Here’s an uncomfortable fact: the far-too-many young children who cannot write by the end of foundation phase are not getting what they need from the places where they spend their time and the adults with whom they spend their time.
Most little ones start off as tireless investigators. They observe, listen to and imitate people. They are cultural explorers, learning by transforming life into play and creating vivid stories which they tell and act out alone and with others. Oral language is the thread that weaves together all they know and bring with them to school.
So what goes wrong at school when learning to write? Where does the effortless learning ability go which enables children to learn to talk so easily?
Could it be we interrupt their efficient learning flow through rigid methods and exercises because we have forgotten that writing and reading are also language? The essence of all language for children is the real stuff of being human – communicating and expressing what is important to us. But how can young children learn this if they experience writing at school as the production of arduous rows of squiggles and shapes, without doing anything exciting or interesting with them? Or learning to spell words without conjuring up the enticing magic that words can weave? Or facing spelling lists of “high frequency” words, dry and dull, rewarded only by the next list?
Here is the heart of the issue: in the same way that learning to speak involves a gradual move from technically immature attempts at oral communication to conventional ones, learning to write involves a gradual move from technically immature attempts at written communication to conventional ones.
Babies could not learn to speak without layered demonstrations of why and how we speak involving interactions with people using speech. Imagine the deeply complex neurological, mechanical and physical work done by a baby to manipulate her facial muscles, tongue, lips and vocal chords to learn to produce sounds that gradually become conventional speech.
Equally complex processes happen when learning to write.
But we don’t have to focus solely on these, or perfect them, before we use writing for meaningful reasons. Practice comes through use. Presenting the early basics only, or mainly as phonemes and letters, destroys children’s incipient writing voice.
Let’s tell children: “What you say can be written down and then read.” Show them how we do it, using emotionally satisfying language, and ask them: “What would you like to say?”
Let’s read them stories in languages they understand to show writers as real people.