Teaching children to put pen to paper

''How have you been lately?'' our nine-year-old niece began her letter. Then followed two pages of recent events in her life -- sleeping over at her grandfather's, a field trip, getting a guinea pig named Shadow.

There were few commas or periods, no paragraphs, some misspellings. But letters are for fun, not for grading, and we appreciated Berrie's enthusiastic, spontaneous prose.

Ease in writing is an important underpinning for learning to write clear, grammatical prose. Letter writing and other kinds of nongraded writing can help children develop this ease.

Children can ''write'' letters before they can put pencil to paper by dictating to a willing adult or older sibling. The earlier that children begin to ''write,'' the more practice they have, and the more familiar they become with writing.

A post card sent from a trip could be a child's first letter.

I remember a gift of note paper trimmed with colored balloons. It was so pretty I wanted to ''write'' a letter. My mother suggested a thank-you to a kindergarten classmate for her birthday party. Mom served as my scribe, recording my thoughts.

Enthusiasm about a particular event could also prompt a letter.

''You had so much fun on our picnic today. Would you like to tell Grandma about it?'' a parent might suggest. ''You could write her a letter. I'll help, and I know Grandma would like to hear from you.''

In this way, writing becomes a natural expression of the child's love. By the time youngsters can write their own letters, they can regard writing as a natural way of giving -- like another niece, then 8, who once wrote us three letters in a single month.

Of course, adults who receive a child's loving letter -- with such thoughts as ''How are you? I'm fine! I miss you!'' -- will want to write back. This keeps the written conversation going, giving the child opportunity to write still another letter.

Tools of the trade also help: stationery, stamps, addressed envelopes, and for older children, pencils and a pencil sharpener.

Although children love to receive mail, sometimes youngsters at camp grumble about letters they may be required to write home as meal tickets. The camper, though, is the eyes and ears for those back home, the on-the-spot reporter of camp sights and sounds. This is an important assignment!

Busy campers can't be expected to write long letters, but they can include some detail, prompted by specific questions in letters from home. Remember what you've asked, though. I once got a reply saying only, ''You were half-way right. Art, pottery, junior sports, and swimming.'' The youngster continued, ''I've seen snakes, fish, deer, mice, eek, birds, frogs.''

Pen pals, peers as well as older friends, provide year-round writing opportunities.

Diaries are another option. They stimulate practice in writing, without the pressure of producing perfect prose. And diaries aren't just for girls. One of the great diarists was Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century Englishman.

Rhymes -- first just spoken pairs or groups of words -- help even prewriting children uncover a facility with words. Then the words can be strung into poems, written ones for older children. The poems don't need to make sense; often the sillier they are, the better. The point is just to have fun, so children experience the pleasure of creating with words.

At a community education center, we used the kinds of animals kept as pets as the basis of rhyming word groups. A favorite poem was Chris's: ''Awake/the snake/and feed him cornflakes.''

Nonsense poems can also be joined with gifts. Under my grandmother's lead we wrote funny poems, called jingles, to accompany Christmas gifts. When we opened our presents, each jingle was read aloud to appreciative laughter. Not only were we practicing writing skills without realizing it, but with jingles even our store-bought gifts had a homemade touch.

All writing is a way of giving. How natural it should be for children to learn to share in this way.

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