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  • Writer's picturecathybelgrave

Writing as Communication

With our culture's focus on academic achievement, we often forget that writing is a means of communication. At school, the curriculum has specific markers - learning one's ABC's, printing one's name, spelling, grammar, critical thinking to interpret and analyze literary text. There is such a swirl of curricular competencies to be met that the child is often lost in the multitude of these academic objectives. We ask children to understand and respond in particular ways, express themselves within templates that help us assess their progress. We ask them to be imaginative, descriptive while at the same time attending to spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Looking at it from the child's perspective, this can be overwhelming. Does the adult want me to share my ideas, or do they want correct spelling? Is my content important or is it about length and word count? Oh wait, they want both, now I don't know what to do. As the child gets lost in these requirements, they begin to lose their sense of self-expression and can become a blocked writer. Imagine how you would feel if you were asked to share your thoughts and ideas and then have someone attach a grade to them. Another alternative is to become a formula writer. These children learn very quickly that the adult is looking for a specific response or way of responding so they develop a 'recipe' for producing what is required. They are able to answer the question, produce the required evidence etc. but we may never discover what they truly think about the topic or if they even feel the topic is relevant to their lives. The opportunity for authentic communication is lost.

So, what can we do? I feel the key lies in bringing it back to relationship - relationship with the child, relationship with the materials. If as adults we can slow down, be present and observe what the child is sharing, we will gain great insights about what they are observing, how they are interpreting their observations, and how they are representing these interpretations. With presence, we can receive their communication.

Slow down, acknowledge the wonderful human before you

From an early age, children become fascinated with mark making. Crayons, pencils, markers, paint all invite an exploration of line - and so early literacy begins. If we slow down and watch a child as they explore mark making, we will initially see the child discovering that they can make a change to the blank paper before them. From there they develop intentionality and we will often see a deep concentration as they create. Over time these intentional marks become a representation of something observed. The child will announce, "Look, I made our car", and present a series of scribbles. This association often brings on high production, the repetition of mark making as the child explores this process of communication more deeply. As parents our fridge can get overcrowded! Often we throw many of these creations away because the shear volume somehow diminishes their meaning for us. What if we kept them? What if we looked closely over time and noticed the changes and growth? What if we saved them, bringing them out when our child is frustrated with writing in grade 3? What if we pointed out the growth over time and acknowledged that they are in a new growth process? What if we saw writing as a process?

Think content over mechanics

In grade school, writing becomes more and more about correct spelling, organization, punctuation. Yes conventions are important, but they can compromise content. I often observe children writing a story and stopping their imaginative process to find the correct spelling of a word. When they do this, they sometimes lose their idea. The idea is lost because they are trying to move back and forth between different parts of the brain. What if they focused on getting their ideas out first? Natalie Goldberg has some rules of writing that we can use with children: keep your hand moving, go with your first thoughts, if you don't like a sentence, don't scratch it out, make the next one better, you don't need to be perfect. Spelling, punctuation etc. can always be dealt with later. Having a mindset of writing as communication, opens up a space for us to read a child's writing as a communication to us. It opens a space for us to talk with children about their thoughts, to explore with them their ideas, and to play with different ways of communicating those ideas.

The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard. ~ William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830

Conversation is valuable

By high school we are using words like literary analysis, theme, literary devices. The weighted words of essay and university emerge. This is where conversation becomes invaluable. During the pandemic when online learning was necessary, students repeatedly told me that they missed the discussions they usually had in class. They missed the sharing of observations, interpretations, the moments of differing opinions and debates. They missed the human connection, the relationships that supported their critical thinking and writing. Through conversations, children can explore concepts before committing them to the page. They have the opportunity to play, bring in personal experiences, observations about our world events and make connections. As we explore through conversation, we need a neutrality and acceptance of differing opinions - a way of having constructive conversations, a way of finding common ground as we disagree. So what does this have to do with writing? It comes back to relationship. Through relationship with each other, children are able to have a deeper relationship with literature. Conversation can support understanding the author's intent, the author's use of language to communicate the important ideas and truths about human nature that they want us to know. Conversation can be a way of processing, organizing ideas that can transfer to written communication. I've noticed that after productive conversations, ideas become more crystallized, more easily organized and there is a focus to the written communication. Not to diminish the importance of paragraph and essay structure, but if we can build relationships with each other and the literature, we have a strong foundation to build upon, the writer has more clarity about what they want to communicate. Through attentive relationships the child feels seen, heard, valued and experiences a sense of trust and safety needed for any form of communication or self expression.

So in a nutshell, within a factory model of education, we can slow down, be present, listen carefully, appreciate the relationships we have with children. Reading children's writing with a mindset of writing as communication can allow us to see how much children know, how deeply they observe the world around them, and how aware they are of human nature.


Natalie Goldberg ~ Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Lifestyle (1990)

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