Writing is another of those basic skills that many parents are wary about not teaching when they are exploring unschooling. Let’s look again at the bigger communication picture from the Learning to Read Without Lessons post:
It’s true that reading and writing are useful skills to develop—they are opposite sides of the written communication coin. Yet precisely because of that, children living in the world will bump up against them frequently. They will encounter real life reasons to learn them, which is both more motivating than just a parent or teacher telling them they should, and more effective for real learning because as they learn they’ll be actively using those developing skills to reach their own goals.
Just as there are real reasons to figure out reading, there are real reasons for writing. Not for gold stars, not for marks, but to communicate. And again, school’s need to develop these skills at early age is a direct result of their reliance on written communication. Most young kids prefer actively playing and playing and playing. And if that is their preference, that’s how they are learning the most about themselves and the world around them.
A child’s need for written communication skills often doesn’t surface until a few years later as their world begins to expand beyond the people that immediately surround them. Their parents no longer have all the answers to their questions. Maybe their interests expand beyond their local reach and they want to communicate with those further afield who share their passion. They want to read to gather more information; they want to write to ask questions of others or share their own knowledge. Or share their stories. Or communicate socially with others. As their world expands there are so many real reasons and opportunities to write.
But before we dig into that, let’s take a quick side trip and look at the physical act of handwriting. At school, having legible handwriting is important. When homework and written test papers are misinterpreted or unreadable, marks are lost. And when marks are lost, grades are lower. But when you step outside the structure of school, is handwriting nearly as important a skill? In the bigger picture, what are they trying to accomplish? Communication that persists over time. The method that produces that communication is much less relevant.
In today’s world, communicating electronically has become ubiquitous. Typing has moved beyond secretaries and writers to a skill that benefits most people. The only handwriting I’ve done the last few years is for my own use—I’d be lost without my lists!—though even those could be managed electronically if that were my preference. Still, if a person comes across a need to communicate with another through handwriting and that communication is breaking down because of difficulty reading the messages, that’ll be great motivation to write more legibly. When there is a need, there is internal motivation and receptiveness to helpful information—there is real learning. Or, the pharmacist will just call the doctor’s office to confirm the prescription details. 😉
My eldest son learned to type well in a couple of weeks because he wanted to communicate with others in an online game. If you’ve read the article about my daughter’s reading journey, you may have noticed that she was writing out interesting scenes from the Harry Potter books. Instead of reading assigned books and writing essays about them, unschooling kids find real reasons to write, reasons that make sense to them in the course their days and motivate them to do it reasonably well. They discover that a successful act of communication is dependent upon how well the recipient understands the written message. They discover that there are different levels of written formality depending on the situation.
And remember that when they’re engaged in real written conversation and communication they’re engaged with another person—maybe in real time, through text or chat, maybe a bit delayed through message boards and forums, or maybe over even longer periods of time through books, magazines, and websites. Communication is not a solitary act. Learning about writing doesn’t start from scratch when they first decide to give it a shot; they have been seeing it in action over the years when they read, or are read to. The reading that inspires them to respond is also a guideline for how to respond.
I mentioned my eldest son’s typing skills developing through online gaming. His interest in communicating with others who were as deeply interested in role-playing video games as he was, led him to online forums and message boards. There he lurked at first—just reading and getting a feel for the tone and expectations of the community. He noticed the kinds of written communication that worked most successfully; meaning the posts that he found interesting, the ones that helped him learn more about the topic. He noticed that spelling, grammar, and punctuation made a difference in how well the poster’s message came across.
When he eventually chose to start posting, he wanted his communication to be clear so incorporating those language conventions were definitely key components of his writing style. There is also immediate feedback through the replies: if what he was saying was misunderstood, that’s a clue; if there were no replies, that’s a clue. Real communication. And you’re around to answer their myriad of questions, like “Why does this guy always post stuff he knows is going to make people mad?” More learning about the interesting nuances of written communication that lie beyond the mechanics.
Or maybe they start by copying stuff they love (like my daughter and Harry Potter) and progress to adding their own ideas (she moved on to writing some fan fiction). When she was looking for feedback she posted her stories on an online fan fiction forum. Eventually she started writing stories about her own worlds. Sometimes handwritten, sometimes typed—always communicating. In her early teens her story-telling process became visual: photography. Nowadays she’s learning about the language and communication style of contracts and working with clients.
For my youngest at the moment, written communication is mostly about social interaction. Yet even from his texts to me I can see he is particular about grammar and punctuation. And even if not, that would be perfectly okay too. It’s about the individual, it’s about noticing what is interesting to *them* because that’s where the useful learning is.
Life, if lived actively and open to opportunities, gives everyone the chance to learn the skills that best help them follow their unique path through it—written communication included. The wonderful thing is that unschooling kids have the time to explore, the time to find the things that interest them and develop those skills that will be uniquely helpful in their lives; instead of spending a significant portion of their childhood in a classroom, disconnected from life and trying to learn skills others think they might eventually need.
How can you help? Be open with your kids about your communication forays in the world. Did you write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper? Or participate in an interesting discussion in an online forum? Or receive a particularly stilted form letter in the mail that made you laugh? Share these moments with your kids. Not with any expectations of a response, but because they are interesting bits of communication in the world. Share share share. Living and learning together.