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There are four reasons for writing:
- to learn how to write
- to demonstrate knowledge, such as in essays and reports
- to learn to write better, as in studying composition
- to write to learn
#4 is my favorite. Writing as a learning tools is a fantastic way to organize information, to synthesize information, and to create in kids a sense of ownership of what they’re studying.
When a child is about to tackle a new topic, he first needs to figure out what the main points about the topic are. I like to tell kids to first divide a topic into its two broadest sections, and then to keep splitting the sections, sort of like the way cells divide or the way you’d divide bread batter to make dinner rolls. So if my son was studying dogs, I would ask him questions to help him see that there are two major types of dogs: domestic and wild. I might ask him to think about where they live in the wild, maybe why we like keeping domestic dogs in our homes, what all of them eat, what they all need to live. These things confirm what a child already knows about dogs but also help him figure out where the holes are in his thinking. Then, once a child does think through the content he’ll organize it (see below), which fine-tunes his thinking even more. When a child is are, say, between 3rd-6th grade, have him write out good, strong, simple sentences about his topic, on actual paper, then cut them into strips and sort them by topic. “Here are the facts about their diet, here are the facts about their appearance,” etc. Since most kids are kinesthetic in this age range, this is helpful because it makes data “concrete.” Once the like-facts are assembled together he can organize them and create little “boxes” of information with them, aka., paragraphs. After he does this a few times with actual paper and scissors, he’ll be able to do it without them. But this is the kind of thinking we’re after.
Is there a highway junction in your city? If so, it’s a perfect word-picture to use to explain to your child all that his brain is doing while he’s studying. The brain is on track going somewhere, “on task,” we like to say, but there’s a hubbub of things going on around him and the brain has to stay on-course. As he works, he’s constantly processing what he’s reading in the book in front of him, but also sorting through the unrelated “stuff” around him like the math manipulatives that were left out, the background sound of the dryer, the tv that’s on in the back room, and so on. Add to this the subconscious activity, things like sitting positions, itches, or a rumbly stomach, or excitement over a soccer match scheduled for that afternoon, and you’ve got a lot to process. Scientists suggest that we are constantly processing several thousand bits of information at once. Here’s how writing comes to the rescue: writing keeps your child “in the moment.” A pencil moving across a paper or fingers scrambling around the keyboard are visual-kinesthetic pulls back to the task of learning. The physical activity keeps saying, non-verbally, “here’s why we’re here.”
Writing also creates a sense of ownership of the material. The process is dynamic, that is, it’s constantly in motion, where one thought leads to another and then another, creating a learning journey that is distinctly your child’s own; he designs it, crafts it, develops it, adds to it, takes things out of it, and then puts his name on it. It’s his. That’s also why he’s so offended when the feedback he gets on it is negative. It’s a celebration of new knowledge, and should be seen as such by everyone who reads the piece or hears it read to them.
As a teacher, it’s freeing to remember that every writing activity doesn’t need to be a writing lesson – and your child will thank you for that. Writing to learn is about having “fact finding missions” where he goes through books and websites and writes down facts in strong, simple, declarative sentences. This process, along with lots of encouragement from you, is an active, dynamic way to help your child organize information by subject, stay on topic, and to enable him at the end of the day to say, “yeah, I’ve got this.” That’s your big win.