Originally Published: May 2002
Coloring with my four-year-old niece, I adjusted her grip on the crayon with encouraging assurances that this would eventually make it easier for her get just the effect she wanted. She appeased me for a while, then decided she didn’t want to color any more—at least not with me. As teachers, we are always walking that fine line between promoting skill and preventing discouragement. In meeting with parents, I find we often end up discussing the little things such as what should be required and what can be ignored? They are often surprised when I suggest something is important that they thought was insignificant, primarily because they didn’t see the long-range effect. Let’s take a look at a few of those “little” things:
- Why require proper grip and proper formation when drawing and writing? If kids can copy and trace shapes and letters, what difference does it make how they hold the pencil or where they start, top or bottom, left or right? And why does their work have to be exact anyway? Especially since everyone ends up with their own handwriting style. Actually, this is all part of the development of fine motor control. It is important to develop small muscles and hand-eye coordination in a manner that will ultimately allow children to carry out more complex skills without interference.For example, my son’s first violin lessons at age six stressed proper body and hand position even though he was learning very simple songs so that the later more complicated fingering would be possible. In the Olympics, an ice skater demonstrates skill and control by skating a perfect figure eight. We may be awed by the jumps and spins, forgetting that careful attention to form is part of each skater’s preparation. When the famous Renaissance artist Giotto was asked to prove his skill, he didn’t open his portfolio and flourish detailed sketches. Instead, he drew a simple, yet perfect (at least to the naked eye of Pope Boniface VIII) circle free-hand. That said it all. Bottom line: developing hand-eye coordination and fine-motor control will prevent interference later as children work at more complicated tasks.
- Why take the time for teacher-directed physical education? Why isn’t the occasional walk or time spent outside with friends enough? Like handwriting, direct input as children practice is necessary to help them develop strength, balance, and coordination that will contribute to a healthy body and mind. The benefits of exercise are well published and I’ve never had a parent argue against exercise—only complain that it is too hard to fit into a busy schedule, or that undirected exercise is sufficient. Young children, especially, need direct help in hopping, skipping, jumping, and tumbling. I remember being shown how to do something, and then practicing by playing with kids in my neighborhood. There was usually a natural athlete that would give me more pointers or simply inspire me to try harder. Unfortunately, times changed, and I didn’t think it was safe to let my kids roam the neighborhood or take off for a nearby park on their own. That meant more planning. Since short breaks of directed activity can also increase focus and concentration, I decided that approach would be the most productive way to fit physical education into our daily schedule. Even when I had enrolled my kids in various weekly activities at the YMCA, I continued with the daily exercise breaks. It wasn’t until they were older and working out several days each week as part of a sports team that my input was reduced to that of chauffeur and spectator.Bottom line: Children need specific input and plenty of practice in order to develop strength, balance, and coordination. Physical fitness relieves stress and increases stamina, the ability to concentrate, and a general sense of well-being. And remember, once a week is not enough. The habit of exercise done with proper form will be a life-long asset.
- Why read out loud to our children once they have learned or are learning to read on their own? With busy schedules, it becomes especially easy to consider reading out loud as an unnecessary luxury. The benefits, however, are great enough to justify the sacrifice of some workbook pages or other bits of the curriculum if that’s what it takes to find the time. If it is your time that is stretched, you can supplement with books on tape. (Note, I said supplement, not use exclusively.) You can also do what I did, have the kids carry out simple household chores while they listen to you read. My house was probably cleaner in those days then it is now that my kids are grown!So, just what are all those benefits? Kids develop an ear for language—proper grammar, increased vocabulary, interesting sentence structure—which influences their speech, their fluency in reading out loud and silently, and the rhythm and flow of language in their compositions. Most of us have probably had the experience of gaining sudden insight into a complicated Bible passage after hearing someone read it with proper expression, rhythm, and phrasing. I’ve heard some of Shakespeare’s most difficult passages become as easy to understand as casual conversation with a friend when spoken by such talents as Kenneth Branagh or Sir Michael Redgrave. We all benefit from hearing language spoken well, especially children.As you read and offer simple explanations or become involved in short discussions, the children will also develop a greater depth of understanding for what they later hear and read on their own. When kids are left to their own devices, their reading comprehension is limited by their ability to sound out words and their willingness to look up or ask the meaning of words they don’t know. Your direct involvement helps remove those limitations.
Bottom line: listening to a variety of fiction and nonfiction stimulates a love of reading and a love of learning, improves vocabulary and comprehension, and enhances creative imagination as well as the ability to write effectively.
- Why work with children throughout the writing process rather than letting them write and revise on their own? Because kids don’t want to change what they write, arguments often result in a compromise. Parents may insist on mechanical changes such as spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, but accept the content, especially if the student says he’s already revised it on his own. They may assign plenty of compositions, thinking that quantity will be enough to teach the student to write with quality. However, it is not practice that makes perfect, but, as a sign I saw at a gymnastics school stated, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” That is, kids don’t know enough to revise their own work. But, they can learn to write well by making revisions based on someone else’s specific comments and suggestions. By making specific suggestions, guiding them in their thinking, and teaching specific composition skills on-the-spot, the student is learning how to look at his writing in order to eventually have the ability to edit on his own.Writing is hard work, which makes the writing process (write and revise) something kids generally try to avoid. However, it is possible to be encouraging and demanding at the same time. I reminded my kids again and again that all writers rewrite. This requirement was not just me being mean. Then I limited my objectives so that only a few changes were worked on per assignment until they were old enough and “conditioned” enough to do more. I connected assignments to other subject areas, sometimes had them choose a topic they found especially appealing, and frequently used real-life opportunities as an excuse for compositions (letters to friends as well as to businesses, a newspaper sent to relatives, and requests for me to give permission for something they wanted to do). Occasionally I used workbook pages for supplemental editing practice. However, giving kids lots of workbook exercises and only an occasional work-on-their-own composition assignment can leave kids able to complete grammar worksheets with great accuracy, but unable to write an interesting paragraph.Bottom line: kids learn to write skillfully by receiving specific input from someone else rather then being left on their own.
The great advantage of homeschooling is that we don’t have to let a curriculum dictate our time schedule. We can use twelve months, not nine, choosing to take several short breaks instead of one long summer break. We can put together a curriculum according to our children’s needs, eliminating busy work. We can fulfill some academic requirements by hiring tutors or enrolling our kids in outside activities or camps where a teacher will supervise their practice. It’s easy for a hectic schedule to redirect our thinking. Instead of remembering that our children need our input in the little things, we find ourselves focusing on checklists—pages read, reports written, subjects covered. But we don’t have to be in such a rush. We don’t have to cover every subject every day. We don’t have to imitate the school system. We can take the time we need, so we have the advantage. We can focus on the journey.
Kathryn Stout’s books Critical Conditioning and Comprehensive Composition give greater insight into points 3 and 4. She has past columns available at her web site www.designastudy.com that offer further discussion of points 1 and 2. For a current listing of her books and tapes, visit her web site or request a brochure from Design-A-Study phone 1.302.998.3889.