Writing with purpose

My youngest son has a birthday coming up, so we have been making some invitations to his party. We discussed which of his friends to invite, and I wrote their names clearly in a list. I then got him to read the list to me so that I could make sure we had made enough invitations. He managed this by looking at the first letters and sounding out the words, without much help from me. As he looked at the words, he said things like, "s-h at the end makes a sh sound" and "the magic e at the end makes o say oh."

I then got him to write To ____ on each invitation inserting his friend's names in turn, and he did this, ensuring he started on the left. This was a big step for him as he is a left hander and much of his emergent writing has been mirror writing from right to left. As he wrote the names, he was reading them aloud again. He then wrote all the names on the envelopes. This was a very natural context to practise writing skills.

The next day, he picked up the list and read it to himself again. He then wrote all his friends' names on a piece of paper completely unprompted and independently - all the letters and the words were the correct way around, and he showed this to me proudly pointing out, "I remembered to start on THIS side."

Later, he designed a new driver and cart for "Mario Kart", the new game we had on Wii for Christmas. He was clearly delighted with his creation. I asked him what the new driver's name was and, when he told me, I asked if he would like to write the name. "You write it," he said. So I wrote the name in dots, and he then traced over it beautifully. As I formed the letters, he said, "x, y".

To complete the picture, he asked me to draw a speech bubble and to write, "I am the bestest driver on Mario Kart!" which I did. I think there must be a balance for such a young child between encouraging their own writing and helping them to capture their ideas by writing down their dictation. This way they do not become discouraged and have a great sense of pride in their own achievement. Plus words, reading and writing remain fascinating and enjoyable activities for they are not pushed when they are unwilling or criticized for not getting it right.

My middle son had asked to use a cursive writing programme on the computer where you click on a letter of the alphabet and the 'magic pencil' shows you how to form the letter. My youngest son, having seen his brother doing this, also had a go and enjoyed looking at this and forming his letters carefully in his notebook.

The older two received a page-a-day diary for the New Year, in which I am encouraging them to do a little bit of writing each day. So far, they have willingly copied poems, quotes, and prayers. The emphasis is on the habit of writing, and doing it as beautifully as they can - even if it is just a little bit. Today, my eldest son, who is quite a reluctant writer, chose to do a little free writing about playing Mario Kart, which he illustrated with a small picture.

I have also given them a set of Berol Italic pens each, so that they can practise writing really beautifully rather like an art form. After all, not many of us use handwriting for sustained pieces of writing nowadays - we write at computers. Though the skill of handwriting is an important one, in my opinion it does not justify the time and effort spent on it by quite young children in primary schools, particularly before their fine motor skills develop sufficiently to enable them to write quickly enough to convey all their creative ideas. This can lead to frustration and, worse, could put a child off writing for good! However, it is an effective way of keeping 30 lively children seated in a contained space for considerable chunks of the day!