on Evaluating a Young Child's Writing
Evaluating children's writing can be discouraging. Often it is full of incomplete thoughts, misspellings, erasures. Looking at it from our adult perspective, we tend to see only what is wrong, failing to recognize how intelligently students are processing what they know to move toward what they need to learn. Here are ten pointers to assist us in looking beyond superficial errors to the thoughts behind the young child's words.
1. Assume the child's work is intelligent
In September, Kelli, a first grader, produced the following story:
Is Kelli randomly practicing letters? Not at all. To understand the letters, though, we need to consult the expert on their meaning: Kelli. She had no difficulty reading what she had written:
Once upon a time there lived a little girl and a little boy. Once they went apple picking so they made applesauce. It was yummy.
As soon as Kelli reads her story aloud we can see she understands many elements of how stories are put together. She knows they often begin with, "Once upon a time there lived." She knows, too, that they are about characters who take some kind of action that results in a consequence. Kelli's little boy and girl went apple picking so they could make the applesauce they enjoyed eating. This is a simple story but a complete one.
2. Children begin to write the way they speak
It's logical to Kelli that her letters run across the page without spaces between them because spoken language is a steady stream of sound. Listen to someone speaking a language unfamiliar to you and you hear sounds flowing together, not individual words. This is the way children hear language. Learning to break it up into its component parts is a complicated skill learned gradually.
3. Invented spelling reveals what children hear
If we look closely at Kelli's story we see that she clearly hears the initial sounds of words. Once sounds as if it began with w, and the u in upon has the sound of a (when it precedes a noun beginning with a consonant: a table, a book, etc.). We can legitimately commend Kelli for her accurate perception of initial sounds before trying to raise her awareness of consonants and vowels at the middle and end of words.
4. Children's stories contain bits of knowledge from many sources
Kelli has picked up an idea of how stories are constructed and has assimilated some literary language such as "Once upon a time." Later on she may write stories which are a patchwork of all the stories she has heard, perhaps borrowing snatches from Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Cinderella while also including bits of her own experience such as apple picking.
This amalgamation of knowledge is not just a charming stage children pass through on the way to writing original stories. Professional writers work the same way. They simply write with greater subtlety and skill. They design a character based on a person they have known, sometimes borrowing personality traits from one person while using another's physical characteristics. The thoughts and feelings of this character, however, may come from the author herself. Settings may be based on places the author has visited, and the situations the character faces may be derived from the author's own experience.
We need not admonish children for not being "original" when we recognize the sources of their textual patchwork. Instead, we can tell them how adult authors use their experiences in their books. The autobiographies of such children's authors as Bill Peet, Jean Little, and Beverly Cleary show clearly how their work has been influenced by their lives.
5. Meaning is more important than mechanics
We need to let children explain their stories before we begin instruction on mechanics. The conventions of grammar, spelling, and format are important skills to acquire. But attention to them belongs at the end – not the beginning – of the composition process. Think of how you feel when you're telling a story to a friend and she corrects your pronunciation! This interrupts the flow of your story and curbs your enthusiasm for telling it. We speak and write to communicate with others. When our audience seems less interested in our thoughts than in the surface details of our presentation, we feel our story is flawed and we feel personally flawed as well. Our desire to communicate has been diminished.
6. Describe – don't judge
Put into words the positive aspects of the child's writing. After Kelli reads her story and you have commented on the pleasures of apple picking, you might say, "You're beginning your story with 'Once upon a time,' just the way a lot of stories begin. You also tell who is in the story and what they did. That's the way stories are put together, isn't it?" Then you could tell her that the letters she has written show that she hears the first sounds in the words she wants to write. Specific description is far more likely to promote improvement than vague praise such as "Good" or "Nice going, Kelli." It is many times more helpful than responding to the story by saying, "You need to put spaces between your words!"
But don't children need to learn to put spaces between their words? Certainly. But they learn more effectively if this and other conventions are introduced by examining a text which isn't directly connected to them. Kelli's letters on the page represent many more rich details of her apple picking experience than she can express even verbally. That's why it deserves to be treated with respect. To help Kelli as a writer we need to show her the ways she has succeeded in communicating these important events in her life.
7. Honor children's ambitions
Young children often do not realize the limits of their ability. When they begin to read chapter books, they want to write them. The more they enjoy complicated stories the more they want to produce them. So they take pride in the length of their stories, reasoning that since reading longer stories is a mark of maturity, writing long stories is also a sign of their increasing competence. And so it is, up to a point. But often the lengthy, complex tale they envision is beyond their ability. Therefore, many of their stories are left unfinished – not because they are lazy or unmotivated, but simply because they have attempted more than they can accomplish. Our job as teachers and parents is to respect their ambitious plans while showing them, when appropriate, how to tailor their ideas to manageable proportions.
8. All writing doesn't have to be perfect
Nothing kills the desire to write more than thinking you have to produce several drafts of every piece of writing. Of course we need to take pride in our work. Some writing should be revised and edited carefully. But writing for practice is valuable, too. When looking at a child's work, we need to ask ourselves if this paper requires more than one draft. Would we ever learn to ride a bike or bowl or swim if we didn't have plenty of time to practice this skill at our own pace without someone constantly watching, demanding improvement?
9. In some areas the writer should have total control
When children produce "books" they often add extra details such as author's notes to the reader, dedications, elaborate ways of writing "The End." These are based on their knowledge of the contents of commercially produced books. These touches personalize their work and need little or no comment. Children face so many requirements that whenever we allow them a space to express their uniqueness by pleasing themselves, rather than us, we strengthen their investment in the writing process and their confidence in themselves as writers.
10. Assume children's writing will improve
Writing progress is often slow, and good work may be succeeded by work that isn't as successful. This can be frustrating for us as parents and teachers. But if we respond to children's work with patient confidence, growth – at different rates for different children – will occur as children come to recognize writing as a powerful tool which can enhance their lives.