August 2, 2006

Kid Writing

(Or the latest way educators have managed to screw-up teaching kids how to read.)

Kid Writing is the latest reading fad to come down the pike. Have you seen it?

I have. And, it's not a pretty sight. So, gather round kiddies while I tell you a tale so horrifying that balanced literacy appears almost sane by comparison.

Kid Writing is a "system" for teaching kids how to read by allowing them to write without first teaching them how to read or write. This is the educational equivalent of teaching kids how to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool with a sack of lead strapped to their backs. Guess which kids don't float to the top.

With little formal instruction, kindergarteners are asked to write a story. In the beginning of the school year, this is usually what the teacher gets back:

Helpfully, the teacher translated the kid writing for us. (The ghost is scaring people.) I'm not sure whether this falls into the "emerging," "pictorial," or "pre-communicative" portion of the Kid Writing Assessment Scale. It strikes me as a bit cruel to have six year olds try to write without any instruction.

During the course of the year, the students are haphazardly presented various sounds they can use in their writing. Supposedly, this is phonics instruction (all reading programs say they have phonics nowadays). In any event, by the end of the year, it is hoped that the student will be writing like this:


Translated into English: I wish my mom would have a baby boy because there are already three girls in my house. This is poetically referred to as the "semi-phonetic" stage, or, more accurately, the "guessing stage."

Before I forget, none of the misspellings and ungrammatical phrasing is supposed to be corrected by the teacher. The kids are supposed to develop naturally. It's all so sweet and innocent. Until somebody gets hurt. Like poor little Andrew who is going to have to unlearn the misspellings "wold," "becaus," and "allredy" after repeatedly misspelling them all year long. (First law of teaching: never teach something that has to be untaught.)

Bear in mind, these kids are purportedly being taught to read; the writing skills are merely a bonus.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, this is an incredibly dopey way to teach children how to read. Putting it more technically, Kid Writing teaches kids how to decode, i.e., read, by teaching them how to encode, i.e., write or spell. As I stated a mere two sentences a go, but it bears repeating, this is a dopey way to teach writing.

Phonics for reading is a very different system of phonics than phonics for writing/spelling. Reading/decoding goes from letters to sounds; writing/spelling goes from sounds to letters. Ideally, beginning reading passages should be pretty regular in terms of sound/symbol correspondences (with the notable exception of irregular sight words), making it easier for the kids to learn how to read. But, spelling/writing, on the other hand, is quite a bit less regular. This is especially so when the kids get to pick what they want to write about, as in Kid Writing. This is why reading/decoding has traditionally been taught first (it's easier) and the less regular writing/encoding taught afterwards.

Maybe an example is in order. Let's use the long "e" sound. In reading, the following letter, letters, or pattern would cause you to say the long-e sound when you see them:

ee as in seed
ea as in speak
ie as in brief
ei as in receive
y as in study
e-consonant-e as in Pete

And so forth. When a student sees these letters, he knows he has to say the long "e" sound. However, for writing/spelling the student is presented with the long "e" sounds and then has to figure out which of the above letter, letters, or patterns to use when writing. The question is: how do I spell the long-e sound? The answer is: lots of ways. And therein lies the problem. With the long-e sound, phonics for spelling and phonics for reading are worlds apart.*

Anyone hawking a beginning reading program should know the difference. The authors of Kid Writing apparently do not.

Reading is difficult enough as it is. Why make it more difficult by teaching kids how to read by teaching them via the wrong, and unnecessarily complicated, rules? When things go awry for some kids, how do you diagnose the problem? Furthermore, with all this writing "instruction" going on, there is precious little time being spent actually reading, which is to say practicing to read.

Which brings me to my reason for writing this post in the first place. Kids Writing claims to be "research based." I told you this story was going to be terrifying. I'll explain this little nifty bit of tom-foolery in Part II after you've had time to regain your senses.

* Borrowed heavily from A View From Askance: Sometimes, Phonics Sucks.

Our saga continues in Part II: Kid Writing Reseacrh or lack Thereof .

21 comments:

SteveH said...

"This is the educational equivalent of teaching kids how to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool with a sack of lead strapped to their backs."

Well, maybe not the lead, but this is what I thought when my son had to write (?) in a daily journal in Kindergarten. Kids Spelling. They didn't even teach my son how to hold the pencil (crayon) correctly. By the time I figured this out, he had a bad habit that his second grade teacher wouldn't even try to correct. Schools can't even bring themselves to teach kids how to hold pencils correctly! Kids have to construct that. What happens when they try to have kids write in cursive in second grade?

The idea is that this process is much more inspiring than the hard work of phonics, penmanship, and learning basic knowledge and skills. But, how inspiring is figuring things out with little or no help from the teacher? They start right out in Kindergarten with constructivism. The problem is that the value of any sort of constructivism is based on the application of fundamental knowledge and skills. Top-down constructivism is an oxymoron. Constructivism is not a process whereby students can create something out of nothing, as in Professor Hill's Think Method. (Even Hill knew it was a fraud.) Kids don't construct proper things out of thin air. An ounce of direct instruction in Kindergarten is worth a pound of cure in second grade.

allen said...

If you'd like something to ruefully shake your head about, follow the link to the Kid Writing site at the top of the post. On the home page the guilty parties are soliciting research on the efficacy of Kid Writing.

Evidently, the authors are suffering from some confusion about the process.

First you do the research, then you draw the conclusions.

KDeRosa said...

The dreaded journal writing. Probably the worst kind of writing they can do. Again, more wasting time that could be spent writing about reading comprehension type questions about what they've been reading. Oh wait they don't do much reading.

If you'd like something to ruefully shake your head about, follow the link to the Kid Writing site at the top of the post. On the home page the guilty parties are soliciting research on the efficacy of Kid Writing.

That'll be the subject of tomorrow's post.

Anonymous said...

Why, I don't know what you're talking about, Ken. My son was an expert at the phrase, "I had fun," by the end of Kindergarten. That, and "I like ball" were about the only things he wrote in his "journal."

Of course, there were no lines in these journals either making for a particularly impenetrable scrawl.

There's no accountability for any of this because like so many other progressive ideas in education, that falls on the teachers down the road. You just have to trust them.

SusanS

KDeRosa said...

Of course, there were no lines in these journals either making for a particularly impenetrable scrawl.

That's a feature, bot a bug, Susan.

There's a blurb on the Kid Writing site that the writing should be in a line, not on a line. That would hamper their precious creativity.

Laura said...

Let me say this, as an English teacher and a student raised up in a similar system:

I recently unearthed my second grade journal. That's right, a journal in second grade, a weekly effort encouraged by my teacher. It was no War and Peace or even The Outsiders, but that was the first class where I really got into writing. I thought I was hot stuff then, but the spelling was interesting to say the least.

The thing is, though, that I was not learning to spell those words, I was experimenting with what I had heard. I was not instructed in spelling every word before I wanted to write it. It was trial and error, and it did wonders for me.

Of course this is anecdotal evidence and not "research," but those phases of communication are based on psychology, scientific theories I and my art teacher friends were exposed to in our training.

I am not saying leave phonetics out, but that is not where instruction should begin and end. You cannot expecting perfect spelling or complex sentences right away! Writing is a new language! It seems you and your advocates do not remember what your own writing looked like at 6 or 8.

I just saw mine. I was at the top of my class in high school and college. These kids are write on track.

Anonymous said...

"You cannot expecting perfect spelling or complex sentences right away"

I'll tell you what I do expect. I expect for my kid to be able to write more letters than i,h,a,d,f,u, and n by the end of first grade. If you leave all of that up to journaling and invented spelling, well then, only the little geniuses like you are going to get anywhere.

SusanS

SteveH said...

"I am not saying leave phonetics out, but that is not where instruction should begin and end. You cannot expecting perfect spelling or complex sentences right away!"

Strawman.

I expect teachers to teach content and skills.


"I recently unearthed my second grade journal. That's right, a journal in second grade, a weekly effort encouraged by my teacher."

My son had to write in a journal daily in Kindergarten. As I mentioned, they didn't even teach him how to hold a pencil correctly. There was almost no practice on forming letter shapes on lined paper. Too restrictive for the little darlings.

In first grade, his teacher was looking for "voice" in the journals. I would have been happy if they taught them how to write a meaningful sentence or paragraph.

It's easy to argue with generalities or strawmen. As a parent, that's all I get from the schools.

"I just saw mine. I was at the top of my class in high school and college. These kids are write on track."

Ergo, trust me with your child. No thank you. If you think this is just a matter of journaling and Kids Spelling, then you are completely mistaken. This has to do with directly teaching content and skills. This has to do with bottom-up versus top-down learning. This has to do with specific grade-by-grade expectations. This is about not leaving education to chance, IQ, SES, parents, or tutors.

KDeRosa said...

Of course this is anecdotal evidence and not "research," but those phases of communication are based on psychology, scientific theories I and my art teacher friends were exposed to in our training.

Laura, the research somwething a bit different.

Pany and McCoy (1988) found that third-grade children with reading disabilities who made a large number of errors during reading (10%-15%) significantly improved their word recognition and comprehension scores when given immediate feedback on every single error. When corrective feedback was provided after every error, the children made significantly fewer errors overall, significantly fewer meaning-change errors during reading of the passage, significantly fewer errors on lists of error words presented on an immediate and delayed basis, and significantly fewer errors on passage-comprehension questions. Simply receiving feedback on errors that altered the meaning of the passages had no effect.

YMMV with any ed research, but most of the decent research I've seen points to correcting errors rather than not

KDeRosa said...

I am not saying leave phonetics out, but that is not where instruction should begin and end.

No one is saying that it should. But teaching phonics incorrectly or not at all is even worse.

You cannot expect[] perfect spelling or complex sentences right away!

That's why you don't have them write journals using uncontrolled vocabulary they haven't learned to spell yet.

Writing is a new language!

Actually, it's not. But learning to write is more difficult than learning to read which I why I question teaching kids to read by making them write. It creates a mess and overcomplicates teaching.

It seems you and your advocates do not remember what your own writing looked like at 6 or 8.

We were not permitted to invent our spelling or our grammar. If we made mistakes with either, the errors were pointed out and we corrected them.

Andrew Pass Educational Services, LLC said...

I hate to disagree with so many people but I don't think that kid writing is as bad as you make it out to be. I was particularly impressed with the second writing sample that you presented. Research does indeed demonstrate that sometimes children learn more effectively when their ideas are celebrated, instead of the form that these ideas take. Sure, spelling is important and students must eventually learn how to spell correctly, or at least how to use spell check. However, they should recognize that their spelling matters because their ideas matter.

Andrew Pass
http://www.Pass-Ed.com/blogger.html

KDeRosa said...

Hi Andrew,

Research does indeed demonstrate that sometimes children learn more effectively when their ideas are celebrated, instead of the form that these ideas take.

That's actually not exctly what the research says. Praise is an effective motivator when coupled with academic success; however, kids soon realize when the praise is phony when they are in fact not doing well.

Sure, spelling is important and students must eventually learn how to spell correctly, or at least how to use spell check.

Almost all the extant research tells us that when kids are actually taught the spelling rules and taught to spell, they become better spellers than the kids who learn "naturally" as in kid writing

However, they should recognize that their spelling matters because their ideas matter.

Actually, spelling matters in and of itself.

The Rain said...

The dreaded journal writing. Probably the worst kind of writing they can do. Again, more wasting time that could be spent writing about reading comprehension type questions about what they've been reading. Oh wait they don't do much reading.

Such a jaded view.

My first graders write every day, sometimes directed and sometimes free choice. We also do weekly responses to the stories in the basal series. And I teach at least two hours of reading a day.

You're painting with an overly-broad brush, and it makes your point far less effective.

The Rain said...

As I mentioned, they didn't even teach him how to hold a pencil correctly.

Why didn't you?

KDeRosa said...

My first graders write every day, sometimes directed and sometimes free choice. We also do weekly responses to the stories in the basal series. And I teach at least two hours of reading a day.

I didn't say all writing was bad, just kid writing which I'll loosely define as non-scaffolded minimally guided writing instruction ocurring before kids know how to spell the words they are asked/choose to write. Instructionally speaking, kid writing is largely a waste of time and its danger is that it displaces more productive instruction.

Why didn't you?

Maybe he did. But the school certainly appears to have not. Isn't writing, one of the traditional three Rs. I would think learning the actual mechanics of writing falls under that rubric.

We could pretty much ask this question of all putative school subjects. And if we're going to ask parents to teach all these things you have to wonder why we need schools at all.

Anonymous said...

My daughter's second grade teacher was a great fan of "invented spelling".
I had never heard of this absurd concept before. She point blank refused to teach spelling at all, correct grammar, capitalization, or punctuation.

Anonymous said...

After reading all the comments left on this page, I have come to the conclusion that you are all incompetent. Kid Writing should be used for young children who are learning to read. It is primarily used to help students hear the sounds in words and spell from there. I can agree with some points in the article though. Some teachers use this method and it works tremendously, while with other teachers it fails. It mostly fails because as some of you said, the teacher refeuses to teach spelling or refuses to correct a child. In all of the primary classrooms that I have visited, I have seen Kid Writing in action. The teachers who do not supplement kid writing with another spelling method are wasting their time and the time of the students and parents. The teachers that teach kid writing and supplement it with another way of teaching spelling are the excellent teachers that we need in education today. I like Kid Writing and think that if all teachers are properly trained you wouldn't be sitting here and complaining. Instead of sitting here and complaining, why don't you be a solution to the problem. If your child's school is using kid writing and you feel it is not being used correctly, research the topic and additional ways to help students learn to read and spell. If you are just using this worthless site to sit here and not be heard by your community, you are just as much a part of the problem as others. As for the creator's of this site. Why sit here and point out all the problems with education? Why don't you go and help to fix it. If you feel that the teachers are not doing their job you have some options. The first one would be to go and get your teaching degree and do a better job yourself. That would be the best solution would it not? Another solution is to go to your school board and express your concerns to them, fight for more teacher training and anything else that you feel the teachers need. School boards are there to help the teachers, parents, students and the whole community. If you are all so adement about this...GET UP AND FIGHT FOR SOMETHING BETTER! Stop sitting around thinking that this is the only way to fix it. Try something else. As for this whole website...it is a waste of time. I came across it as I was looking for actual research on Kid Writing and how it could be used in a classroom. Instead, I saw a bunch of laziness. I saw people sitting and complaining instead of trying to fix it. The creator of this site should be ashamed of having to hide behind the computer to complain. You should get up and speak PUBLICLY, infront of people about your concerns.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the last response. I myself am a kindergarten teacher and in my district we teach "Writer's Workshop". My students learn to write before they can read. The reading comes naturally. The students take the letter sounds and apply it to writing and their reading. Let me ask you, have you ever been a teacher? Writer's Workshop is a great program that is taught across my school and district. Last year our students passed the writing standards with 98% passing rate. Now tell me what is wrong with the program. Go observe classrooms then form your opinion.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so apparently many of you have never witnessed or observed a "good" kid-writing lesson. Yes, lesson. Kid-writing may to you seem like a haphazard way of teaching writing, but it is a succint, developmentally appropriate way of teaching writing. It begins and ends with a mini-lesson that meets the kids "where they are". It doesn't try to teach them something that they aren't ready for and can't possibly comprehend. Maybe you want your kindergartener stressed out with spelling tests on the words "already" and "because" and crying when they get them wrong because they just don't get why there are all those letters there when they cannot hear them. Or maybe you want your child to be one of those who grows up learning that 9x9=81 but they never understand WHY 9 times 9 equals 81. So, let's just start at Kindergarten and create robots who can't think. Sound good to you? Now THAT is what I call dopey.

Jaye said...

The next time any Kid Writing naysayers need to go to a physician's office, I hope the doctor uses leeches for a cure.

KDeRosa said...

I think you mean "proponents" instead of "naysayers" unless there's some new Kid Writing research I'm unaware of.