The Writing Can Wait
Part of parenting is worrying. Even when we watch our young gifted learners madly read everything in reach (including the back of shampoo bottles while in the bath), fly through and beyond math curriculum, pontificate about politics over the centuries, or spout science in a way that would make Neil DeGrasse Tyson proud, we still tend to worry about where our children seem to struggle.
Often that worry is about writing and, specifically, formal academic writing. It’s not uncommon for a highly verbal child who peppers her parents with information all day long to balk when asked to write about those facts. Other children may independently write stories about magical flying cats colonizing a distant planet but refuse to touch a nonfiction assignment. For many highly gifted kids, writing may seem to lag behind the rest of the child’s cognitive skills, causing parents to worry and seek out formal writing instruction to “catch up” the writing with their other abilities.
But the writing can wait.
As a parent and as a writing teacher of gifted kids, I can tell you with some authority and loads of experience that the writing can wait. Writing is a complex skill that requires not just an agile mind but a set of mental and physical skills that don’t always keep pace with a child’s ability to do algebra or understand the causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire. It can be coaxed and coached, but, like shoe tying and bike riding, it seems to develop independently of other cognitive skills.
As with shoe tying and bike riding, writing requires complex motor skills. Whether writing refers to picking up a pencil or tapping at a keyboard, writing carries fine motor demands that simply can’t be rushed. Many a gifted child is thwarted by motor skills that develop at a more typical rate, and the mismatch between the gifted child’s flight of thoughts and the creep of an unsure hand can be great enough to make even the most persistent child slump with disappointment while trying to capture those fleeting thoughts. While dictation software continues to improve, young voices don’t capture as well as more modulated and mature voices. These programs, which can be a boon to those with writing disabilities, also require patient revising for transcription errors and the addition of punctuation verbally, both steps that again require slowing down.
Writing also requires mental discipline. When you slow your thoughts to write them down, you’re forced to mentally organize the throttled thoughts and make decisions about what should come next while discarding what really doesn’t need to be said. That requires a fair amount of executive function, and that system can’t be rushed to maturity.
Writing is hard work, especially the sort of writing that worries parents — essay and other academic writing. Even children who manage the motor and mental discipline of writing to craft stories and other highly creative works often struggle when writing becomes more formal (and, for most, far less interesting while having far more rules). Writing academically requires attention to a host of details, from organization to formality to selection of sources. For many kids, it’s simply not as much fun or as free as that creative work either, as it generally requires following a prompt or addressing a subject not of their choosing.
But the writing can wait. Really. It can.
It can wait past eight, past ten, and even eleven. (Scared yet?) Online G3 doesn’t offer semester-long formal writing classes to students under twelve because lots of experience has shown us that the process is often faster and far less painful to all involved after that point. As kids approach adolescence, those executive function skills start to develop, while typing and often handwriting speed increases along with patience. Frustration about the mismatch between the pace of ideas and the movement of the hand decreases as kids can slow down thoughts while writing or simply corral them in an outline or mind map before starting to write. By around age twelve (and like with any other skill, your child’s readiness may be earlier or later), many will be able to learn how to vet sources and recognize bias, skills essential to strong academic writing. They are also often more willing to take correction and advice while managing critique from teachers and peers with more aplomb. Also around twelve, many gifted kids are thinking about what comes next — early college classes and other writing-heavy courses. They often become invested in learning the challenging task of academic writing because it finally has purpose.
So the writing can wait. The formal academic writing — the essays and academic papers — can wait until later. Until that time comes, encourage relevant writing with purpose. For the youngest children, this might include making lists of favorite Pokemon or desired grocery items. Certainly the fading art of thank-you notes to Grandma provide reason to write — and Grandma may be delighted to reply! If a child enjoys it, crafting poetry and fiction provide plenty of practice. Moderated forums for kids, like the Online G3 social forums, offer another place where writing has purpose. Debates about Minecraft mods, evolutions of those favorite Pokemon, and favorites books create purpose and a desire to communicate — in writing — clearly. Even video games can foster writing. Minecraft has encouraged many a young child to find a faster way around a keyboard.
More formally, Online G3 forum posts encourage conversation about class topics, even in classes for the youngest students. While some focus on creative thought, others emphasize analysis, synthesis, and evaluation along with other higher-order thinking skills needed for academic writing in the years to come. These skills develop strength as students work to be understood by their peers, who will be replying to their posts, and as they read the writing of others. Writing just has more meaning when it serves to communicate with others. Writing for only an instructor doesn’t offer the same real-world opportunity — or reward — that writing for peers does.
The writing can wait.
Sarah Butler is also known as Coach Cordelia at OnlineG3.com. She teaches writing at G3.
This article is reprinted with permission from Online G3.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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