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Helping Children Improve their Writing with Andrew Pudewa

Andrew Pudewa is the director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing. He is a father of 7 and he travels around the world teaching about teaching, writing, English, spelling and music. He and his wife homeschooled their children when they were young.

Studied in Japan with Dr. Suzuki. As a child, learned the Suzuki method for violin. Decided to study in Japan and learn to be a violin teacher. Lived there for 3 years and after his studies, taught violin and brain development. Later started a preschool that focused on music. Came to writing through artistic and musical approach.

Similarities between writing and music. They are both skills. Mortimer Adler says that in education there are 3 categories: knowledge, applied knowledge or concepts, and skills. Skills are things that end in “ing.” Writing and playing an instrument are similar in that way. In the method of acquisition of skills, they are even more similar.

There are foundational techniques that must be learned. You start with very basic things: how to hold your hand, how to stand, how to move your hand. You start these things before they even hold an instrument. These become the foundation for the next level of complexity. These are technical and foundational. With writing, you work with the foundational things, like holding a pen or pencil properly. Then, in composition, we say, how do you express an idea in a way that makes sense? In music, you do the same thing, how do you make it better? There’s a graded repertoire in both that move children up in complexity. There’s a pathway that can be followed. If you teach it well, the new skill isn’t too hard because its based on the previously acquired abilities.

There seem to be people who have a much more natural proclivity toward writing. If you break down writing into its components, it is so complex. First you have to have an idea. This can come from internal or external sources. This information might be stored in the artistic or experiential part of the brain, and need to be translated into language. You have to create words to express that concept. They have to be in a structure that makes sense, and you have to say it to yourself clearly enough that you can understand it. Then, you have to remember it and write it down. You also have to remember how to spell those words and how to write the letters properly.

When you see young children who don’t like writing, if you kind of get past the “I don’t like it” it usually boils down to “it overwhelms me.” If you are child and you find an image you translate it, and then you start writing and get distracted, you have to go all the way back through the process and figure out the next word you were going to write.

Break the complexity into the smallest possible steps so that they don’t get overwhelmed. How can we separate the complexity of what to write from the complexity of how to write? If you have some content that is lined up and ready to go, then putting those ideas into sentences is a little easier, because you don’t have to figure out what those ideas are. We begin with outlines. We call them key word outlines. Kids write down a few words that represent that idea. Most children find it easier to start with an external source. We give them a little bit of information, like a story, or anything. Read each sentence, choose a few words that help you remember the idea, copy those down and when you are finished you have a list.

The next trick is to have the students say the sentence from the keywords, so that they are verbally reproducing the idea with the keywords, and retelling the content verbally. This allows them to hear what they are saying. When they go to write it, they’ve already rehearsed it. They’ve broken the huge process into something more manageable.

As adults, we sometimes use these steps mentally. We can talk to ourselves and mentally arrange the ideas and outline mentally. Planning before you write makes you very organized and confident.

When we teach music, we wouldn’t sit them down and let them do whatever they want to. We give them a model and ask them to follow the model. Through imitation, students develop the basic skills that give them the power of creativity later on. Then, when they want to develop their own music, they have a foundation. I would look at writing the same way.

It’s a skill that can be learned through imitation, giving the basic skills that allow greater creativity down the line.

The most important thing that teachers and parents can do to help children become good writers:

1. Read out loud to children even after they can read on their own. When you read out loud above their level, they are able to stretch up. That is the number one predictor of good writing skills in adults.

2. Memorize poetry. When children memorize they are building the vocabulary because they are using words they might not know and they are furnishing their mind with literary devices, etc.

You can’t get something out of a mind that isn’t in there to begin with. You have to stock the brain with good language if that’s what you want to get out of it later on.

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