Why isn't my kid writing?
When I speak to other international educators, families and companies about international education in Japan, one of the major concerns is always writing.
Why aren't kids motivated to write well? Why is the quality of writing not higher? Why is the writing filled with errors?
There are certain key differences between Japanese and English that make it more difficult for families and children here to understand how English develops as a language.
After teaching literacy in K-12 education in the United States and experiencing English instruction in Japan, I have noticed that teaching English with Japanese expectations creates extra challenges for English learners here.
The way that we measure good writers in native English classrooms is very different from how ESL/ELL kids in Japan are measured. I will try to provide specific examples in this series of posts
The basic idea is that kids need to focus more on writing, vocabulary building and phonics earlier, in order to be successful writers later.
Truth #1: Correct spelling is a lower priority than you think
Japanese kids are expected to know how to correctly spell in Japanese (hiragana) from an relatively early age. This makes sense for reasons I will explain in a moment.
When English develops organically, the very beginnings of correct spelling are not something teachers expect until the end of 1st grade. That means that the children know some specific words that they can spell correctly and can try to spell unknown words with some degree of phonetic accuracy.
It is more important to learn new words and practice using them in writing than to be able to spell correctly. That means that it is better for your child to spend more time reading and building vocabulary instead of practicing spelling.
Kids use "invented spelling" until a relatively late age (up to 11 years old). Invented spelling is the use of phonics and spelling patterns to spell unknown words. The resulting invented spellings can be incorrect, but should phonetically match the word.
Please read up on Gentry's stages of spelling for more information.
Why are expectations for spelling different?
Japanese characters (hiragana) , for the most part, are each directly connected to a single character. Want to change "hi" to "pi"? Add a simple circle annotation to 「ひ」 to make it 「ぴ」.
I could have included a second chart to the second one above to encompass all of the basic characters and phonemes of Japanese. Each character connects to ONE (and only one) sound.
As a comparison to English, I invite you to visit Phonics Talk, which has a concise, EIGHTEEN charts to include all character to sound combinations in the English language. We may only have 26 characters in English, but we have 44 phonemes (unique sounds) and 70 letter-sounds combinations.
We may only have 26 characters in English, but we have 44 phonemes (unique sounds) and 70 letter-sounds combinations.
English, as a language, is a bit of a nightmare. Originally Germanic in origin, Old English went through so many changes that it didn't resemble today's English until the end of the 1700s. Modern English, as it is now called, is a mixed bag of Greek and Latin roots, borrowed words from other languages and its own Germanic roots.
Spelling and pronunciation, as a result, are highly irregular.
What happens when kids are too focused on spelling?
Perfectionism in spelling is not an issue unique to Japanese learners of English. There is a lot of educational research that has gone into what happens when kids focus too much on correct spelling.
Here are some common issues educators see with kids who think about spelling too much:
I underlined the second point because if is so important for writers to write a lot. A garden grows where you water it. Writing skill develops where you practice it.
How can I help my child?
Advice for K-3 kids
Advice for Grade 3-6 kids
Learning without boundaries
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