“Journal writing”—an activity offered by whole language proponents as the way to stimulate “authentic” writing in children. The idea is that when children are given the opportunity to express themselves, their writing and their development will flower.
Its rich promises and appealing rhetoric have led it to its wide adoption. So classrooms across the nation start off with a daily, or near daily, exercise where children are asked to write on a topic of their choosing.
Like other activities from the whole language approach, it is grounded in the best of intentions. The reality, regrettably, is quite different. Writing, unlike speaking, does not flow easily. Aside from having to mobilize a host of handwriting and spelling skills (no mean feat for young children), you need to consciously think about what you are going to say. All this makes the process slow and demanding. The end result is many children start to resist writing—a resistance that is expressed via a range of counterproductive patterns such as keeping the writing to as few words as possible or repeatedly writing on the same topic. In other words, the outcomes run directly counter to the flourishing of writing abilities that the activity was supposed to foster.
At the same time, journal writing is now a fixture of the primary grades. Regardless of its negative effects, it’s not likely to be dislodged. So that leaves committed parents to figure out how to help their children cope with this ever-recurring writing exercise.
Some of the key problems stem from the anxiety that children experience when given the direction to “write about anything you want.” One productive pathway out of the difficulty involves offering a mini-curriculum that structures the amorphous quality that characterizes the children’s experience. The key elements in this mini-curriculum are as follows:
1. Sit down with your child and together select four to five areas in his or her life that lend themselves to discussion. They can be “weekend activities, sports, food, shopping, pets, friends” or other comparable categories that represent familiar terrain to your child. Put each as a heading on separate sheets of paper –so that the endless world of possible topics is now contained within a few, clearly perceived, categories.
2. Then, again in writing, show your child a three part format, or template, that can be applied to any topic in any of the categories. For example, a format might include the following:
a. background information (e.g., let’s say that the category is pets and under that category, the topic is “a new pet joining the family” The background information might be “I have always wanted a pet, but until now, we have not had any pets in our family.”)
b. the key idea in raising this particular topic (e.g., continuing the idea of a new pet, the writing then moves onto something like the following: “Now my wish has come true. We just got a puppy. Her name is …..”
c. a judgment about the specific issue (e.g., “I am so happy with my new pet. She is even nicer than I thought she would be.”)
3. In the initial sessions where you fill in the format, you do most of the creating and composing. This is all done via speaking –rather than writing. It’s useful if you provide the beginning of each sentence (e.g., “I have always wanted ….”) and then allow your child to offer words that complete the idea.
4. Once the sentence is complete, move from speaking to writing by having your child write down the construction you have jointly created. The physical act of writing can be draining for a young child and that takes attention away from the effort needed to formulate ideas. By having your child write a sentence that has already been created, he or she can focus solely on developing smooth handwriting. The more practice your child has in handwriting that does not simultaneously involve composing ideas, the easier the physical component becomes.
5. Continue the steps above until all the sentences have been completed.
6. Have your child read the completed composition. After that, turn the paper over and ask him or her to re-write the text from memory. The writing does not have to be a perfect replication of what you did together, but it should contain all the key ideas. If your child encounters difficulties, turn the paper back so that he or she can review the ideas. Then once again, remove the writing from view and have your child continue on.
7. Over a number of sessions, repeat the above with a topic from each of the four to five categories you have selected (e.g., shopping for a bike; a play date with a friend, etc.). With each new topic, gradually transfer more and more of the composing to your child.
The mini-curriculum achieves a number of goals. The categories restrict the seemingly endless range of possibilities to a manageable set. At the same time, they are varied enough to enable a child to write on a variety of topics. The formats serve a similar purpose. They organize the seemingly endless array of possible ideas to a manageable set. At the same time, their organization fosters a rich set of ideas. It does take some time to put the curriculum in place. But it is well worth the effort. Within a few weeks, you are likely to be amazed at the progress—progress that includes your child becoming an independent writer who no longer has to rely on your help.