Tools for writing

Let’s say I decide to build a house.  I go to my father (who built the one I grew up in) and tell him my intentions.  And he says “Good for you.  Here are the tools you’ll need,” handing me, say, a screwdriver, a hammer, and a handsaw. My face falls a bit, because I know that when he’s building things, he usually uses a power saw, and the cordless drill and driver.  “Later,” he says when I ask about those. (He wouldn’t, really; this is rhetorical.)

So I get to work, and soon I have carpal tunnel from turning the screwdriver and I’ve thrown out my shoulder with the back and forth of the saw.  The work is going very very slowly.  “Plenty of houses got built this way,” people tell me.  “And it’s important to know the basics.”  Eventually, because I was more interested in the house than basic tool use, I stop.  The house is not realized.

And so it goes, too often, with young people and writing.  So intent are we on basic primitive tool usage that we forget to pay attention to what it actually takes to realize the proverbial house, and in so doing we run the risk of destroying the drive to do so.  If a child has an idea, a story, a thought of any kind to communicate, why wouldn’t we just get out of the way?  If she wants to use the computer, the spell check, the voice-to-text, why not?  These are tools of realization.

Generally the ‘why not,’ is in the worry that if we teach her to type too soon, or allow her to dictate before she can transcribe, she’ll never learn to use a pen, to write by hand. She’ll be hindered by skipping a critical first step.

But pens and pencils are to writing what screwdrivers are to building and fixing.  There was a time when they were the only tools available, and we needed them for big and small jobs alike.  We had no choice but to build houses with hand tools, and so learning to use them first was the only option. And there was a time when we had no choice but to do all our text-based communication by hand.  Now it’s not the only option, but we keep insisting kids wait to use the more efficient tools until they’ve learned to use the ones that are really only necessary for small jobs now.

We’re often insisting on it out of habit or nostalgia, which is too bad because it not only creates frustrated resistance in young people who don’t understand why we won’t let them use all the tools available but because it thwarts the realization of the house.  Or the poem or the novel, the thank-you note or the Valentine. It sends the message that kids are only welcome in the world of text once they’ve mastered a process that is now only peripherally necessary, which of course in turn makes them less enthusiastic about joining us in that world at all.


3 Responses

  1. I discovered you not long ago and I really like what you say and how you say it.


  2. I, too, have recently discovered your blog and really find what you have to say about education very insightful. I am an occupational therapist in a suburban school district so this topic resonates with me. I am often contacted about children’s handwriting difficulties in school. Your analogy about hand tools vs. power tools really helped me explain to teachers that typing and alternative written communication are very appropriate to teach children because this is the way of the world now. Not to mention the fact that handwriting is really not “taught” but children are just expected to pick it up…..but that is another rant for another time.

    Thank you again

    • Thanks, Lee. I’m so glad to hear support for this perspective on writing from an OT! I’ve seen it turn things around for so many kids but parents are understandably hesitant because we’re all so used to the traditional pathways of writing. The motivation to persevere through the challenges so many kids have with the physical task of it is so often more easily found once they’ve had an experience of creativity and productivity via some less arduous means!

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