How Not to Learn to Write

Batman Note - An Everyday Story

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People always comment on how smart Jack (5.5 yrs) is; how maturely he speaks, how quickly he understands, how focussed he is, he must be a dream to teach, they say, ….

If I am being honest, it is difficult to hear this so often and not have it influence your attitudes. Unconsciously at first, I started to develop an idea in my mind; an idea of a smart child, what they could do, what they should be able to do.

It wasn’t until I caught myself thinking about Jack’s reading and writing (and his indifference towards both) that I realised I had created this persona of him; a persona which was completely external to who Jack actually was.

I have a smart kid, I thought. People keep telling me thatbut still Jack isn’t reading and writing…Surely a smart kid would be reading and writing by now!

If Jack was so smart, why couldn’t he write?!

Learning to read and write seem to be part of those foundation skills that we are all so desperate for our children to master. There seems to be a generally accepted age of 3-years-old to 6-years-old where children learn to read and write.

If our children learn when they are three or four then that’s fantastic, ….if however they are reaching six and still can’t read The cat sat on the mat, well then we start to get a little worried…. particularly when people keep telling you how smart your child is!

I was truly shaken to my core when I realised this construct; these expectations, which I had created.

Against everything I know about how children learn effectively, I found myself searching for reading and writing programs (most with ghastly worksheets) so Jack would learn to write and do it quickly!

Letterbox with Notes - An Everyday StoryI soon realised that these programs didn’t even make sense. They were so far removed from natural language. They didn’t convey reading and writing as an extension of speaking. They didn’t teach reading and writing as a way to communicate meaning.

They chose simple words for their readability (with no consideration of context) and drilled, some under the guise of games, but drilled none the less, these words into the child.

This was not how I wanted Jack to learn to read and write.

I cleared my mind of those nasty expectations. I saw Jack for who he is. Not an age group. Not a ‘late’ reader. Just Jack.

And so I backed right off and wouldn’t you know it, just like John Holt said and just like the teachers in Reggio Emilia know, Jack began to communicate his thoughts through words; his own words.

I did away with all notions of drills and worksheets. I made blank books for him to draw and create stories, I put an alphabet chart at his eye level and stuck another on his desk. Not to drill him but to give him independence in writing.

I added a little mailbox for swapping messages and writing letters. And I added a keyring of blank slips of paper for Jack to write the words which had the most meaning to him. Not cat, sat, mat, hat but Batman, Joker, Spiderman, Help! Ahhh! and many others.

Word Cards - An Everyday Story And the messages and the stories came. Little notes popped up in the mailbox and characters with speech bubbles filled the blank books.

Drawing Table - An Everyday Story Writing Notes - An Everyday StorySarah (3.5yrs) has also been inspired to write; copying her brother as she shows me what I knew all along, that writing is simply another way to communicate. And when we keep reading and writing firmly planted in meaningful context, allowing our children to create words and read words naturally, they start to discover for themselves the joy of putting their thoughts to paper.  No drills. No worksheets necessary.

This has definitely been a lesson in patience for this mama.


Jack’s little mailbox is from Sweet Elephants

The alphabet sticker is from Pascal Press. They come in a pack of 3o. Plenty to share round.



28 Replies to “How Not to Learn to Write”

  1. happywhimsicalhearts says:

    I think I understand how you feel about Jack’s reading and writing. The fact that introducing reading more formally comes later (grade 1 onwards) in Waldorf/Steiner education did make me a little nervous at first, especially when my son’s friends going to other schools started writing last year. And yet, in not starting it formally, he has come to it more naturally himself and will be busting to learn next year. He asks about letters and numbers and writes a little now (when he shows an interest we always go with it), and he is excited to learn. It helped me to remember that the focus of his earlier years at school has been to lay the foundations for reading and writing, through handwork, to strengthen his hands, and oral story telling, to strengthen his ability to form a story independent of writing (and so he can ‘live’ the words). You are doing a wonderful job, and are very inspiring. And the letterbox is adorable.

  2. This is wonderful! I so admire what you are doing.

  3. I think finding a reason to write is a big thing. I found my daughter is most interested in it when she is writing her own stories, cards, or when I let her write her own grocery list of what she wants to buy.

  4. Thanks for this. My son is 10 next week and still not a confident reader or writer, he can read much better then he believes he can. His writing is good as well, but again he believes it isn’t.

  5. beautifully written kate, and so open and heartfelt. i think its so easy to get caught up in the ‘milestones’ race.. at school and even at home as in some ways the pressure may be greater there to ‘keep up w the school kids’. even knowing that in parts of europe they dont even teach literacy till 7/8 (and have much better results!), its hard to stay out of the race. i love you how examined your feelings and got back to your wonderful convictions of letting him lead the way. he is doing wonderfully. lily didnt even start kindy till 5.5 years so it also shows the range of school starting age (when they are expected to jump into literacy). jack is doing wonderfully and i love the keyring of meaningful words to him! perfect 🙂 wonderful encouraging post xx

  6. What a wonderful post! I think you are so right. We need to stop comparing our kids to outside expectations and just provide opportunities for them to grow.

  7. I was thinking about your post today and remembering when I was in primary school, it was mostly drills and testing. It took me ages to get basic maths skills, I was terrible at handwriting but thankfully I learned to read before I got to school (there are a lot of people in our area who label themselves ‘dyslexic’ who went to our school and dropped out early). I think there would be a lot of people in my generation (40!) who would know others who never learned to read much or do much maths despite all the drills and tests and ‘traditional education’.

    My daughter has learned to read through her interests (I also write down words which she chooses) and I am holding off on any writing instruction whatsoever. I have noticed though that she has begun pseudo-writing naturally like your daughter does (mine is also 3), she had a pretend post office the other day and was addressing a lot of letters, she also tends to ‘write’ signs.

  8. This is right on!

  9. lydia purple says:

    thank you for sharing, this is so timely and inspiring as always. I recently started getting caught up in some expectations after my daughter already did get started naturally on writing at 3.5 y and it has slowed down a bit now at 4.5. I started to think how to make her do more writing in a systematic way, how to teach her all the alphabet… I’m going to drop that thought right now! but I’m so going to steal the keyring idea. she has lots of other letters available (stamps, a movable alphabet, floor puzzle, alphabet chart, magnets, foam letters, stickers, a notebook i found for early writers that has the alphabet on top of each page, few lines to write on and the rest of the page blank to draw or write… i encourage her to use it to write and draw words of things that she wants to remember).

  10. You’ve inspired me to make a mailbox! and a keyring of words, love it! Thank you:)

  11. Beautifully said Kate. You are spot on. Kids learn differently and at their own paces. Learning to read and write is so much more powerful when children have a purpose.

  12. Thanks Kate, a great reminder that true learning comes from a place of exploration, encouragement, and connection to ones own interests & motivations.

  13. My son Jack is also 5 and a half, and he doesn’t read or write either although he is interested. It is so easy to feel pressured into hastening the proces, luckily where we live (Belgium) schools only start the ‘formal’ reading and writing in first grade (+ 6), so people here tend to have a more relaxed view about it (in comparison with for example US). For us, I see that reading a lot and having books available is nurturing a genuine interest in stories and language. Just recently Jack asked me how to write the names of the characters of his favorite book, I wrote him the names on a piece of paper and he got so excited and got to work with such concentration and he was so proud when he finished. Then the experimentation began, he switched letters, asked what word he made, it must have felt like magic for him :). And that is what all those worksheets (and don’t get me started on those beginners reading books that have no content at all) and programs can never offer, a meaningful way of learning. So don’t worry Kate, I am sure we are on the right track with our boys!

  14. Hello from Finlad! Here kids go to school at seven years old, and that is when they are officially taught to read and write. Of course many learn it earlier by themselves, but here it always seems to make parents a bit worried. “Now my kid can read all the headlines on tabloids!” It’s amazing how differently people there seem to view this subject.

  15. Hi Kate.
    I have been following you for quite a while and thank you for sharing your lives and experiences with us all.
    It could be a good exercise to read some of Steiner’s lectures about writing and reading. He advises to introduce them when the brain is ready for it rather than forcing it to a brain that does not quite make the connections and comprehend the meaning of it. He says that at 7 it all comes so naturally and easily and kids are so keen on doing it. There are other things in the brain and body development that needs to be in place before that. If you are interested you can read more about it by studying neuroscience. Till 7, impressions of experiences and relationships are the way we learn. Higher cognitive functions are ready later.

  16. This has been the first time I’ve seen someone come up with such a simple plan that works for your child. I agree wholeheartedly and can see this being very helpful for my 6 yr old who up till now has loved to write, but hated to read. Feeling the pressure to accomplish something, while needing my help has made her feel pushed into a corner. Thank you for these great tools!!!

  17. Francis E. Whitford says:

    When our children were young, I would put them on my shoulders and walk around. I taught them sight words by reading the signs. They developed a beginning vocabulary.

    1. I think this is how Jack and Sarah are learning too; very naturally. Jack has a much larger vocabulary of written words than I realised since I have started to focus on words which interest him. I feel a lot more confident now that his reading and writing is developing at a very natural pace, the pace it needs to be.

  18. I love this – especially your keyring of HIS words! Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks Stacey. I had been struggling with how to approach reading and writing but it seems to be coming together now. His keyring of words has really inspired a lot of writing. We’ve added quite a few now and some phrases too. The other night I heard him trying to read one of his books in bed; carefully sounding out each word, it was so heart-warming.

  19. Absolutely perfect Kate, THIS is how all children should learn to read and write. For some it will happen at a rapid pace but for others it will be a gradual build. The thing that matters thought is that it’s authentic. When it means something to them AND it is their own work and ideas it will happen.
    Can’t wait to see what Jack fills those little blank books with 🙂

  20. Love ideas will try with my four yr old sure my three yr old twins will too. Agree children learn different levels and too much is expected frm them now.

  21. WOW!!! I actually never thought of this, but its very inspirational. My 3 almost 4 year old is a very outgoing girl and very talkative at times. So I thought because she love to be read to she should start writing aswell. Especially because she starts pre-k next year. So I bought her “writing” paper, books and everything I could so she could start, but now I see why she isn’t as excited. I know see that I should allow her to let her creativity flow and let her learn the best way she knows. Thank you for this great advice.

  22. Amazing post… I will surely get a key ring of her favorite words she knows and maybe use some characters SHE enjoys, & mimic this plan. I am soo inspired by your post. Thank you for sharing your experience ;D

  23. I just discovered your blog and am loving your approach to homeschooling. After recently registering our daughter for kindergarten I’ve begun to have doubts about this major decision. I have decided to really explore the option of homeschooling which led me here. This post, in particular, reaffirms my decision. We too had a similar experience with reading and writing. My daughter, who is also very bright, suddenly had no interest in reading or writing. For a while I pushed her along. On paper, she had all “tools” she needed in order to read. She had long mastered letter sounds, she understood that letters are put together to make words, she could easily break words down to phonemes, she knew many sight words, but she fought me like crazy insisting that she could not read. Finally I realized that I was placing an arbitrary time table of her learning how to read before kindergarten. She so easily picked up the the basics of language that I thought she would continue moving along that trajectory and easily be reading by age 5. When I finally realized how silly I was being, I backed off with reading and writing lessons all together. After about 3 months of nothing she suddenly began reading full books and writing sentences out of nowhere! All along I’ve been an advocate of following her lead, but expectations can get the best of us sometimes. I’m glad I had this experience, however, and for your reminder as well that children learn things when they are ready. We just need to give them the space and the support to do it their way. This is why I want to be able to guide my children’s learning in all areas. Thanks so much for this excellent resource!

  24. I am so glad to have found your site. Even though my children are grown and I have teenaged grandchildren, I am so endeared to your insightful approach to your children’s “education.” John Holt is one of my heroes and when we started homeschooling in the 1980’s, his publications were our mainstay. You are implementing so many effective strategies with your children. Thanks so much for telling your beautiful stories!

    1. Thank you so much Carolyn. John Holt is one of my heroes too 🙂 His writings really have had such a profound influence on the way we homeschool.

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