Sunday, October 25, 2009

No help, please

I had coffee with a colleague of mine last week to talk about a possible partnership for Nurturing Narratives. Amidst the lattes we talked a lot about child development. My dining partner shared that her daughter has just started the first grade and went through the whole "just right book" routine the day before. She also has real homework now in which she is required to write about the elements of her day and certain things about school. My colleague told me that even though her daughter doesn't get it right all the time (writing, that is) the teachers were firm about this one rule: no help from the parents, please!

No help. None. "What am I supposed to tell her when she asks me if it's right?" she said, frantically. While I don't have children of my own, I understand the predicament. You want to support, sure, but you also want to help instruct.

But there is a reason parents are asked not to participate, of course. Children can easily get bogged down in the language of "right" and "wrong" and it's dangerous to give them too much critical feedback. It prevents them, oftentimes, from running into writing full-speed ahead, from outputting and outputting with no fear of a possible mistake. That is not to say parents should not be able to encourage. Far from it. Positive feedback is perhaps the best gift you can give a new reader and writer. Just remember that everything is right.

Yes, that includes the wrong stuff. Odds are the words won't have vowels and some consonants will be backward but it's all part of the process. Children learn how to write and they learn how to read. It is, with some rare exceptions, fairly inevitable in a literary environment. It's not so much when they come to the written word as much as in what way. By supporting children and encouraging every mistake, we invite them to see writing as exciting and expansive...feelings that will shape their future writing careers.

Embrace the no help rule and encourage away. Also, keep the "mistakes." Many of them you and your child are sure to giggle over in the years to come.


  1. While I think there is a time and place for correction of grammar and spelling, I agree that first grade is not that place. Even though I'm planning on homeschooling my children, I don't plan to be "correcting" their writing at that point. I think that the purpose of writing at that tender age is really more about the understanding that YOUR thoughts can get put down on paper, and that's how others will know your thoughts, too. It's about creativity and expression, not commas and "i before e".

    However, I think there is a way parents can PARTICIPATE in this exercise in expression without "correction." They can do narrations with their children: have the child recount an adventure at school or something, and type it out on the computer verbatim as they speak. Through this, they will understand that you believe each word matters, and they will also see their thoughts come out with correct spelling, so they can at least be exposed to this sight. You can also participate by reading what THEY write. You will, of course, come across a word that you do not understand because of childish handwriting or spelling. Don't laugh at it or tell them it's wrong, but do ask them for clarification. They will come to understand that if they want others to truly understand their writing, they will need to learn to spell properly and write legibly, but this will come about in a natural self-assessed progression rather than the nagging or "correction" of the parent. The parent is merely showing interest and participating in the child's newfound skills.

  2. Giggle, as well as profound embarrassment. Though the latter usually only happens to writers. I can't imagine many people get as upset as I do when they read a story they had written in their days of crayons.

    But I'm not so certain I agree.

    Are you, or rather, does this teacher suggest that no one should help a student when writing?

    I understand the implications and that its purpose is to encourage the child, but surely the child gets advice from someone in the end, otherwise there is little space for the child to grow. Criticism is not meant to destroy an ego, it's meant to improve the artist's art, or their brain.

    If the teacher means that parents need to step aside and let their children learn on their own, well, that's wonderful advice, but if they are saying that criticism is antithetical to encouragement, well, I disagree. Our education is not all that it might be, and part of the reason is that we coddle our children, eliminating "It" or "Tag" and red pens, but really, our children are tougher than that. They're strong, intelligent, and still in need of guidance.

    I don't ever want to discourage a child from writing. The way to teach them would be to ask them questions about their work. Albeit some questions may be leading, but get them thinking about what they do, and inspire them to always strive to do it better.

    And, most importantly, teach children the benefits of failure. Teach them that it's not the end of world. That failing's important to everything they're going to do.

  3. Bethany- I couldn't agree more re: participate, which is why I say encouragement is key. A parent's involvement is crucial in early literacy and as you know I am a huge fan of parent-child reading and writing time! I love you suggestion of verbal storytelling. Dependent on the number of students and their ages that is a big part of what I do in my program!

    Catherine- Certainly direction is part of a children's literary development (they do some stuff in school!). The point of the "no help" policy is not to leave a child in the lurch but rather help them to use their own resources to solve the problem. When we constantly point out their mistakes we fill in the blanks for them and often weaken their literary muscles. Furthermore many children at this age do not have the skill to spell perfectly yet, it simply hasn't developed. By pointing out what is wrong in their work we not only discourage them but we also confuse them. We are trying to get them to do things that are not yet organic for them. Which is why I say encourage encourage encourage. It is a way for adults to participate in a child's writing process without directing it. And as we encourage, they feel more and more free to write and the freer they feel to write, the more they do it and therefore the better they get. There is a time for the lesson of failure in writing, certainly, but we must teach the benefits of success before we get there.