147. Correcting Children’s Writing

There’s been a gradual change among teachers’ approaches toward correcting children’s writing. It’s been based on sound thinking and research. Like most changes, it’s been disorienting for people who are used to the old ways. Some teachers cling to old ways, some parents are glad they do, and some wish they wouldn’t. Some teachers don’t, some parents wish they would, and some are glad they don’t. And plenty of parents and teachers are ambivalent. I think that covers just about all of us.
Let’s say a child writes a story and hands it in. It’s a challenge for the teacher to decipher the story; the handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, sequencing, grammar, and logic are all what some adults call “atrocious.” Maybe the story goes something like this: “A giy kam to a stor and ast the man for 3 bocks uv kende. He got it and thay went hom. And he pade 20 dolrs for it. But he codnt find them.”
As a writer and editor of articles for adults, I have the urge to get out the old red pen, or to reject the story entirely – tell the author that this story about three boxes of candy is totally unacceptable. But as a teacher of young children, I don’t react that way. My first approach is to show interest: “Did this really happen? What kind of candy was it?” I want to teach the child to write, and the very first step is to teach the child to take pleasure in writing. It doesn’t mean writing will always be pleasant, but if it starts out as an ordeal, it may go no further. Once the child knows I’m interested in the story, depending on the child’s level of sophistication, I may ask whether it was the candy or the money that was hard to find. I may ask whether the man paid before he left the store. I may ask who went home with the guy. There are many approaches I could take with this story. Twelve words are spelled wrong. Two aren’t spelled at all. Three boxes of candy probably wouldn’t cost twenty dollars.
I’m careful not to overwhelm the child with correction. As hard as a child’s errors may be to accept, too much correction tends to make children stop trying. Children need to know that they have potential, and it doesn’t take long for them to start believing that they don’t. We adults know a lot. We have all kinds of skills. Children can easily be made to think they’ll never have that knowledge and skill.
At a certain point, correction starts to become a compliment. The child knows that there are technical errors in his/her work, and feels respected when an adult points out these errors. That’s when to take out the red pen (or green, purple, or whatever color the child chooses), ever-so-carefully, and point out things that could be improved.

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