HERE
'How to listen to children reading - Part 2' HERE

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Choosing Great Educational Toys as Gifts: 30 Top Gift Ideas for Kids 0-12

This is my fourth annual post on choosing great toys for kids. That is, toys that teach, challenge, stimulate and encourage creativity and learning.

I've outlined previously some basic principles for choosing toys which stressed that children don't need expensive toys to learn, that play in and, of itself, stimulates learning, problem solving, language development, creativity and so on (see for example my post 'The importance of simple play' here). In short, many activities require few or no bought materials within the child's world.

As well, even a single purpose toy that brings great pleasure but doesn't teach a lot can achieve more if adults are engaged to some extent with the activity. For example, a game like Hungry Hippos besides helping with basic counting, can also help children to learn about turn taking, being gracious as a winner and a loser and so on.

But, if you are planning to spend significant sums of money on toys for Christmas or as part of other celebrations I would be aiming for toys that offer multiple purposes and varied areas of learning. My test for toys we buy would be:
  • Do they stimulate creativity and learning?
  • Do they encourage language use?
  • Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?
  • Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?
  • Do they help children to develop interpersonal skills (if it is a multi-player toy)? 
  • Do they require children to collaborate with and, play well with others?
  • Will the toy last (i.e. not fall apart)?
  • Is the toy good value for money?
  • Is the toy fun, interesting, challenging?
  • Will it sustain your child's attention beyond a few uses?

So, while you don't need bought toys to stimulate children, in this post I will talk about some of the bought toys that I find interesting and which have worked with our children and grandchildren. I'm not trying to be  comprehensive just offering examples of good toys that meet some of the criteria I outline above.

1. Scientific toys for older children

Here are some examples of the many wonderful scientific toys around for children aged 8+. Most range in price from $20 to $40 AUD.

a) The Museum of Victoria has some wonderful kits. One that I like helps children to explore 'Crystals and Minerals'. The kit helps them to discover the amazing qualities and features of minerals in everyday life. Many of these are available from the CSIRO site (see below).

b) CSIRO Science Kits - The CSIRO has some wonderful kits for children. One I like is 'Biology Madness'. This is a comprehensive science kit with 26 fun and interesting experiments. The kit includes all the main scientific equipment required for the experiments, plus an interactive DVD featuring five filmed experiments, and a 68 page full colour booklet which includes fun facts and further experiments. You can also 'Make Your Own Volcano',  do astronomy experiments using the 'Double Helix Astronomy' kit or build their own 'Solar Powered Planaterium'. There are many kits that come in a range of categories including flight, dinosaurs, chemistry, rocks, construction and more.

c) Geoworld also has many wonderful options including a 'Mammoth Skeleton Dig' kit so you can unearth a museum quality replica approved by Paleontologists, a 'Glow in the Dark Solar Mobile' kit and many more.

d) Green Science also has an interesting kit called 'Weather Station'. It allows the child to experiment with static electricity that causes lightning, make clouds, watch air currents that produce wind, and study the greenhouse effect and acid rain. It has many other options including 'Solar Robot' that allows children to learn how to make a robot that moves under solar power.

e) Kidz Labs (4M) also has some wonderful science kits. One of my favourites is 'Forensics' which helps children to explore basic techniques like finger printing, handwriting analysis, fibre evidence, making plaster casts of footprints, identifying 'strange' powder. Another great kit from Kidz Labs is the 'Animation Praxinoscope' that allows kids to rebuild a 100 year old optical toy that demonstrates modern animation techniques. 

2. Timeless construction toys

No  family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. These toys help to develop good hand-eye coordination, encourage creativity and problem solving and can help to develop mathematical and spatial intelligence.  There are many types of construction toys that  children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:

Above: Father & son play with Knupferli (see below)

a) Wooden blocks of some type  - at our house our grandchildren still use the same set of blocks in  their original walker that our children did 30+ years ago (suitable for ages 6 months  to 3 years).
b) Lego  - probably all three types/sizes will be useful. Our children's Lego is now  played with by our grandchildren (suitable for age 6 months to 15  years). The themed sets for 'Harry Potter' and 'The Hobbit' are on the top of many kid's gift lists and give hours of creative story-telling fun.
c) Mobilo is one of my grandson Sam's favourite toys

d) Other more challenging connector toys - e.g. Knupferli  Construction materials (see above). I used the soft plastic Knupferli materials when I was in Kindergarten and only just rediscovered them again (ideal for age 5-10  years). You can use them to make a simple necklace or a complex 3D shape.

e) Meccano  - newer meccano sets (see right) are different, but they still combine  all the old skills and interest of the metal Meccano I had as a child  (age 5-15 years).

You can do many things with construction toys. Yes, you can build simply things like towers or shapes. You can make houses, cars, anything (in the case of Lego).

In  combination with other objects (e.g. plastic animals or people) you can  tell stories - zoos can be created, aquariums, farms, space invaders  and dinosaurs can invade villages etc. In some cases your children can learn how to follow instructions and design plans (e.g. Meccano, Knupferli & Lego).

What's great about construction toys is that they:
  • Help to develop hand-eye co-ordination
  • Encourage creativity and problem solving
  • Can help to develop spatial and geometric skills
Above: A family favourite, 'Zoob'

3. 'Toys' that allow you to create

These are not all toys, some are materials, but all allow children to be creative. Here are a few of my favourites:

a) Modelling clay  - you can buy cheap multi-coloured modelling clay for $2-3 per pack, or  you can make Play Dough. I've written a post on the creative use of  modelling clay (here). Suitable for all ages.
b) Magnetic learning boards with letters and shapes (age 12 months to 5 years), see picture to the right.
c) Magesketch (or some other variety) of this magnetic sketching board, age 12 months to 4 years.
d) Felt boards - there are many products of this type on the market (many of these are very cheap), age 2-6 years.

4. Model people, animal and objects

There  are many wonderful examples of toys that consist of people, animals,  dwellings, and objects that go with them like dolls houses, castles,  forts, arks etc. These allow children to engage in creative play either  alone or with others for long periods of time. These simple objects can  allow children to amuse themselves in a world of make believe and  fantasy at home, in the car, at other people's houses etc. They are a  wonderful way for children to create (verbally) their first  narratives.

Some of the simplest are perhaps the best:

a) Keep a box of animals  - depending on the child's interests these might be farm animals (under  12 months), African animals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and people -  these can be used alone or with other toys (see the shot of Sam above  with his Lego 'zoo').
b) Commercial sets like the Little People  series and Sylvanian Families are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's  Ark to which we've added other animals. This has kept all our  grandchildren engaged for hours (0-3 years).
c) A doll's house  will keep boys and girls engaged in creative play for ages and there are modern variations on  the same theme with medieval castles complete within knights and  dragons (age 2 -8).

5. Mathematical or Spatial Skill Toys

a) Perpetual puzzles   - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura. They add a new level of   creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall   puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.
b) Blokus is a relatively new puzzle game with simple rules, but it can keep adults and children stimulated for ages. The purpose of the game is for each player to place his/her 21 pieces on  the board (or at least the maximum number of pieces) in a continuous span unimpeded by other players' pieces. It can be played by 2 or 4 people.
c) M-Tic  

This is a brilliant and simple construction type game that consists of  multi-coloured plastic pieces with magnetic ends. The purpose of the  game is to create geometric shapes. It is excellent for developing  geometrical and spatial knowledge. If you can't find this version there are other similar examples at good toy shops (see the picture below).
d) Puzzles of all kinds - puzzles are brilliant for developing memory, patience and a variety of spatial skills. Young children can start with simply puzzles that require them to insert an animal or shape into a single hole. Later they can move to simply 6-20 piece puzzles then much more complex puzzles as they develop their skills.

6. Other categories

There  are many other toys that allow children to have fun, learn, manipulate  and develop fine motor skills. Here are just a few examples that I  spotted at my local Toy Shop this week. If you live in Sydney Monkey Puzzle Toy Store  is worth a look, it's one of the best toyshops I've seen. The owners  know and are passionate about toys. Find a good local toy store where  the owners choose, sell and enjoy toys.

a) Magnetic (Mudpuppy) Dress up Figures - these come in a metal box and the mannequins vary (e.g. sports model, pirate, ballerina, monster, mermaid etc).
b) Chicken Socks craft sets (Klutz) - These are cheap and have a variety of separate packets including 'Crayon Rubbings', 'Fun Felt', 'Simple Sewing', 'Hand Art' etc.
c) Puppets  - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different  types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets and string  puppets.
d) Card games of all kinds. There are so many wonderful card games today that encourage language and mathematics and also encourage sharing and collaboration. Some recent favourites include 'Rush Hour' and 'Story Cubes'. 

There  are obviously many great toys that I haven't mentioned. In my home I'd  always want to have puzzles, lots of writing implements (crayons,  pencils, chalk, varied papers), toys that teach numbers and letters,  toys that train hand-eye co-ordination (through threading, putting  things in holes etc), percussion instruments, Thomas Trains and cars  (especially for boys), a dress-up box and so on.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How HANDwriting feeds Language, Literacy, Learning & Creativity

In this digital age of SMS messaging, social networking, blogging and cell phones in your pocket with email, notebook and web browser access, some ask "is there any role for handwriting with crayon, pencil or pen?" Handwriting seems so out of place and inconvenient. Shouldn't we just bypass this stage with our kids and teach keyboard skills to our toddlers?

I want to suggest at least five good reasons, why the answer to this question is NO!

  • First, there is a complex and interdependent relationship between scribble, drawing, fine motor skills and learning.
  • Second, research has shown that speed and fluency of handwriting has a direct impact on later writing development and learning.
  • Third, handwriting offers a means to experiment with letters and words that can intersect in a unique way with drawing, composition and thinking.
  • Fourth, handwriting facilitates risk taking in learning as well as creativity and problem solving.
  • Fifth, there are many pragmatic and interpersonal reasons why the ability to write with pen and ink is still important. 
1. There is a relationship between scribble, drawing, fine motor skills and learning

It is obvious that for the young child writing has its genesis in scribble. Those first attempts to make marks on paper, the walls, or in the dirt, are a child's first attempt to experiment with the representation of meaning. While the first strokes of the 9 month-old child may be more about play and experimentation with objects, eventually the child will attempt to represent something. They will look up at whoever is nearby and smile as if to say "Look at me, I made this!" At this point, children have begun to work out how language and meaning can be symbolically represented.

But this early use of crayons or pencils to make marks or signs is not simply a random motor task; it involves a complex blend of cognitive, kinaesthetic, and perceptual-motor abilities. Decades of research shows that it isn't just that handwriting requires these things, it has been shown to affect cognitive abilities. For over 50 years researchers have been trying to untangle the complex links between handedness (i.e. the tendency to he left-handed or right handed), gross motor skills and fine motor skills like handwriting. Brain research has also shown us that Binocular vision (the focussing of eyes as they work together) requires the child to use two hemispheres of the brain and that fine motor tasks have a relationship to this emerging ability. In short, handwriting's demands for complex hand-eye coordination are related to a variety of other forms of sensory integration.  

As well, as the child moves from marks on paper to controlled 'scribble' (see my previous post on early writing HERE) the fine motor demands of handwriting helps the child to:
  • Memorise letter shapes
  • Develop complex concepts of print like left to right movement, the differences between letters and words and sound-symbol correspondence. This is one of the reasons that kinaesthetic approaches have been used for children with early literacy problems for decades
  • Experiment with language as a representational form along with drawing - children's earliest 'writing' will usually combined marks, letters, drawing, colour and pattern.
There are some technology applications that might allow children to do some of this as they get older, and some writing apps that allow the child to use their finger to scribble and form letters. But their earliest steps towards written language will occur with crayon, chalk, pencil or a finger dipped in paint, or even the dirt as they try to make marks and symbolize something.

2. Handwriting speed and fluency has an impact on writing and learning

The second reason is the relationship between the speed and fluency of handwriting and the ability to write and think. Speed and fluency are important for all aspects of language - listening, speaking, reading and writing. The faster the brain processes the data, the more effective the language user. This is true of early reading and writing. There is strong evidence to show that if children are slow as they form letters then language processing may be affected at higher levels (e.g. forming words, expressing ideas, sentence patterns etc).

Researchers like Professor Stephen Peverly at Teachers' College, Columbia University have found that for children (and adults), speed and fluency of handwriting is very important if they are to express themselves well through writing.

Professor Steven Graham expresses the importance of speed and fluency in a recent article for American Educator:
"As handwriting skills become more automatic and less cognitively demanding, attention and resources for carrying out other writing processes, including those involving more reflection and careful composing, become available."
While we don't need a return to the days of daily handwriting lessons for 20-30 minutes, there is a need to give some priority to handwriting support. This might be as basic as helping a 1 year-old how to hold a crayon and pencils to reduce physical discomfort and aid fluency, but it may well extend later to help with letter formation, pattern formation exercises, line cards systematic introduction to the faster cursive forms of writing in primary school and so on. In this way, children's early literacy will be supported and the groundwork will be established for later writing on keyboards and other electronic devices.

3. A Stimulus for Drawing and Composition

It is important to understand that when the one year old 'scribbles' or draws, that they are trying to make meaning. My youngest grandchild is just 18 months old and one of Lydia's favourite activities lately is deliberate and quite fine drawing. As she sits for ages making deliberate marks on paper she often says 'Draw flower'. She loves flowers and she is already experimenting with how to represent them. As she chooses her paper and pen, Lydia makes choices about which colour, where she will position her drawing on the paper and she shares her work others ('Mum, mum, mum, draw flower'). Even in a child's earliest efforts at drawing and scribble, we begin to see the emergence of composition and meaning making on paper.

Diagram of Sam's Medical Diagnosis
The drawing to the right was done by Sam another grandchild, who is in his first year of school (Kindergarten). He did it while he was playing doctors with his sister at our house. His 4 year old sister was the mother and her dolls were the child patients. The ritualised game involved mother taking the doll (Sophie) to the doctor and explaining the problem. Dr Sam would diagnosis the problem, each time using a diagram to show the seat of the problem, before explaining the cause and his treatment. In this case Sophie presented with a pain in the stomach. Sam drew the picture and explained the problem to the worried mother:

"See this, that's her brain"
"And you see that black spot? It's because of not enough water."
"It's because of not enough water, it's not her stomach!"
"Give her lots of water and she'll be okay."

In this language story, Sam uses drawing, spoken language and written language to create an explanation and narrative for the creative play that he engages in with his sister.

4. Risk taking, creativity and problem solving

Sam says 'I like the CD of the wedding' they went to
Sam has loved school and made good progress in early reading. And in recent weeks he has suddenly taken off as a writer. When I was staying at his house a few weeks ago we spent at least two hours one morning playing post office while his parents were at a wedding. The game was Sam's idea and involved me (at his suggestion) writing letters to him, as well as to his sister, Nanna, Mum and Dad. This kept me busy! His job was to deliver the letters to assigned mailboxes in the house. Others got to read them and await the next delivery. After an hour or so I suggested that he might write some letters. He replied, "No, I can't write properly". His mother had just arrived back from the wedding and overheard him and said, "but your teacher says you're doing lots of writing at school". To which he replied, "no, but I don't know all the letters".

Like some 'pancakes, cream, strawberry milk, sandwiches....?'
I placed a piece of paper in front of him and said, "that doesn't matter Sam, write one for me and you can read it to me, I'd love to get a letter from you". He replied, 'okay' and proceeded to write one to me and then one to his mother. This was followed by a flurry of letters to others. A week later when he came to stay with us, the game was repeated with Nanna. This time he became the letter writer from the start, and Nanna delivered the mail. He also planned the rest of the day with writing taking on a key role. He wrote a timetable for the day's activities, recorded the events, and used writing in every activity. When he created a zoo in our lounge room with cages and plastic animals he decided he needed tickets, signs to direct people to them, and of course a cafe, which in turn needed a menu. Sam was engaged in a frenzy of writing linked to his creative explorations, play and problem solving. Writing was feeding and supporting learning.

5.  Pragmatic and interpersonal reasons

As well as the above reasons for the importance of writing, there are also strong practical and interpersonal reasons for some attention to handwriting.

Pragmatically, the majority of writing and note making at school still occurs on paper.  While this is changing (especially for adults), it won't change quickly for children, who will learn more effectively if they can write fluently, and to some extent neatly.  It would seem highly likely that the humble note pad, diary, post-it sticker, magic sketcher or notice board will still have a place in communication (at least for a while).

In terms of interpersonal writing, it is also difficult to see us losing completely the handwritten birthday card, gift tag, special letter and so on. There is still something very special about receiving a letter or card that combines careful choice of paper, design, words, images and sometimes personally drawn graphics. This is also a legitimate reason to offer some support for handwriting.

4. Summing up

As we head even further down the digital path we need to be careful not to ignore handwriting, and in the process deprive children of vital cognitive, kinaesthetic and perceptual-motor abilities and skills that are vital for learning and development.

Other resources

Steven Graham (2009). Want to Improve Children's Writing? American Educator, Winter 2009-2010.
'The Writing on the Wall' (2007), Newsweek.
'Your Child's Handwriting', Kids Health.
'Handwriting Instruction: What Do we Know?' (1986), ERIC Digest

This is a revised version of a post I wrote in June 2010