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Writing Skills

Writing is a kind of talk. As we write, we communicate with someone although most often the person we are communicating with is not present in front of us. At the same time it is true that we do a lot of writing simply to preserve something -- a piece of information, an idea, a memory. But even in this role, writing can be seen as talk --with oneself.

It is the job of the teacher to ensure that children see writing as an act of addressing someone. The first thing, then, is to ensure that before writing is introduced to a group of children, they must all be capable of talking with confidence about their life and the things happening around them. What this means is that these children must have

(i) the desire to share their experiences and perceptions; and
(ii) the ability to narrate one's experience or present one's view.

These children are ready to learn writing. However, a lot more is necessary before they can start writing words and sentences.

Writing any language involves making complicated shapes on paper. It requires acute perception and memory of subtle differences in the tiny shapes of individual letters of the alphabet. It also requires the ability to use 'abstract symbols' to convey ideas or feelings. Letters of the alphabet are abstract symbols. They are abstract in as much as they carry no pictorial similarity with the sounds they convey. For example, the shape of the letter 'A' has no particular reason to have the sound value of 'A'. We just accept it as 'A'. The child who wants to write English must accept 'A' as 'A' and use it only where 'A' is appropriate, either in combination with other letters or independently (in the sense of "one'). In other words, he must get totally accustomed to a number of such arbitrary symbols.

At what point or age we can start teaching how to write is a decision that every teacher must make according to her assessment of the children she is working with. A good criterion for deciding is whether the children have developed reasonable amount of flexibility and control in their hand and finger movement through drawing and other activities. Children who have been exposed to books or other forms of reading material may themselves demand opportunities to write. When you have decided to start teaching how to write, the first thing to do is to ask children to tell you what you should write about. If you have been using the verb 'write' in your conversation with children, they will have no difficulty understanding what you mean. You can tell them that you will write one word on every child's copybook or on the floor, and so every child must give you a different word to write. Ask children to copy this word just below where you have written it or trace over it first.

The floor is an excellent space as a resource for learning to write. It allows you to write in big letters, and it is a lot cheaper since the only thing you have to buy is chalk or charcoal, or some other local variant. The only problem that 'the floor presents is the need to wash it afterwards. Those working with children will have heard of several approaches, the most common being that of starting- by teaching how to write letters of the alphabet. Whether one uses the blackboard to write out the letters in large size, or cuts them in cardboard, or asks children to copy them from their primer --one thing we must keep in mind is that the alphabet has no meaning, and therefore excessive or isolated emphasis on the alphabet can discourage children from seeing writing as a means of meaningful communication. However, the alphabet can be fruitfully introduced after the teacher has established several strong bridges between words and meaning.

There can be many ways to incorporate the alphabet in early writing without teaching it in a mechanical fashion. For example, you can maintain a long list of words, and present a small selection of those that start with the same letter. Draw children's attention to this fact, and then ask them to spot more similar letters. Each time you organize this kind of activity, you can ask children to review the words they had seen last time. As you gradually build up their stock of commonly used words, you can begin to sort them out according to different characteristics (e.g. length, part of speech, content, etc.) and paste up the words that belong to one 'category on the wall. There is no point pasting them up so high that 'only you can see them clearly. I would not have mentioned this if I had not visited many schools where pictures and charts are stuck far above the reach of children. Any material, which is placed too high for children to see is both useless and insulting to them.

The real challenge of teaching how to write starts after children have mastered the basic skills involved in writing. The challenge consists of developing in children

(i) a sense of audience, and
(ii) the desire to convey.

To achieve this dual purpose, the teacher will have to keep a long-term perspective in mind while organizing every little activity. Once again, the teacher must remember that the sense of audience and the desire to convey are relevant for both writing and talk. So, any activity that involves writing will benefit from the opportunity to talk, and vice-versa.

Extracted from "The Child's language and the teacher - A handbook" , Krishna Kumar, UNICEF

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