Teaching Young Children To Write

May 14, 2014 in Education


For many parents, simply the title of this article is enough to strike fear into their hearts.


  • That hated high school subject.
  • The chore most dreaded following Christmas (WRITING those thank you notes!)
  • The most nebulous portion of the SAT (how DO they actually grade those essays?)
  • The college class we all put off until the last possible moment and yawned our way through.

Writing. Some say it can be learned. Other’s say it’s a gift. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, although leaning strongly toward the “learned” camp.  

In the new millennium, few people truly write. E-mail doesn’t count. Neither does your grocery list, or a note to get your kid out of gym class… no matter how creative your explanation of his sprained ankle is. Most of us don’t even write letters, much less memoirs, or articles or books. Most of us sit down at a computer, or stare at a blank paper and ask the same question we asked in tenth grade: “What do I write?” Or, we know what we want to write, but are disappointed with the end product because we lack the mechanics as well as the art to really do our ideas justice. It is difficult.

It is bad enough to struggle with one’s own writing. It is entirely another thing to, with great fear and trepidation, try to teach our children to write. It is one of the most frequently asked questions. One of the greatest concerns of home educators:  HOW can I teach my child to do this terribly difficult thing that I myself find mortally painful and am only marginally successful at? The answer, is blessedly simple. I call it the three Rs (no, not those 3Rs) They are as follows:

Relax, Read, Respond.

Of course, this is a highly simplified version, but it will carry you quite a long way.

The first, most necessary thing, is for parents to take a deep breath, and relax. 

If your children see that you are terrified of this and that you think it is the hardest thing ever, they will adopt your attitude and you’ll all be miserable.

  • STOP looking at what curriculum everyone else is using. 
  • STOP freaking out about what kind of assignments your child is NOT completing  

START engendering positive feelings about writing in yourself and working towards a “print rich environment,” as the professional educators among us would call it. 

Attitude is everything.  Relax.  You can do this.

Next, read.  Read, read, read, READ to your children. 

If you’re pregnant with #1 read to her.  If you’ve got ten around the dinner table, read to them. Whether they are toddlers and it’s picture books or they’re middle aged kids and it’s Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare or whether they’re young adults and it’s the Wall Street journal for dinner time debate. Read to one another.

Short on time to read? Audiobooks are a great option!

This is perhaps the single biggest factor in teaching a child to write. Why? Because it is through reading that vocabulary is developed, that the differences in style between Mark Twain and E.B. White are appreciated, and that the flow of good language washes over the ears and into the hearts of young children.

Writing styles are not developed in a vacuum. A teacher cannot expect a child to find his voice, literarily speaking, if he has not first listened to the voices of many others. It is the same as teaching a toddler to speak. They listen for nearly two years before they find much to say for themselves. Why do we expect children who have not “listened” adequately to be able to “voice” themselves on paper?

Do not make the mistake of assuming that once your child is functionally literate and is reading “Captain Underpants” or some such pop-culture nonsense that your job as family reader is over.  It is our job as parents not only to direct the literary diet that the child himself consumes, but to continue to spoon feed him (with a persistent smile!) the good stuff as long as he’s under our roof.  Even adult children like to be read to… I know, I am one!

The third R is Respond. 

Having been read to in a relaxed environment, the child should, after a period of time, be asked to respond. This does NOT necessarily mean in writing.

  • A four year old can respond to a paragraph long passage from Aesop’s Fables by retelling the moral of the story. 
  • A seven year old can retell a whole chapter. 
  • A nine year old a whole book… if you have enough time to listen! 

The first response that ought to be required of a child is oral. Have your little children narrate (re-tell) what they have heard you read. Then ask them what they liked best and why. In this way they will parrot the style of the author, use new vocabulary in context and form a personal connection with the literature. Make it relaxed, light hearted, and fun.

When children get a little older, say seven or eight, they can begin writing short paragraphs. It is at this point that most kids start to cry, and some mothers too. The child, if he has been read to enough, will have lots to say and an active imagination… but the mechanics of writing will still be difficult. What’s a mom to do? Stand over the child and yell? Steal the joy of writing by making him rewrite fifteen times to dot all the Is and fix punctuation?

No!  It’s so much simpler… have the child tell you what he wants to write, you faithfully transcribe his words, and then, he copies it neatly into his writing book. In this way a child enjoys the creative aspect of writing. He learns proper form (by copying yours!) And he has none of the negative reinforcement of that dreaded red pen that haunts you to this day. A child who has narrated and then copied a paragraph into his notebook has authentically produced his own piece of writing, you’ve simply lifted the unmanageably heavy yoke of the mechanics from his shoulders so that he can “tell” to the best of his ability. The mechanics catch up, quite naturally and easily, if you are patient and persistent.

This approach should take you through the first several years. After fourth or fifth grade, the child will quite naturally start writing on his own, for fun, and at that point, you can begin a formal writing course if you want, without fear.

Until then, Relax, Read and allow your child to Respond. 

And also… RELAX!