8 Mar 2018

When should a child learn to write?

From Nine To Noon, 11:28 am on 8 March 2018

There’s no rush to learn to write, and it shouldn’t be formally taught until the age of seven, says educator Nathan Mikaere-Wallis.

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Photo: 123RF

Mikaere-Wallis, a researcher and parenting commentator, says a child has to first learn to love learning.

“There is no need to be doing formalised writing in early childhood centres – it would actually be pretty detrimental.

This is backed by longitudinal studies and research on brain development, he says.

The part of the brain that likes repetitive pattern, the frontal cortex, is associated with numeracy and literacy. “You move into that part of your brain when you’re seven,” he says.

There’s always a group of children who turn up to school ready to write, weighted towards first-born children and girls.

But there’s no extra benefit to that, he says.

By the time children are eight, the early learners have the same reading age as those who started at seven.

A good solid basis in oral language is what leads to good writing.

“In most Scandinavian countries children aren’t taught to write until they’re seven. They’re allowed to write, but no formalisation comes in.”

“Writing isn’t bad under the age of seven, it’s the formal teaching of it.

“It’s bad if a five year old is stressing out about their learning because at five you’re developing your emotional attitude towards yourself as a learner.

“A child under stress is basically learning they’re a bit stupid so we should be avoiding stress for five year olds.”

Asian girl writing on wall

Photo: 123RF

In primary school, a child only benefits from two-and-a-half hours a day of teacher-led instruction. Anything more has little effect, so the teacher then is “scaffolding the child-led play”.

He says Finland moved up international education tables after implementing that research.

Mikaere-Wallis is wary of anecdotal reports of children turning up to school without being able to hold a pencil properly because of the time they’re spending on technology.

He says children are still practising fine motor skills in early childhood centres, such as with finger painting and finger puppets, and using a paintbrush or building blocks.

Schools are moving towards play-based early schooling, Mikaere-Wallis says.

He says free play and creativity will make for an intelligent child.

His three-and-a-half year old daughter wanted to write things down, but that was because she’d seen her older brothers and sisters writing and “worked out the rest of society thinks you’re really flash when you do that”.

“Adults would say things to her like ‘do you know how to write your name’. So I think it’s the expectation, and wanting to please – if the kid [isn’t] wanting to please the adults, I don’t see very many of those children wanting to write.”