Recent research showing the direct links between children’s oral language development, the foundational stages of literacy acquisition, and later success in reading and writing is unequivocal. In our work with children, we give a lot of importance to talk not only because of its’ benefits for literacy acquisition, but also because talk in itself is of great importance. Being able to think and talk about things without feeling inhibited or getting anxious is a liberating experience, and we find that this brings about a perceptible change in a child’s personality. Freedom of expression means freedom of thinking and that can be a very empowering process for those coming from marginalised backgrounds. Authentic writing I feel is also about freedom of expression, where children are able to write spontaneously about things they want to write about. I have always believed that when the purpose of writing is clear to children, they take it up without any fear or inhibition because they are not overtly concerned about the surface features of writing or making mistakes. This helps them to acquire fluency and confidence and their writing improves over a period of time. Seeing progressive results is a big motivator both for the teacher as well as the child who learns to appreciate her/his voice and agency of expression.
In our rural school in Bigha, a village in the district of Burdwan, childen come from the scheduled caste or Muslim background, mainly from families whose livelihoods are linked to agriculture or fishing. In order to make education meaningful and relevant for them, we try to connect the children’s home and school and interlink the value that each represents. The school has a mango garden, a vermi compost pit and a kitchen garden that is maintained by children. Such experiences become an integral part of their learning, and they talk and write about things they experience, sometimes in the form of a report or some anecdote or even a simple observation such as ‘today I saw a lot of white ant-like insects at the base of my mango tree.”
In the early stages of literacy acquisition, it is important for children to make the connection between speech and writing, as both speaking and writing are forms of self expression. Classroom conversations sometimes act as strong triggers for writing. I am reminded of a particular example when one day, a child came to school traumatised as his elder brother had met with a serious road accident and had to be hospitalised for treatment. As the child was talking about his experiences, slowly other children joined in and started sharing about different accidents they had seen or experienced closely – traffic accidents, accidents while working, roofs falling down, accidents with fire, drowning and snakebites. The teacher decided to let them continue with the conversation and later on asked them to write down their experiences. The writings were then read out and shared and later on made into a booklet. These booklets are preserved as records, and also serve as reading materials for children.
Samples of booklets made from children’s writing - accidents, picnic, the story of our village pond, a hailstorm, bhokatta (kites),
Writing as an extension of speech
Everyone was playing Holi in our neighbourhood. I was watching them. It was fun! I felt I can also go and join them and play Holi. But they did not call me. I felt very sad. They finished playing Holi. Then they went and had their bath. But I saw that they still had colour on their body.
( Suhana Yasmin - Class 3)
We find that when children are able to talk without feeling inhibited or anxious, it helps them to be spontaneous in their writing. In fact, in certain instances we found them to be more open and uninhibited in their writing. When this happens, it is a wonderful social education for us to go through children’s writing on a variety of topics. Some years back I remember reading some pieces that gave me precious insights into how a child interprets the world around her/him. I remember, in a piece of writing on Durga Puja – a child had started his writing with the sentence - “I do not like Durga Puja very much as I do not get new clothes. My friends get.” The picture drawn by the child was symbolic – the Durga image was tiny – almost like a spider with her multiple arms – and the traditional ghat(kalash) and banana leaf decoration at the entrance was disproportionately big. It then struck us that this was a Muslim child who was denied entry into the inner room – and this was his perspective on an event in which he felt excluded and could not understand why. In this piece, on Holi - a child openly talks about her sense of hurt and exclusion:
For us teachers, listening to children’s talk and going through their writings can be a learning experience. West Bengal is extremely politically conscious – the voting day has a great impact on children’s mind – more perhaps than any puja or festival . They talk about it frequently. It was an eye opener for the teacher once, when a number of children described the voting day as a festival while writing about it. Going through their writings we came across some striking common features – mothers getting up early in the morning to cook, everyone in the family taking an early bath, how mothers put on new sarees to go to vote – one could see the festive mood at work! And in almost all the writings, we found references of violence and fighting :
It was the voting day. Our school was closed. Our mothers had all gone to vote. I had also gone. There were many people. A number of old people had come riding bhatbhatis. Our mothers came back home after casting their vote. I also came back. Sohail was with me. Some people were fighting on the road. Then the police came. The police called up the military. The military came and gave everyone a thrashing. Budo–grandpa’s son was peeping through the window and watching. The police thrashed Budo- grandpa’s son too. The voting continued till 10 o clock at night. All the people who were there ate muri and pakodas.
- Rabiul Sheikh (class 4)
When classroom talk is related to a child’s lived experience it has the potency to develop higher order thinking. Through talk, children not only learn to reflect on their experiences, to exchange and share information, but also slowly learn to value other perspectives, other points of views. While arguing and challenging each others observations, they learn to make new connections, to modify their thinking – all these are not only important building blocks for writing – but also a great preparation for democratic citizenship from early stages.
Talk and writing around books
The talk that happens around books is also very important – sometimes stories help children to connect with something similar they have experienced and at times stories help to give free rein to their imagination and innermost feelings. Personally I have been very moved by an experience around a story session. One day, two of my colleagues had gone to work with children in one of our supplementary learning centres (for slum children) in Kolkata. The children were told a somewhat funny story about a lion who was extremely angry because he was very hungry. All the animals in the forest tried to placate him with whatever they could bring, a carrot, a chilly, honey, etc. which fuelled his anger even further. Finally the lioness brings him some meat and he is happy. The lioness makes some snide remark about his petulant behavior and the lion starts laughing. Finally all the animals are relaxed and happy and live happily ever after. The discussion (led by children) that followed the story was not about who eats what but about how the lion was acting like a bully just because he was the king of the jungle, etc. Children were coming up with various options and possibilities of alternative endings. They were clearly in a mood to write their own stories. What came up was somewhat unexpected. A nine year old boy wrote his own story and also drew a picture
There was a monkey named Kaushal. He used to eat a banana every day. He went to the jungle every day and there he spent his time jumping from tree to tree. He has no mother. Once when he was very young his father had gone to get some food for him and never came back. He grew up slowly - little by little. Now he can look for his own food.
Later on when we found out from the teacher that this child’s mother had died when he was aninfant and his father also left him when he was quite young, and he was now being brought up by his old grandmother who could not take much care of him, leaving the child to fend for himself– we realised that he had projected his own painful experiences into the story he had constructed. In the same session, a seven year old child drew the picture of a father elephant and a baby elephant and wrote -“baby elephant banana tree, one day one baby elephant in front of banana tree” . But he read out his story as-
One day a baby elephant was trying to pluck some bananas from the banana tree. His father came and plucked some bananas for him. Then he drew some water with his trunk and bathed him and gave him some bananas
Later, when we heard about this child’s background, we were deeply moved. This child had lost his father just 3 weeks ago. A quiet child, this was the first time he had made any oblique reference to his loss. He had taken great pains to draw the picture – but he did not have adequate written language to express his deep emotions. But the fact that he sought the medium of drawing and writing to release his intense pain was a revelation to us.
Writing is inherently a social process and like conversation needs an audience. Once the writing is done, teachers encourage children to put up their writing on the wall, for other children to read and comment. These samples of writing are mainly first person accounts where children describe and reflect on some personal experience. This kind of writing helps children to express themselves freely and find their voice. The prior discussion and conversation around the topic, helps them to make a seamless transition from speech to script. A piece of writing that struck me as particularly lucid, well organised and with a definite ‘voice’ :
We see fields and ponds every day.But to see them in school together with friends is great fun. So one day we told our teacher – please take us out to the fields. Teacher said – yes. Then we all went to the fields. We saw so many Kash flowers. So many trees were planted by the pond. I felt happy to see the garden, the pond and the trees. We were all very happy. We were looking at the sky. We saw that the sky had come down and touched the village that was on the far end of the field. We told the teacher. I asked him what is this place called. My teacher said that this far off place is called the Digantarekha (horizon). He also said that behind the field are trees and behind those trees is a village. So many people live there in DigantaRekha!
With his limited vocabulary, this child has somehow been able to capture the wonder that he felt on experiencing for the first time a place where the ‘sky touches the earth’ and one can almost hear him talk!
Learning to differentiate between speech and writing
When children’s writing is put up for sharing, or when they read out their writings for their peers, the feedback they receive is very important - when their friends say ‘we could not understand what you are trying to say here’, or “you are starting all your sentences with ‘after this’ (tar por, tar por – in Bengali) – this sounds funny”. Usually this has to do with some of the differentiating features of writing – speech is dialogic whereas writing is monologic. Also in speech we can make endophoric references because it is taking place in a context which is common to all - whereas in writing we have to explain the context carefully in order to be coherent and intelligible. This understanding evolves as children keep writing and sharing their writing with others. In the initial years, we also encourage children to complement their writing with drawing, as we have seen that during the developing stage, drawing acts as a natural extension of their writing. At times, drawing brings out the unsaid and the unwritten, as in the case of the child writing about his Durga Puja experience – where the child’s perspective came out more clearly in the drawing – that he has always viewed the goddess from a distance.
Different genres of writing
For slightly older children (in the upper primary classes) in our supplementary learning centres in the city, we encourage children to bring out their own magazine – a Baal Akhbaar. These children are part of Citizenship Groups and they have a habit of reading newspapers when they come to the centre. In the Baal Akhbaar, sometimes they write about some interesting news from the paper – and also their own take on the news. They also write about news from their own neighbourhood, descriptive pieces, on some important festival, poems, and at times they also share their favourite recipes! We encourage them to be creative as these different kinds of writing provide them with the scope to experiment with different genres of writing, in a very authentic manner.
While speech and writing are both expressive skills, there are some important differences in the manner of expression in both, and this makes the relationship somewhat complex. But we have seen from our experience that at the initial stages (primary classes) children with good oral language skills develop capacity to fluently express their thoughts and ideas and this fluency of producing words and sentences helps them to write effortlessly once they have mastered the basic physical skills needed for writing. It is through continuous exposure to reading and proper scaffolding by the teacher that they gradually get to master all the skills associated with good writing. I will end my blog with a sample of a child’s writing, who incidentally is also extremely articulate in his speech and we find all the elements of good writing - ideas, voice, organisation, fluency of expression, vocabulary, and some kind of mastery over aspects such as handwriting, spelling, grammar, etc. in his work:
One day in the morning I was coming back from my private (tuitions).I suddenly I saw a snake charmer entering our village with a damru. I saw that the snake charmer came and stood in the field where we play. He kept playing his damru. Slowly many people came and gathered. He was carrying a white sack on his shoulder. He kept his sack on the ground and one by one took out the snake baskets. He opened the first basket and showed the head of a black snake. The snake was lying curled up. The snake charmer poked the snake on the belly and it hissed. All young children were scared. The man started playing the flute and the black snake was swaying. The snake charmer said it was a cobra. It has a lot of poison. They live in sacks. I was feeling very scared. After that I never touch any sacks. My friend said I have seen this snake earlier. Then the snake charmer asked us to bring some rice. The snake charmer told us about tabiz. Everyone took a tabiz. He also said those whose houses have many snakes, will have to put the tabiz in a bottle and bury it in a hole in front of the house. They will not see any snake ever again. On hearing this I took one. I went home and gave the tabiz. When I came back the snake charmer was gone. I asked Khoiduldadu which way did he go? Dadu said he has gone inside our village.