Friday, 1 September 2017

Storytelling Should Come Before Writing

Writing is something I have been giving a lot of thought to this year.  In my discussions with a range of teachers and principals this year, the one thing that comes through is that writing levels are a concern.  Particularly in Year 3 and 4 with many of our struggling children being boys.

Part of my reflection this year has been on this, why?  Why do some children struggle to get started with writing, why does it become hard, and why are boys in particular struggling?

I believe there are several components here that need to be dealt with separately.  Very briefly these things include:

*Fine motor skills, if holding and using a pencil is an issue for me, then I am not going to want to write, it will be hard for me, and that will be a major barrier to my progress.  These fine motor skills need to be addressed early on.  We need to look at each child individually and assist them each to develop these skills.  Fine motor schools can be linked to hand and arm strength.  Some children will need some specific activities to grow their abilities in this area.  Imagine trying to write if your fine motor skills and hand strength were a real area of difficulty for you?  I compare it to typing skills.  How easy is it for you to create a word document quickly if your typing skills hold you back?  Is it fun, is it a quick process, or is it something you need frequent breaks form or causes you great frustration?  Is it something you choose to do?

The good news is a lot of these fine motor skills and activities to grow hand strength can be incorporated through play. It is also no surprise to me that it is often boys that lack these early motor skills, or hand strength.  Along with balance and crossing over these can be huge barriers.

There are many awesome resources on youtube that give great ideas for assisting with the development of these skills.

*Awareness of the code and phonemic awareness.  
Children need specific phonics teaching, for many, their foundation in phonics is the barrier.  Spending a lot of time going over the very basic short/dominant letter sounds is a real benefit to children.  They need to be explicitly shown that the letter is just a symbol for the sounds that we can hear.  There is a strong connection here to the acquisition of mathematics here.  Encouraging children to see patterns, shape, make their own patterns etc will directly help their understanding of letters and numbers.
  I believe we need to be wary about how early we introduce more complicated blends etc, and once again this needs to be approached on an individual level.  Confusing some children by moving on too quickly is one of the biggest mistakes we can make. Once children understand that the letter is just a symbol for a sound, they can start to see how words are just these sounds joined together.  Understanding of rhyme is vitally important as well and this needs to be woven through and checked individually.

*Vocab, this is one of the biggest barriers,  If you do not have the words to describe what you are trying to say, how on earth can you write it down?  Once again a play-based class is the perfect place to learn about my world out loud and to have loads of opportunities to talk.

So that is just a cursory summary of some of the things that I believe are barriers for the writing progress.  
Writing is an intricate and complicated process and very sadly sometimes we fail to see how complicated this process is for children and don't allow them the time they need to put all of these skills or understandings together.  It is easy for some, it seems to come naturally, yes, because these children have those early foundation skills in place, in essence they are writing ready.

In my opinion this is where play-based learning comes to the fore, by its very nature play-based learning allows us the time to get to know children very well at a foundation level, it allows us to provide them with invitations to develop these skills and it allows us to give them the time to grow these skills before they associate them with barriers to writing.

Getting back to the point of my post.  Storytelling. 

Sadly we have come to believe that by writing daily, children will somehow miraculously make progress.  That by sitting down, scribing a story ourselves, even giving them a sentence starter, or scribing something for them to copy, they will make the link to their own writing.  

The reality is if children do have the foundation skills in place that are listed above, they will.  If they don't, they wont.  The danger here also is that children will begin to believe that "I went to the beach" is a quality piece of writing. They will repeat this over and over again because it is what they know, often they struggle to move past this stage.

The reality is that the children with these foundation skills in place will acquire the writing process and develop their own understandings without us deliberately setting aside time in our day.  From what I have seen, these children will find pleasure in writing because they understand it is a way they can convey a message and will actually spend far more time writing than we would have ever allotted.  They will make signs, posters, write letters, copy from books, make cards....they will use writing for an authentic purpose.

Even more alarming is that many children by being 'forced' to write in an allotted time, will begin to see writing as 'hard' early on, this is a barrier we will struggle to remove for them, but one that I believe is easy to prevent if we really think about writing as the complicated process that it is and allow for this in our classrooms.

In my programme I allow for the foundation skills through my daily activities, I don't present them to children as writing, but allow them to build up these skills without ever attaching any difficulty to the writing process.  I do however explicitly show them how these skills will help them with their writing.  When we do have a formal writing session (once a week) I make sure that the children who do not have these foundation skills yet, just draw a picture and talk about their story out loud.

In my opinion the beginning of writing in our junior rooms should be about and through storytelling...

I always begin our year with writing through pictures.  All we do is talk about our picture.  I teach my children that the writing that they see me write down, is just they way I can record my picture, so that I can create a picture in the reader's head.

We spend a lot of time just telling stories out loud.  

I use little videos like this, to show how storytelling happens out loud and can be done through pictures, long before we turn it into words.

The more time we can spend talking about ideas, the better.  I do show them what it looks like written down, but if they are not quite up to that yet, that is ok.  If they ask me to write a word for them to copy, I do.  

I wanted to share with you a fun session we had the other day, that was writing, but perhaps not quite as you'd know it :)

We started off by everyone having a blank piece of paper.  I told them I had written a story down, that I was going to read each sentence and I wanted them to draw my idea onto their paper. 

I started reading my story, one sentence at a time.

1)One day I went to the beach.  (children drew me at the beach)
2)The sun was shining in the sky.  (the children drew a sun)
3.) I saw three little fish swimming in the sea. (the children drew the fish)
4) Beside me was a sandcastle with a flag on the top.  (they drew the sandcastle with the flag)
5)In the sky were three wispy clouds.  (they drew the clouds)
6) I was startled by a crab scuttling along the sand. (they drew the crab.)

You get the the end I turned my paper over and showed them it was blank.  I told them that my story had been in my head, and now it was on their paper, because words paint a picture in the listener or readers head.  These words can be written down into a story.  I showed them what it would look like written down.

We took some time to retell my story.

That was it.  

Next time we will draw our own pictures to tell a story from these.  Some will go away and write the story down, some won't.

The idea here is that children start to see the role extra detail plays in stories, long before they are up to that level in writing.  This will mean that when they can write, their stories will hopefully be much more than, "I went to the beach."

Ultimately I think to deal with the current struggle children have with writing, we have to slow down.  We have to understand how complicated this process is and break it down into its parts.

Don't expect children to do, what their current foundation skills don't allow them to do.   Help them have a growth mindset, but allow them to go at their pace.  Understand that by allowing children to acquire writing in this way, we can prevent barriers being put up.

Storytelling is what cultures are based on, it came long before written symbols.  Therefore it is the logical place to start when we are 'teaching' children to write.

In my opinion anyway :)

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