Monday, April 7, 2014

How Can a Child Learn to Write in 30 Minutes?

The title of this post might seem outrageous, and was certainly designed to get your attention, but I want to suggest that in one sense it's true! Let me explain. While the groundwork for the creation of young writers takes years, the point of take-off can occur in as a little as 30 minutes. This post is an illustration of how this can occur. In fact, in this single post you will see how one five year-old goes from a non-reader with some early knowledge of sounds to a reader and writer in one week.

The example is drawn from recent observations of one of my grandchildren, but I have seen it many times in classrooms throughout my teaching and research career.

Evie is five and has just commenced formal schooling in Australia in Kindergarten (Grade 1 in most countries). She had attended two years of preschool (for 2 half days per week as a three year old, and then three days per week as a four year old). She had been read to before school, mostly at bedtime, had begun to play sound, writing and matching games on an iPad as a 4 year old, and she liked completing some basic pre-reading booklets. She had also shown interest when she saw her brother (three years older than her) being taught to read at home, and recently she had been asking him to read to her.

When she started Kindergarten just eight weeks ago her teacher had begun introducing letters and their sounds and as reading and writing exercises. After about seven weeks the teacher had introduced about 15 sounds (2-3 per week), all single consonants and vowels. With each one Evie had to complete an activity sheet that required her to copy the letter, write (copy) a word, and then draw a picture (see an example below).

Above: One of Evie's School Worksheets

Like many preschool children Evie also enjoys drawing and likes to embellish them at times with numbers, sometimes letters and print-like scribble. However, she had not tried to write words or represent meaning with more than scribble or drawings. The only exception to this was the copying of the single words that matched the letters that her teacher had been systematically teaching.

Last weekend her grandmother was doing some creative oral story making using Lego as part of the process (this is a common strategy we have used in the past, see my recent post HERE). They were acting out a shopping episode, with Evie acting as the customer. As she came and asked for items (which were Lego shop items with food pictures on them) her grandmother said to her, 'You need a list.' To which Evie replied, Yes'! And she began to do some text-like scribble on paper and handed it to her grandmother in exchange for the 'goods'.

Because her grandmother had seen her school workbook she said, 'Why don't you write some words on the paper?' Evie grabbed a piece of paper and wrote 'egg' and 'fish' on the paper (two of her school words), which matched two of the Lego pieces. She exclaimed, 'I didn't know I could do that'! Her grandmother praised her, showed her grandfather (me) and we told her how clever she was.

Above: Evie's first two words written from memory

She dropped the game, got more paper and proceeded to try her hand at more writing. At first she was using her store of words that she had seen at school, writing each from memory without her school book. Within about 30 minutes Evie had written many words and then began to push the boundaries as she extended her writing from school words, to new words, then phrases, sentences and finally short stories.

I explained to her that she needed to have spaces between words and showed her how to use finger spaces between them. We provided more paper, her grandmother gave her a blank book, and she was away. Before the hour was out Evie had achieved the following milestones:

Step 1 - She had written her first words from memory (above)
Step 2 - She begun to string known words together from memory with loose associations (see above larger text)
Step 3 - She began to try to write words that she didn't know (see her attempt at 'bowl' and 'horse' below).

Above: Evie's first 'invented' spellings for 'bowl' & 'horse'

When she wrote the above words she said, 'I wrote some new words Grandad. Do you know what they are?' I answered, 'Yes, bowl and horse'. Pointing to the second word she asked, 'Does this really say horse'? I answered, 'Well I could tell that you meant them to be horse and bowl, even though there are some letters missing'. I showed her the missing letters, and then she moved on to her next piece of writing.

Step 4 - She sat down with her new blank book and tried to string together a number of words in the form of a simple sentence, trying to spell the unknown words using her limited knowledge of phonics.

Above: 'My pet dog is the best'

Step 5 - She repeated the text and experiments with images and other textual forms. Attempting multimodal texts already.

Step 6 - Her sentences become more complex, and her satisfaction is obvious! She shares her work.

Step 7 - She tries further experimentation with tough words and concepts. Her next text is much more complex in syntax, vocabulary and meaning. It has been written just one hour after she wrote her first words from memory and without assistance!

Above: A story with greater complexity

Step 8 - The next morning with her mother's help and advice on some words, she made herself a book and began to write her first 'novel' - 'My Cat'! 

In the week since this series of events Evie also decided, with new confidence, that it was time to start reading herself at night. When she asked today could she read herself in bed, her mother gave her one of the Level 1 Ladybird 'Read it Yourself' books. The video below shows a snippet of her reading 'The Little Red Hen' largely unaided without having tried to read the book before.

Summing Up

This post hasn't set out to offer a recipe for how you can teach your child to write in 30 minutes. Rather, what I have tried to do is show an example of how fast progress can be for young readers and writers, if they have had rich literacy experiences in the preschool years, and when we seize on key teachable moments. In the day-to-day life of the home and school we need to look for opportunities to 'prod' children forward to take risks as learners. Once children do take such risks and experience success and encouragement, progress can be quite remarkable.


Coral said...

What a fabulous blog entry, Trevor. I just love it because I too, have seen this happen over short periods of time with some children. It's like watching a flower bud open and bloom...
I especially like the way you have detailed the 'steps' and included the samples within the event. Another of your blogs to share on FB.
Terrific 'real life' literacy learning.... Coral

Carolyn said...

You are a very clever girl Evie- I love your sentences :)
Miss C sends a big hug too :)

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments Coral and Carolyn. You're right Coral, it is like a bud opening and blooming. I also find the orchestra metaphor appropriate too. All the instruments are being tuned then suddenly they burst into a symphony. Of course, there are years of preparation before this happens. Thanks too Carolyn who I assume might just have been one of Evie's preschool teachers.