When to teach

Why I start with 4th graders

It may seem nuts, but during my registration period this spring, I have actually talked several mothers OUT of putting their children in my beginning class.  Every year I hear from moms wondering if I offer a class for their kids in the early elementary grades.  I certainly would never discourage anyone from doing so, but my experience has shown that–at least for my classes–fourth or fifth grade is a better time to begin the formal writing process.

Very often when I am asked about allowing a student into classes earlier, the mother is concerned that her student will be “behind” with writing.  Each year beyond first grade that formal writing instruction is postponed seems to further increase mom’s distress.

If this describes you, I would love to offer an explanation for why I wait and hopefully in the process put your mind at ease.

My primary reason for waiting until the 4th grade is that the aquistion of language is a developmental process, and writing is at the peak of the process.  Rushing into formal writing is analagous to pushing students to learn calculus when they haven’t yet learned to count.  Andrew Pudewa gives an excellent talk, which is available through IEW , titled “The Four Language Arts.”  In it he explains that most people think of “language arts” as reading, writing, grammar, and spelling.  According to Pudewa, the four language arts are listening, speaking, reading, and writing.   These skills are developmental, and they build on one another, culminating in the written word.

Think back to your child’s early years and the process of learning to talk.  In most cases an infant can understand quite a bit of language (listening) before ever speaking a word. Listening is a receptive language ability and comes earlier than speaking.   As Andrew Pudewa often says, “You can’t get language out of a brain until you put language in.”  This is why infants spend their first months listening and acquiring vocabulary and understanding the language of their families.  Once that foundational language is in place, the child can begin immitating it and then speaking with greater meaning.  In contrast to the receptive skill of listening, speaking is more complex.  It is an expressive language skill. Without a vocabulary to draw upon and a basic feeling for syntax, a child cannot be expected to produce coherent speech.  Listening must come before speaking.

When it comes to the written word, then, it’s easier to understand why reading, which is receptive, comes before writing, it’s expressive counterpart.  Unless you live with a prodigy, this fact should be evident just from watching your own children.  I don’t know about you, but my kids could appreciate great stories long before they had the verbal skills to write one.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the early years of school should be focused on activities that involve “putting language in.”  While we should continually reinforce the foundational skills of listening, speaking, and reading throughout a child’s life, the early years are the most critical.  Jumping too soon into formal writing instruction takes attention away from building the mental muscles that students need in order to write effectively.  This risk is especially great in the case of a mother worrying about not getting “behind.”  The result of jumping the gun is too often a frustrated student who hates to write.  Just as listening should precede speaking, reading should precede writing.

So what should a concerned mother do?  First, relax.  Release the futile tendency to compare your child with another.  Then, make the most of the early years.  TALK with your child–about everything.  Use correct language and proper grammar and syntax.  Find ways to make games playing with language.  (IEW has a great webinar with some ideas: https://iew.com/events-classes/webinars/games-reinforce-structure-and-style-and-other-creative-classroom-ideas ).  Finally, read, read, read, read, read!  Read great books aloud to your child and talk about them.  The read-aloud habit will not only put great language into your child’s brain, it will foster a love of reading.  Children are cabable of understanding literature that is far above their ability to read themselves.  By reading aloud to them, you are introducing them to more sophisticated language and storylines and enticing them to keep developing their own reading skills.  Best of all, reading aloud as a family is a wonderful way deepen relational bonds.  More on that later.

Best wishes, moms of young ones, here’s to the early years!