Children who struggle with literacy can improve through parental help and a different approach to their learning, as explored by Emma Saurus.
My memory of Year 1 is learning the alphabet, writing a lot of wavy shapes (“You mean you wanted them between the lines? Geez.”), and using scissors with my tongue out.
Today, by the end of pre-primary, the Australian Curriculum expects children to write three-letter words and “experiment with capital letters and full stops”.
My peak pre-primary experiment was, “How long can I get away with speaking only in neighs and eating without using my hooves?”
From Pre-Primary to Post-Doctorate, your child will be assessed through their writing. In almost every subject, they will be required to demonstrate their knowledge on paper.
There has been a global early-education panic as studies show that children who lag in language skills in the early years tend to fall further and further behind their peers.
At the same time that literacy requirements are being shunted into earlier grades, the new overstuffed, micro-managed Australian Curriculum requires teachers to cover more topics than can fit into a school year (according to the Australian Primary Principals Association, “The overcrowded primary curriculum: A way forward”, and the Australian Government’s own Review of the Australian Curriculum by Donnelly and Wiltshire, both 2014).
The outcome is that if your child is not developmentally ready to gain those crucial foundational skills of reading and writing in Pre-Primary — and my son was not — teachers in later years are unlikely to have enough time available to help your child catch up.
It will be up to you to recognise that your young’un is struggling and provide the targeted help they need to get up to speed.
Any improvements you make
to children’s literacy skills will
have positive flow-on effects
throughout their academic
and professional lives.
Helping your child is completely doable. If you’re skilful, it can be a fun, bonding activity.
If your child has struggled to the point that they have become despondent about writing, or flat-out hate it as much as mine did, it can become a bribing activity. Whatever works! It’s worth it.
But the keyword for gaining cooperation is “let’s”, as in “Let’s do a writing game together.”
Here’s an exercise that can be used from toddlerhood. (I have even used it with children preparing for the Gifted and Talented exam.) If your child cannot yet write (or hates it), you can do the writing for them.
Some children prefer to be absolutely clear about what is expected of them before they begin. You can demonstrate it for them. Before long, they will will be taking the pencil out of your hand.
You can’t become a great writer without knowing how to compose a strong sentence. This activity teaches planning, descriptive vocabulary, and even introduces the idea of revising and editing.
Choose a picture — a photograph of family, a picture from a magazine or the internet — and say, “Let’s write a caption to describe what’s in the picture. What do we see?”
The child might say, “Birds.”
In a list off to the side, write down ‘birds’, and prompt for more information.
“How many?” “What colour?” “What could they be doing?” You might end up with a list of words including: two, pink, dancing.
Say, “Let’s put these words into a sentence.” Read the list out, and try speaking a few variations.
Write out the child’s preferred phrasing. Talk about what was good about the sentence. Praise any powerful words.
If the child wrote it, praise them if they remembered capitals and full stops, or if they spelled words correctly.
Don’t worry about fixing any errors (though you could secretly note spelling mistakes for later teaching); this exercise is about encouraging expression.
If your child is still interested, you can say, “Shall we make it even fancier?”
You can add relevant vocabulary. (“These birds are called flamingos.”)
You can add description and invite your child’s contribution. (“They’re dancing elegantly.”)
You can add imagination. (“What could they be thinking or feeling? Maybe this one is a daddy flamingo and he just got home from work. Or maybe this one is saying, ‘Get out of my way!’”)
Write the new sentence under the first one. The more over-the-top you make it, the more enjoyable it will be.
If you want more suggestions from your child, find something good and useful in whatever they offer.
Older children are often asked to analyse images in English exams; this activity can prepare them.
If you use advertisements, it can also help your children begin to understand how some images attempt to manipulate the viewer.
Any improvements you make to children’s literacy skills will have positive flow-on effects throughout their academic and professional lives.
Powerful writing helps teens sound smarter in essays and exams. It allows young adults to write compelling job applications. It lets employees make client presentations more impressive.
Enrich your child’s writing. The investment will pay off their whole life long.
Letters of Complaint
If your child has difficulty remembering the letters of the alphabet, has trouble physically writing the letters, cannot holding the pencil with even pressure (giving faint, wiggly letters), or simply cannot recall spelling patterns after lengthy study, this requires a different kind of intervention.
American special educator Dianne Craft (diannecraft. org) has developed a program that can be undertaken at home to address these issues.
I used them successfully with my son, who was diagnosed with Dysgraphia in PrePrimary.
His writing was like giving birth: slow, painful, and messy.
When the occupational therapist gave her pronouncement, I thought, “Great, a diagnosis! That reassuringly fancy Latin label must mean that experts understand his condition and how to treat it. What does dysgraphia mean? ‘Difficulty writing’? I told you that when we walked in!”
Months of occupational therapy exercises did not make a difference.
One month of Dianne Craft’s method led to significant improvement.
My son no longer meets the technical criteria for dysgraphia.
If you are experiencing similar issues, please feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss your situation: firstname.lastname@example.org
Emma Saurus helps students of all levels sound smarter. She is based in Perth. Look her up at emmasaurus.com.au