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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Writing Readiness Or: Something Else We Did Late {and it Worked Out Okay}

    April 23, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]T[/dropcap]here is a lot of pressure to start writing in first grade, or even in kindergarten. Around here, “kindergarten” is  generally code for “15-minutes-of-phonics-plus-a-read-aloud.” Or, at least, that has been the trend. So writing didn’t really come up, unless someone, using their extensive amount of free time, decided to copy something.

    In first grade, we start AmblesideOnline Year One, and then there is the dreaded copywork listed right there under Daily. Obviously, “copywork” must begin with proper letter formation. My second child simply was. not. ready.

    True confession: I ended up not teaching one of my children to write until age eight ... and I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.

    But, oh, how we tried.

    We drew in the air and we drew in the dirt. We talked through the strokes.

    See this? This is “A.” To make an A — watch my arm! — you do one line down, second line down, one line across.

    And then she would try to do it herself and it was the sorriest looking A you ever saw. Charlotte Mason wrote, in regard to copywork:

    No work should be given to a child that he cannot execute perfectly, and then perfection should be required of him as a matter of course.

    Hmmm … perfectly?

    I did the standard of perfection thing with my oldest, and it worked out great, but what to do when a child’s ability to “execute perfectly” is clearly at zip, zero, zilch?

    I pushed on through the weeks for a while, and then … I dropped handwriting. But I didn’t drop it in a thinking, deliberate sort of way. I dropped it in an I-don’t-know-what-to-do-about-this-child sort of way.

    Which I wouldn’t suggest.

    Then I thought I’d go and buy a cursive curriculum, even though I’ve taught handwriting in the past without curricula of any kind. {How human it is to think money spent will solve our troubles!} I read all that “cursive first” stuff, and thought we’d try that, since printing didn’t take.

    But that proved equally frustrating. We were working daily and getting nowhere.

    Finally, I asked myself: What would happen if this was math?

    Well, I believe that the ability to do math is, first, a neurological one. Normal, healthy children can do math when their brains are ready. Asking them to do it earlier than that is {1} extremely frustrating and {2} asking for math trouble later on in childhood.

    What if, I asked myself, she just isn’t ready?

    You’d think I’d be used to this sort of question, but the truth is it shocks me every time, and I think that is because there is such an extreme push for early academics these days. Now, it’s not just kindergarten. Kids around here have to go to preschool, or something called TK {transitional kindergarten}, and the parents are so proud of how academic their kids are.

    I’m a pretty academic person, but I still would rather my kindergartener know the trees and birds by name and wait on the math thing.

    But I digress.

    My point here is that I skipped writing after that.

    Until after her eighth birthday.

    I’ll wait while you freak out.


    She had always copied things from books, and she continued doing so in her writing that, until recently, still looked like a five-year-old’s. It was clunky and mostly capitals. When I noticed, around her eighth birthday, that her letters had begun to look quite nice, all on their own {with no instruction from me}, I started teaching her proper letter formation and pencil grip.

    It took about a week to teach her the entire alphabet.

    And that standard of perfection? She reaches it, yes she does.

    So we’re done with letter formation and we’re commencing real, live copywork, still asking for perfection. We’ll start with words — her name, for example. Then we’ll do simple sentences from her books.

    And we’ll go from there.

    I’m not saying here that all children should wait until eight. My current kindergartener is probably ready right now, but our house policy is that I’m not obligated to teach handwriting until first grade, and so I don’t.

    It takes wisdom to figure out whether a child needs to push through, or take time off. Some children don’t want to work hard, and taking time off won’t teach them perseverance. But a child working hard and struggling? I am increasingly convinced that this is a sign that they are being asked to do something which is neurologically inappropriate.

    I never mentioned this around here because I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing. At least, not until recently. I see her perfect little copy pages, and I’m so glad we took time off. There was no frustration, there were no tears. She didn’t start to think she was “dumb,” or couldn’t cut it. I’m not sure she even noticed it disappeared from the schedule for over a year!

    And now, she’s learning to write.


    Waiting has its charms.

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  • Reply Meg April 30, 2016 at 8:18 am

    This. I literally could have written it, because this has been our year–complete with my own childish “I don’t want to fight about it, so we aren’t doing it” attitude. Seriously brings my heart such relief and joy to know that I am not alone in the struggle with handwriting, and to know that it eventually resolved itself without a constant, monstrous battle. Thank you, Brandy, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

  • Reply Nicole September 16, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    I’m pretty sure I haven’t commented before so I hope this doesn’t make me sound crazy, but I love you. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years now, and I have a daughter just barely short of 5 (my oldest with 2 younger brothers). In all my eagerness I had been trying to help her learn proper strokes when she’s copying letters. It. just. is. not. happening. I’m putting it away. We’ll probably try when she’s six, but thank you for saying it’s okay to wait. I feel a lot of pressure for her to learn to write this year like all the other kindergartners.
    And when I say I love you, I totally mean it. I spend hours in the archives of your blog. I wish I could figure out how to just go to your first post from 10 years ago and start reading forward. I think you’re my homeschooling mentor. So this is me introducing myself. I promise I’m not a stalker in real life and live on the opposite coast anyways. 😉 It’s probably a good thing I’m an introvert and would never say this much to someone in person. lol.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 20, 2015 at 3:04 pm

      Well, thanks for sending the introvert love my way, Nicole. 🙂 <3

  • Reply Hayley April 28, 2013 at 7:03 am

    What a wonderful education journey your daughter is on. What a wonderful mother you are.

  • Reply Rahime April 26, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Yay for letting children do things when their brains are ready for it!!!

    I have seen this soooo many times with my students….albeit in later phases of their education. A child fights and struggles with something like factoring and then 3 months later (after not dealing with it in the in-between time) leans how to do it effortlessly. I particularly have noticed it with certain areas (in my case mainly math-based because 90% of my tutoring is math): geometry, then trigonometry, then calculus. I have so many “advanced” students that just hit a wall in one of these subjects and they Just Can’t Get It no matter how hard they try. If we catch it early enough I advise the parents to let their child drop the class and try again the next year (would be so much easier when homeschooling and you could pick up again as soon as the student is ready). Almost invariably the parent freaks out, but if they do go through with it the child almost always has something “click” during the break and the class is easy for them the next year.

    I’m already finding this handy with Eleanor even at 18 months. She has a little clock puzzle with a different shaped block for each number, and around 3 months ago she was getting so frustrated playing with it that she’d end up in tears each time (I didn’t expect her to be able to put all of the blocks in the right places, but originally thought she might have fun exploring the different pieces). She’d get so upset that she couldn’t do it, though, that I put it away out of reach. Yesterday she was pointing to it and asking for it and I pulled it down for her and she proudly carried it to the living room. I helped her put do it one time and then we dumped it and I left the room for a few minutes. When I got back she had put every piece in by herself (11 since we lost one somewhere in the Great Sadness). I still don’t know that she’s ready for it, but 5 minutes of playing without tears sure makes me a lot happier about having it around.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 28, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      I really needed to hear that about your older students, Rahime. I think that I still often see this as something to expect in the *younger* years. But I guess I have even seen this in myself as an adult. I read a book and it’s hard. I pick it up a couple years later, and I get it. Why that break helped, I don’t know…

      Interesting. I will try and remember this when I have teens hitting walls!

  • Reply Amanda April 26, 2013 at 5:25 am

    HA!!!! I love that you posted this on the birthday of my child who HATED PENCILS until he was 9, and then learned via copywork how to make BEAUTIFUL letters by IGNORING my instructions completely.

    So be it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 28, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      I had to laugh at that son of yours, Amanda! 🙂

  • Reply Mystie April 26, 2013 at 4:17 am

    I’m late to the party, Brandy, but this really was a great and much-needed post.

    Honestly, it is this perspective that keeps me in the unschooly circles, because it seems they are the only ones making sure this point is heard. That, and every homeschooling mother who had graduated multiple students also harped on it if ever asked for advice. 🙂

    Right now, “readiness” just reminds me that I need to potty train my 3-year-old. I think I’ve waited as long as I should. 🙂

  • Reply amy April 25, 2013 at 3:00 am

    This is so good Brandy! Thank you!

  • Reply Laurie April 25, 2013 at 12:31 am

    I have found this over an over with Liam. I try to force something and eventually realize he just isn’t ready. And low and behold a while later he is ready and then he makes significant progress in response to the instruction.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 28, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      It is amazing to me that waiting alone can bring progress. It is so counterintuitive!

  • Reply sara April 25, 2013 at 12:23 am

    I SHOULD have waited to do copywork with my son. SO frustrating.

  • Reply Jeanne April 24, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Does that mean there is hope for my 11 yo? Honestly, I try to keep trusting the system, but sometimes it’s really hard, y’know?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      I *know* Jeanne! I do think there is always hope. I really do.

      I think it gets really hard when they are intellectually able to start writing out narrations, etc. but do not have the fine motor skills to keep up! In our case, she was also a late bloomer in other areas, which, in some ways, was a blessing.

  • Reply Beth Starr April 24, 2013 at 5:31 am

    I agree! My 10 year old son has really struggled with writing, print and cursive. Last year we attempted cursive in the last half of the year and it was extremely frustrating. I finally stopped and I decided he needed to work on some fine motor skills. That idea lasted for a week before we gave it up and just enjoyed our summer break. When we started school this year I pulled out the cursive book and lo and behold he could do it! I realized that he wasn’t ready last year and I really think he needed the summer to mature in that area.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 24, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      I think you pinpointed here another idea, that a Sabbath for the mind can bear fruit of its own kind. We often think that doing *more* is what it takes, but I’m not sure that is true.

  • Reply Susan in St. Louis April 24, 2013 at 2:01 am

    I WANT to wait (my son is almost 6). However, my son has been printing on his own and using improper strokes, and I want him to learn cursive first. Therefore I feel “forced” into starting, though we are only doing 10-15 minutes/day a few days a week. Sigh.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 24, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      I was worried about that, too. She still forms her letters improperly when she’s copying on her own–the new knowledge has transferred into private practice–but I think it will still work out okay…

    • Reply Mystie April 26, 2013 at 4:14 am

      But if he’s copying on his own then he’s probably ready. Just like with reading, if a 5 year old is figuring out reading on his own, then he needs phonics instruction, but if a 5 year old just doesn’t get it, then there’s no harm in waiting. There’s no virtue in waiting *past* readiness.

  • Reply Sallie @ A Quiet Simple Life April 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    My favorite part of homeschooling (as opposed to my experience in being an elementary teacher) is that I just wait until the right time and then – boom – we’re done.

    I’ve had the same experience with handwriting. We’ve done almost none this year (first grade) because Caroline wasn’t ready. It was too frustrating for her. I’ve picked it up again the past few weeks and she sits down and does it with relative ease and no pushback. She’s just ready in a way she wasn’t before.

    The other thing I remind myself is that she is young compared to her grade cohort. For example, she’s four months younger than my good friend’s daughter. In the early years, four months is a looong time. I’ve come to the conclusion that our second half of the school year is going to be the leaps and bounds section of the year because of where she is developmentally.

    I also still believe strongly in the half year equilibrium/disequalibrium theory I brought up on my blog when she was three and a half. She hit her half year in March and she’s just like a different child. Maturity shooting through the roof in so many ways. It happens every year and I always forget about it until it happens and reminds me again.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 24, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      I am trying to remember which famous person was educated that way {waiting until ready} to an extreme. I was thinking it was Descartes, but I looked it up and that isn’t right. Anyhow, it was about a year ago that I read in a short bio of *someone* brilliant and famous that his education was directed by his father, who believed that *nothing* should be introduced before a child was ready. The man certainly didn’t suffer for the education of the child!

      Admittedly, I am not quite *that* brave!

  • Reply austen_n_burney April 23, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    I had a slightly different experience with a child that couldn’t figure out manuscript. We switched to cursive and the next day I saw recognizable things. Making the letters all start at the same place seemed to help something click in his head.He now practices manuscript all on his own, perfectly, with no instruction from me. This is obviously quite different than a child who was not neurologically ready, it was just the key that made everything make sense in his head. Thank you for the candid reminder to see each kid as a person who develops on their own schedule and not the State’s schedule. This homeschooling thing is not only an education for me, but a constant lesson in discernment.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 23, 2013 at 10:10 pm

      I *do* think the cursive-first crowd has a point, and your situation seems to be good evidence. 🙂 What you say about the letters all starting in the same place makes sense. It is amazing how many starting positions there are for printing!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 23, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      By the way, I think your observation that homeschooling is “a constant lesson in discernment” is brilliant!

  • Reply Sarah April 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Love this. It is absolutely how I think about learning to read, as well.

    I did the give-a-child-who-doesn’t-want-to-work-hard-in-math-a-long-break thing and it was not so fruitful. Ahem. Your point that there is significant difference between lack of perseverance and a child who is simply not ready, neurologically, to learn something is a good one. I’ve seen both in my own home.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 23, 2013 at 10:13 pm

      I had to laugh at your child who doesn’t want to work hard! I have a couple of those in the Plutarch class I teach. To be honest, this child I’m talking about can *sometimes* be that child, so it was hard to tell with her…I think that is why it took me so long to make a decision.

  • Reply Ellen April 23, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    I’m seeing so much of this on a smaller level with my kindergarten boy. We have been doing reading lessons and math and handwriting this year… and each of those I’ve given about 5-15 minutes a day. We’re talking short. He was interested, but he had to work at learning to read, so I kept it short. All of a sudden, things are clicking in. He wants to do more. He asks to do more. He is adding and subtracting in his head and telling me about it, and he asks to make our reading lessons longer. I’m really glad I just did enough to whet his appetite and didn’t push it earlier. I’m glad I took a break from the math curriculum when it was clear he needed more time to work on number recognition before continuing. I’m seeing the cognitive jump right now, and its fascinating…

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 23, 2013 at 10:05 pm

      Isn’t it interesting, the way their minds work? I love that he wants more. That is such a sign that you are keeping his appetite strong!

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