Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The 4rs -- Writing continued

I mentioned how I realized that my children had naturally been following a very natural "analysis and imitation" program without me really being aware of it.   This was such a relief for me to discover.   I had seen that my older children had become good writers without very much help from me.   But since I didn't really know HOW, I never felt comfortable because I had no way of knowing what had worked.

When I say "analysis" I am not talking about young children formally dissecting works of literature.  Maybe it would be better to say "comprehension" or "participation" -- or perhaps mimesis?   When a child's psychological "cup" is brimming he naturally tends to express it according to the models he is growing up with.  So when a child reads a very good book and puts his imagination and heart into the reading, it tends to come out in some way.  For example, I can usually tell when Paddy has been reading our Paddington Bear treasury because he comes up to me wearing a hat and tips it, and he pays more attention to his manners!  Clare and Brendan would almost live in story worlds, taking on an almost permanent identity of Merry and Pippin, or Tony and Tia, or whoever struck their fictional fancy. 

So it's not surprising that my children would grow up writing stories.   And as I said, narrative is the core of almost all written expression.   Take a look at any blog, or magazine article, or even a presidential address.  

This gives me a way to approach writing this year with Kieron.   The cool thing is that writing is also a natural way of becoming a better reader.   The two processes are linked. I will give more details in future.     Right now I just wanted to think on the screen about why my children generally tended to resist non-fiction writing until high school years when they naturally started developing this ability.   I think it's probably because they didn't read much non-narrative writing until then, and what they did read, they didn't "participate" in enough to imitate it.    Most of what they enjoyed was narrative, whether fiction or non-fiction.   And young children don't make a sharp distinction between fictional and non-fictional narrative.  My 7 year old puts Gilgamesh and the Assyrian army in his games as readily as he puts in Marvel superheroes.  It's all material for the imagination. 

I've noticed again and again the interlude between first exposure and actual assimilation and use.   In fact, if I could go back and do mothering all over again, this is the one thing I'd like to take with me!  A child hears us speaking for 2-3 whole years before he first starts speaking himself, and then it's another 1-3 years before real fluency in expression.    He hears and comprehends me reading to him for, say, 2-3 years before he starts stumblingly decoding the written word himself, and there's another 6 months to 4 years before real literacy.   Then once a child is reading well, it's usually another 2-4 years before he is comfortable writing.   And so on -- it applies almost across the board, like where you have to expose a child about 15 times to a strange new food before he is willing to accept it into his body.   And it takes about 3-5 years before the manners of the household are fully imprinted onto the child's manners... before he fully knows how to behave at Mass, at table, in regard to his siblings.   And so on. 

This principle, which I really wish I could apply retroactively, seems very powerful -- but what it means here is that in junior high or high school is usually where students start seriously reading essays and other non-narrative forms of literature.  For example, I started having my oldest read CS Lewis and other similar things when he was in about 7th grade.   And then, right on schedule, 2-4 years later he started being able to write good non-narrative prose.   My daughter followed a different route when she started reading non-narrative on subjects of interest, but similarly she started spontaneously writing for newsletters, blogs and the Barrowdowns site a couple of years later.

How very interesting!  That seems to be an argument for having kids start reading a variety of literary forms EVEN if they don't entirely comprehend what they read.  The content is not the only thing of importance here -- it's the exposure, if my thinking is correct.   It's reading (and if possible, hearing and memorizing) the form done well.   The corollary seems to be that you shouldn't give the children too much dumbed-down, simplistic prose to read (such as is found in textbooks for kids) because then that's the non-narrative "style" that the kids will tend to develop (and the same goes for twaddly, badly written fiction as far as developing a narrative style).

I can't seem to find the exact article, but Ed Vavra's KISS grammar site had a fascinating anecdotal study of how freshmen's writing had been influenced by syntactically over-simplified content-oriented textbooks.  This is the reverse truth of the truth that when children assimilate complex syntax they are actually refining their mental powers.    From Mary Daly:
clarity of thought is essential to maintaining Catholic Christian civilization. Clarity of thought depends on being able to keep track of the way that words are related in complex sentences
You can see all around us, and this doesn't just apply to Catholics, the problems that come up when ordinary people can't think past basic subject/verb/object constructions.  And unfortunately, this is often all we are exposed to nowadays. 

Nothing really new has been said in this post -- nothing that Charlotte Mason, the Jesuit educators, Andrew Pudewa and Andrew Kern haven't already said better -- but it's still sort of a breakthrough for me because now I understand better what we did right and it will help me to be more intentional when I'm figuring out how to do things for Kieron's (and Paddy's) high school.  It even gives me some insight into how to approach Aidan's education.

This will be my last looong post for a while!   School is about to start, for one thing.   And also, long posts are hard to read.  It will be fun to try to keep it short for a little while.  I think it will help me with simplicity.  I'm not promising to be 100 percent perfect right away!

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