I'm used to the funny looks I get when I tell people that I'm a dyslexic writer. There's always a pause, then a pained look, as they try to process what they perceive to be an oxymoron. On one hand, their concern is justified. I still spell at a third-grade level, I still confuse words that look alike, and I struggle with grammar. But all that doesn't matter because those things are not writing. The reality is that writing has little to do with spelling and grammar, but is more about ideas, emotions, and finding a way to express oneself. The problem is, most people are never taught to see writing this way. We're taught that crossing our t's and dotting our i's are what it means to be a good writer. We're taught that good handwriting is the gatekeeper to good prose. Lastly, most kids are told that there's one way to approach writing; they're told to just sit down and do it. Kids are very rarely taught to develop an authentic and individualized approach to the writing process.
As with all things in this business of study skills and education, individualizing our approach to writing is the key to success. However, before you can take any active steps towards empowering your child to do so, there are some intangible elements of writing that you have to understand and actively address with your child. The following are four principles you should keep in mind whenever you think about writing.
Principle 1: Writing is an Emotionally Loaded Act
Before you can truly begin to create an individualized writing process for your child, you have to help him understand that writing is an emotionally loaded act for many kids. Most kids were taught that their ability to write well (or in my case, not so well) made them smart or stupid. Writing is right up there with reading as the number one way schools rank intelligence. Unfortunately, what is emphasized at an early age with writing is not ideas, creativity, or intellectual, but one's ability to master the technical elements like handwriting and spelling. It's imperative that you tell your child from day one that the technical elements of writing have nothing to do with intelligence. Help him understand that ideas are what really matter and you will work together on the form. Lastly, tell your child that writing does not make him smart or stupid; it's just a way to communicate, no better or worse than speaking, dancing, or drawing.
Principle 2: Kids are Taught to Dumb Down Writing
Most children lose their authentic writing voice in school because they dumb down their writing in fear of making mistakes. As a result of natural developmental stages (kids acquire spoken language implicitly and written language explicitly), most kids have a huge discrepancy between their verbal skills and their writing ability. In essence, they have words in their minds that they could never spell. But in school, correct spelling is valued more than getting one's true vocabulary on the page. As a result, many kids don't write what is actually in their minds, but dumb-downed versions so they don't make mistakes. Over time, kids learn that this dumb-down version is all they can do, and so they stop trying to write what is in their heads and lose their voice as writers. The way to stop this process is simple. Help your child understand how and when this may have happened to her, tell her it was wrong, and at home create an environment where mistakes are OK and essential to the process of writing. Lastly, if you're working with a student who has a huge difference between her vocabulary and her ability to spell, try for a while using a dictation method for writing.
Principle 3: Writing is Difficult Because of Intelligence
Many students struggle with writing, not because of a lack of intelligence, but for the exactly the opposite reason: their thoughts are too complex. For example, some students experience their thoughts like a movie, in three dimensions. Some experience the world and think in more physical terms. Others' minds are moving at thousands of miles a minute and their pens can't keep up. The problem is that writing is inherently logical and linguistic, but is at best a two-dimension medium. In this sense, writing is difficult not because your child doesn't have enough ideas, but in fact because their ideas and way of thinking are too complex and different for writing. This is a radical re-framing of why writing is hard, and helping your child understand this takes the blame off your child, allowing him to see writing in a more objective way.
Principle 4: The Writing Process Has an Explicit Structure
Helping your child understand that writing has an explicit structure and process is the most import step towards empowering her to become a good writer. Many kids see writing as some quasi-magical act, when in fact there is a specific structure and process. Help your child understand that writing consists of idea generation, outlining, getting the words on the page, and rewriting. There is freedom in understanding this, because when the idea of writing overwhelms your child, you can defer to this structure and break the writing process down into more manageable parts.
With those four principles in mind, now it's time to create an individualized writing process for your child. Here's what to do next:
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