Kindergartners, raise your pencils
Journal keeping by the very young draws smiles, but also raises issues of how children should be taught writing
AMESBURY, MASS. — Six-year-old Christopher Bruno hasn't yet learned to read or spell, but that doesn't keep him from arranging letters to report his adventures every morning at Cashman Elementary School.
On this early spring day, while classmates to his right and left were coloring birthday cakes and roses, he penciled this: "MY SASDR LIST HOR TOT EASTRDY."
Moments later, he stood to interpret his composition for classmates seated on a carpet in a circle.
"My sister lost her tooth yesterday," he explained. All applauded, including two instructors, who had nothing but praise for his intrepid foray into use of the written word.
A quarter-century ago, placing journals into the hands of preliterate kindergartners would have been unthinkable. Conventional wisdom held that they must learn to spell before trying to write. Otherwise, the thinking went, written errors would become bad habits, and the television generation would never learn certain essentials of writing.
Today, education theorists are generally more sympathetic than their predecessors were to the idea of developmental learning.
What looks like scribbling and misspelling to adults might actually represent progress for a 5-year-old - at least according to those who promote journal keeping in the classroom.
Such thinking has given rise to a small but steady movement to get children writing early and to worry about details later.
"I haven't found a lot of adults writing letters backward," says Jerome Harste, professor of teacher education and a language-education expert at Indiana University. "I think sometimes we latch onto behaviors of kids and take them way too seriously. A mark on a wall is a small price to pay for a literate child."
In Kathy Scholtz's classroom at Cashman Elementary here, children start making their marks with crayon and pencil as soon as they arrive at 8:30 a.m.
Each child opens a "book" - stapled blank pages with his or her name on the cover - and gets to work. Illustrations tend to hit the parchment first - houses, gardens, dinosaurs, and army scenes. Then, with gentle nudging from instructors, each artist takes a shot at authorship by carving letters that will help jog the memory to tell a story.
That same day, Tyler Wile sketched battle scenes with guns and soldiers. With encouragement from teaching assistant Patricia Dupere, he wrote the narrative: "I M SOTING BAD GIZ." Translation: "I am shooting bad guys."
"They put down what they hear so they can go back and read what they wrote," Ms. Dupere explains. "If we wrote the correct spelling, they wouldn't go back and read it. They'll get that eventually."
Not everyone is quite so optimistic, however. Krista Kafer of the Heritage Foundation, for instance, says good habits need to be ingrained from the start - especially in inner-city schools, where children might not have parents who correct their spelling or grammar.
"It doesn't matter if you have enthusiasm for the written word. You can't read," Ms. Kafer says. "Why would you want to steer them in the wrong way, and later encourage them in the right way? In the end, as important as creativity is, accuracy is more important."
Only about 10 percent of kindergarten classrooms across the country use journals, according to Professor Harste's estimate. Most don't, in his opinion, either because they've always used other teaching methods or because they believe in rote spelling lessons first.
Spelling takes priority, for example, at West Memphis Christian School in Arkansas. There, kindergartners recite correct spellings every day. They wait to write until they know how a word is properly spelled.
"They spend the mornings in their chants and jingles.... By saying it everyday, it becomes part of them," says Leslie Mosley, assistant principal at the elementary school. "It has worked and been successful, so we keep using it."
Where journals are the norm, their usage varies as widely as the tales that unfold in the hands of 5- and 6-year-olds. Some teachers have children write just once per week, spending other time learning letters and simple words.
In Ms. Scholtz's classroom, children are encouraged at first to draw pictures because "that's how they communicate." But, she decided a few years ago, only those who try to write words would get the opportunity to stand before the group and present.
"Boy, that really gave them the incentive to do it," Scholtz says. "Anytime they share, they just love being the center of attention."
En route to the classroom, journals have had to navigate the thicket of cultural debate surrounding language education in this country. Like Ebonics and bilingual education, the idea of "invented" or "temporary" spelling has raised concerns about declining standards and has required proponents to defend their theories vigorously.
The youthful journal-keeping movement got started in 1982 when Donald Graves, an education professor at the University of New Hampshire, published a report entitled, "Writing: Teachers and Children at Work." In it, Graves convinced many colleagues that children tend to learn to read phonetically and might benefit by being free to pass through a stage of experimentation with letters and sounds.
Not until the 1990s, however, did the idea of letting children write their way into literacy trickle down from academe into mainstream elementary-education circles.
Teachers had to reach a point where they could tell a kindergartner that "it's not wrong" to spell "night" with the letters "N-I-T," according to Cindy Leigh, associate professor of curriculum and Instruction at the University of Mississippi.
In Ms. Leigh's view, at stake is whether students will be willing to write or if they will instead be fearful whenever they're uncertain of a particular spelling. Programs that use rote memorization before writing, she says, foster anxiety in the presence of a blank page.
"They're dependent upon an adult for approval," Leigh says. "They lose their confidence. Pretty soon they start saying, 'I can't do it,' and start avoiding it."
"Kids want you to spell everything for them," Scholtz says. "But you spell everything and they never get any writing done. It stifles their creativity."
Back in the classroom, every child took a turn reading at least a few words from his or her page. As they did, their journals served another function: That of putting smiles on the faces of adults and children alike.
One boy had seen bunny tracks. A girl had decorated her house for her birthday.
And James Buckley shared his passion: "MY ROM I LK IT BCS IT IS VARE, VARE MACE. EVR DY I TRS IT WT DNSRS."
"My room, I like it because it is very, very messy," he told his laughing classmates. "Every day I trash it with dinosaurs."