Reflections on Co-composing with a Five-Year Old

My son is a reluctant reader. At five years old, I’m not overly concerned about this fact – yet. He sees his father reading and writing regularly, and his mom, well… I am a writing studies scholar, so it’s fair to say that he sees that I am surrounded by words most of my waking time. We read multiple books at bedtime each night, and his “library” takes over a good corner of our living room. But the fact that he eschews learning to put letters and sounds together to form words has not escaped my attention.

At the start of the summer, I printed fun flash cards with sight words on them (things like “at” and “you”). This was part of my effort to get him “kindergarten ready,” and I was certain that by August he would have enough recognition to work through some of Dr. Seuss’ simpler books. It didn’t work out that way. Within a week, my son furrowed his brows whenever he saw me so much as look in the cards’ direction, and I knew that if I pushed it, we would have much bigger problems.

The cards went into the drawer. But I had other tricks up my sleeve.

Since my son was old enough to understand words, his father and I have both (independently) made up bedtime stories. Dad created the character of “Charlie” – a little mouse with a yellow bowtie who always seems to have ingenious ways of helping his friends get out of trouble. And I have had “Peter” – a young, spirited boy not unlike my own, with an active imagination, a need to explore, and an ability to get into trouble. Our Peter stories started as a method to help teach some lessons about “crying wolf.” But over time, my son began to make requests. Could Peter go visit the Loch Ness monster? Could Peter come visit us, or make a trip to my sister-in-law’s home in Glasgow?

At first, I was resistant to my child trying to upend the bedtime story routine. By the second or third time he suggested alternate plot lines, though, I realized we had an opportunity – an opportunity to allow this child to experience some of the joys of composing. I thought, “What better way to encourage learning to read and write than through the satisfaction of creating your own stories?” (Or, in his case, co-creating.)

So when the sight words went into the bottom desk drawer, I posed a question to my reluctant reader: “Would you like to take one of our Peter stories and turn it into a book?”

“Can we do that?” he asked.

“We can do anything we want!” I replied, and off we went. For the first week or so, we spoke casually about what Peter might experience. Where would he go (if anywhere)? Would he be alone? Meet people? Would he learn anything on this adventure? I posed the questions; my son made the decisions.

One evening in June we were camping in the backyard. My son decided that he would tell me the bedtime Peter story that night. It was an abbreviated version of a story I’d told many times of Peter meeting the Loch Ness monster. What struck me that evening was how much he had remembered about the introduction to the story (every Peter story starts the same), but also how he infused his own language to make it his own. The story was the same, but it was more him. I don’t remember what we were talking about shortly after the story ended, but I do remember him referring to himself, explicitly, as a “writer.” I pounced on that like my cat on catnip. “Yes, exactly! You are an amazing writer!”

He beamed.

As the summer progressed, my son worked more and more detail into our plot line and the story details. I found unexpected relaxation and joy in illustrating the book with water colors and charcoal and oil pastels. He dictated the important details, and I transcribed (typeset, really) first into Word, and then later into an old version of InDesign I have on a desktop.

This evening, we exported the files to PDF and uploaded to a digital publisher for printing. The goal was, after all, to print a book. He stood beside me as we decided on a final title – one that would tell the reader a little about the story without giving away the surprises – and selected our favorite image for the cover. When our proof copy was finally ordered, we sat on the floor to play blocks and high-five one another for a job well done. He suggested we donate a copy to our local library and print some copies for friends, which told me just how proud of this project he is. We talked about all the parts that are “his,” and the type-setting/interpreter/illustrator role I performed (mostly how ”boring” he thought it must have been for me).

And then he told me that he was a little sad about the project.

“What on Earth are you sad about?” I asked? “We wrote a book!”

“But I don’t know how to use the letters to make the words,” he responded.

That’s when it hit me. At five years old, my child has already internalized the same beliefs as many of my third- and fourth-year writing students. He is associating “writing” with the words only – not the composing process and reflection and deep-thinking that goes into the substance of a final piece. Don’t misunderstand me: The written words matter. But the written words (the discourse) can be learned. The words do not predate the thinking. They do not come before process. He doesn’t need to know how to read in order to write – and he doesn’t need to know how to spell in order to be a “writer.”

I made sure to address this misconception immediately with my son, making sure he understood that not knowing how to spell does not make him any less of a writer. (I also reminded him of how nicely he handwrites letters and his name.) But it also made me think about how early these misconceptions about writing develop. If my child – who grows up surrounded by texts, with a mother who talks about the writing process all. the. time. – can decide that he is not a writer because he struggles with the physical act of writing words and spelling, what does that say for other children who do not have such luxuries (and they really are luxuries)?

I don’t have any answers. Or, at least, I don’t have any answers that others have not already more eloquently put forth in academic and non-academic realms. (Explicit teaching comes to mind.) But it does make me wonder if we are missing opportunities with our young children to help them see that they can be composers without being spellers or readers. Such false barriers just create unnecessary stress, in my opinion.

The co-composing with my son is far from over. We have other stories and projects to take up and, though this is anecdotal evidence at this point, I do think the activity of writing a book has made him less resistant to learning to read. I’ll likely use his comments from earlier this evening to offer (again) assistance in learning to spell. More than anything, though, I want to keep that identity as a writer prominent in his mind (as we do with his problem-solving abilities and athletic tendencies). I’m also considering taking this to the streets, so to speak, by offering a (free) workshop in our low-income community for parents interested in helping their children in literacy realms.

I’m interested in learning whether other parents/caregivers have tried a similar project and what the results have been. If so, please let me know. If you’re interested in reading our children’s book, it will be available for sale on Amazon: An Afternoon at the Beach: A Peter Story. (It’s actually really good, if I do say so myself.)

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