In Mrs. Woodbridge's Kindergarten, we were supposed to count the number of books in our house. I came home crying because I knew this was impossible.

I was born of a love affair between two journalists, who subsequently raised us on a steady diet of Literature and Vocabulary, with a steaming side of witty banter. We preferred books to food--unless it was carbs.

First grade was also a bummer, so I started a neighborhood newspaper and was homeschooled thereafter. Some 7th graders have detention, I had Ulysses.

I grew up to become a public school teacher and taught primarily reluctant and remedial readers. I liked it and was good at it. I got a masters in Educational Literacy with an emphasis on emergent (early) literacy. I knew what helped kids become readers.

Until I had a kid.

We decided to homeschool our eldest. If there was ever a literacy-rich, pro-reading environment, she grew up in it.

When I started to teach her explicitly how to read (because despite my best hopes and planning she didn't teach herself), it did not go well.

I would sit down with her like a nervous alligator wrestler, silently psyching myself up before the fight. "You got this. You're trained for this!" Inevitably, those first few months, I would have to walk away because I was so overcome with either the ineptitude of my teaching skill or my daughter's seeming lack of intellect. "We have seen this word on every page!!!"

Eventually, I took a different track. And my training really has helped.

The reading/writing connection is real.

One of the things we discuss a lot in the literacy sphere is the connection between reading and writing. They are skills developed together. Doing one without the other is bad form, and possibly dangerous. My daughter loved to communicate, so writing was much more useful to her than reading.

Enter the journal. It's a (mostly) free-form vessel for self-expression. Every day, my children 4 and older write a page in their journal. Whatever they want, unless I ask them to write about something specific.

Early on, they draw pictures and then I help them write the words they want to go with the picture. Sometimes I hold their hand and write with them, sometimes I just spell, sometimes I am just the scribe while they dictate and I read back what they have written. This can start at age 3.

Particularly noteworthy entries get their picture taken and sent to grandma and grandpa or copied and placed on the wall. I might think they are noteworthy, or my child might. Either is legit.

This worked wonders to get my oldest interested and into reading. She saw first-hand how a thought can get to the page and then to someone else. She became more interested in this process and realized that being able to read what she wrote was important.

When I started in on my second-born (who also, sigh, did not teach herself to read), it was back to alligator wrestling. Actually, this one was more like roping a calf covered in grease. It only went on for a few weeks before I remembered two things.

1. Oh yeah, this happened the first time, it's normal; and

2. The journal!

Ding! A winner!

I couldn't even get her to hold her pencil correctly before. (She couldn't be bothered with the way other people do things.) All of the sudden, she's drawing her picture and painstakingly getting a nice(-ish) grip and calling for me to help write about her picture. She doesn't even complain when I remind her to do it every morning.

She sounds the words slowly with me as I write them and watches as her own dictation is formed on the page. It's power. Writing is power and they love it.

You can even write about your disruptive siblings with equanimity and poetry:


Tips for The Daily Journal

1. Make it about them, not about your requirements, assignments, standards or "School" with a capital S. Let them choose what they write most of the time.

2. Set the FEW guidelines and then let it be. For a kindergartner starting out, I don't make any guidelines at all. For a first grader, at least a page is required. When you start, go at least a couple weeks without any editorial or critical comments. I know it's hard. You can add more requirements (spelling, grammar, actually saying something worth reading) as you go.

3. Offer them opportunities to share what they have created with you or others. Take pictures and send it to family, post on Facebook and read them the comments, use a copy machine to produce a copy that can be put on the wall, let them read their works of art to visitors, etc. Don't push it, but suggest it.

4. When a child expresses annoyance with the journal, allow them to take a break--as you see fit. During this break, let them write letters to send in the mail or create little books to give to people as gifts.

5. If your child is having trouble coming up with things to write, give them ideas of your own from recent life happenings, or just google "journal prompts" or "writing prompts."

6. Use the journal occasionally to write about what they've learned in school. You go to the nature center and they are talking about owls all the way home. "I'd like to see what you have to say about owls in your journal today."

7. Remember that success in learning to read and write is more about quantity than it is about quality. What's important is that they do it.