The Limitations of Learning to Write at School
Homeschooling / Literacy / Unschooling

The Limitations of Learning to Write at School

The Limitations of Learning to Write at School

When I first started out on this homeschooling journey, I wondered how I would teach my children things like how to read and write. And how would I know where to start with maths? What order did I teach things in? So ingrained was this idea that school holds the key to education that I thought I would need some kind of step-by-step guide.

I thought that there was one correct way to learn how to write, i.e. maybe you practice all the letters first, get the stroke order and formation right, etc. It wasn’t until my children became interested in writing that I realised how naturally it evolved. They wanted to write to communicate certain things so they asked questions and I answered them. ‘How do you spell the?’, ‘What does a D look like?’, ‘Is the ‘uh’ sound in this word made by an a, u, or o?’ It was as simple as that. We haven’t sat down to practice letter formation or writing on the lines. We’ve never specifically practiced spelling, I only tell them how to spell a word if I’m asked. None of this process has seemed onerous. In fact, learning to write for them has been a joyous experience filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment for their own learning.

Seeing them learn to write naturally, has me questioning how things would have been different had they been in school. Would they still love to write? Or would it have become a chore? The way they are learning would simply not be allowed in school. Most likely they would have to write in lead pencil. They rarely choose to write in the traditional grey lead here. Instead they choose their favourite colour pencil, pen, texta, crayon, chalk, oil pastel, paint. Unless things have changed dramatically I doubt you have all of those options for writing at school. You might even need a ‘pen license’ before being allowed to write in pen! Someone please tell me this is not still a thing? Must we suck the fun out of everything?

The Limitations of Learning to Write at School

By now they would have to be forming all their letters in the ‘right’ way, i.e. doing the strokes in the correct order. I used to think this was necessary but have changed my mind. At first the girls formed the letters in the oddest ways! I wondered how to teach them to do it right and tried to interfere a few times before being swiftly told ‘that’s the way I like to do it!’ Fair enough. They were making sense of the letters themselves; which lines went where and how they connected; where was the easiest place to start. Slowly they began to form them in a more traditional way without me having to tell them at all. Still some letters they form differently to me but they end up coming out looking right and I wonder to myself, does it matter? The purpose of writing is to communicate, if the letters look right and I can read them, does it matter which way they wrote them? I don’t think so. They are working out the easiest way for them. My 6 year old even asked me once how to do ‘that joined up writing’ (cursive), so I expect when she wants to learn more about that her writing will evolve again anyway.

At this age they would have ‘spelling lists’ for homework. Lists of random words without context to memorise and write. Let the fun begin! I don’t see the point of my children learning lists of words. Instead, they write for a purpose. They want to write a letter to someone and they need to know how to spell things, so they ask. The want to write down an idea, label their drawings, make a treasure map, or a shopping list. They learn words in context and they remember them because it was meaningful to them. What if they had to write for someone else instead of themselves? What if their writing was evaluated and graded? How would that make them feel about writing? About themselves?

The Limitations of Learning to Write at School

Given that a huge chunk of their time would be taken up with school, the majority of time writing would be done at a desk. They often choose to write at the table now too, but they also write on the trampoline, sitting on the swing, at the top of the cubby house, lying on the grass, in bed, in the car, anywhere!

How would my children’s writing have developed differently had they been at school? Maybe they would be ‘ahead’ of where they are now. Maybe they would always get all their letters around the right way. Maybe they would know how to spell more words by this age. Maybe they would already write perfectly on the lines. But would they still love to write so much? Would they feel the same sense of achievement they feel now having done it themselves? I guess we’ll never find out.

I used to think all these limitations and rules were necessary. That experts knew how to teach writing, and that was the only way to learn. I was wrong. The limitations are unnecessary. You don’t need to control a child’s learning, yes even when it comes to reading and writing. They can learn their own way. Sure, not all schooled children will dislike writing, some will naturally love it. But putting constraints on how my children learn to write seems too risky to me. That love of learning is far too important and I don’t want to put it at risk.

The Limitations of Learning to Write at School

Comments

Jenny
November 17, 2015 at 12:50 pm

Thank you for this! My nearly-4-year-old girl is busy these days writing letters to her grandparents, and thankfully says out loud what she’s writing so when she asks me to read it back to her I can! But I have to really remember not to interfere because she responds by completely shutting down and walking away. I bought a workbook with letters to trace and just left it lying around, thinking she might enjoy trying it out for herself and without me even saying a word about it she flicked through it and declared she didn’t like it – she could tell that it was something trying to ‘teach’ her something. So your post is fantastic encouragement to keep the writing materials freely available and leave her to it until she asks.



November 17, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Hi,

Thank you for your new post. My LO just turned 4. I had the same questions in my mind. I thought the Day Care would be very helpful but seems that she just turned away and delays the “writing”. It seems like a task. I felt worried at first. Thank you for giving me ideas. I should buy more pens of different colors and leave them freely available. I will keep these lines in mind:
“I used to think all these limitations and rules were necessary. That experts knew how to teach writing, and that was the only way to learn. I was wrong. The limitations are unnecessary. You don’t need to control a child’s learning, yes even when it comes to reading and writing. They can learn their own way.”



November 17, 2015 at 11:47 pm

What an informative piece. Really enjoyed reading it. Thanks!



November 19, 2015 at 7:33 am

Love! We are unschooling too, and I am loving watching my eldest, 4, learn to write. We never push anything, but she’s really into it and likes to make lists and cards and things now and asks me to tell her how to spell things so she can write them down.

I love her handwriting, its such a wonderful eclectic mix of capitals and little letters and she dots her i’s with a great big bubble – I was thinking the other day just how glad I am she’ll be able to do that as long as she like! No punishments or making her conform 🙂

As ever, great post.

L x

L x



Marilyn Hayward
November 19, 2015 at 4:58 pm

I work with children aged 3 to 6 years of age at a school in South Australia and this is exactly what we believe. Our children draw, paint, write throughout the day as they engage in play with others. They make books and communicate their ideas through drawing and then begin attempting letters and words when they are ready. They choose to write in a variety of places, indoors and outdoors, lying down, sitting or standing. I wish other schools/educators would realize this and stop pushing children to reach a predetermined standard. How many children have been put off writing and reading and regard themselves as poor learners because they are pressured to write and read too early? Keep up the great work!



Emily
January 20, 2016 at 1:16 pm

Oh i nearly cried reading this amazing article!
My 7 year old boy can’t stand the formalities of school, he rushes to finish and craves approval from teachers, and there’s no joy or purpose to what he’s doing. I’ve just made the decision to start homeschooling and, like you were in the beginning, I’m daunted to think that I have to be their “educator”. I realise now that I don’t have to be that at all! I’ve got 3 kids aged 7,8, and 9, and the effects of being in school are already showing, sadly.
I can’t wait to explore more of your articles, I love how articulate you are and I especially love how much freedom you give your girls – they must be so happy!
Thank you so much
Emily



Lisa J
May 19, 2016 at 9:27 am

I love this! My son, at nearly 8, still holds his pen in a way that would drive schoolteachers insane, but when he wants to write a story he will write pages and pages. He also steals my laptop to write. I don’t know if he would want to write this much if it had been forced.



Louise
October 25, 2021 at 12:56 pm

So true! I was excited for high school because I would be able to write in pen (wow, what a privilege!). And now in schools creative writing isn’t creative- you draw a diagram of HOW the story goes (in my primary school English class, we had to draw that diagram every lesson. And if your story doesn’t fit the rather generic diagram, it’s marked wrong), then the teacher tells you WHAT to write about, and then you spend 5 weeks editing a 50 word story, and then you forget about it. Pointless. Not to mention you’re told exactly how to construct paragraphs. Creative writing isn’t creative anymore and non-fiction writing is either boring or not even touched upon. Any other form of writing is completely neglected. On top of that, in year 3, my teacher told us to edit all of our writing with this colour-coded editing “technique”. The stupid thing about it was that you had to trace over every capital letter (to make sure you wrote a capital), amongst other things. And the teachers told us that we had to make at least one correction of each colour in our writing. This was tedious, showed how little faith they had in our writing ability, and I also remember deliberately making mistakes and “correcting” them so I wouldn’t get in trouble for not correcting my writing “well” enough. They would say ‘you must have made a mistake for that colour somewhere, go back and correct it.’ And finally, if your writing isn’t neat (we also had handwriting books) or if you dared make a mistake (the nerve!) you would be scolded and then forced to rewrite everything. And this wasn’t just a bad teacher, this was every teacher over a long period of time. And if you’re thinking “yeah, but schools have changed since then,” let me put this into perspective: I’m in year 8, and the experiences I’ve recounted are from primary school and my past two high school years. Sorry for writing a novel, I’m just really frustrated with school right now. This beautiful blog is keeping me sane, as my parents are refusing to pull me out. I hope I can turn that around and finally leave school.



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