By Scott Jacobs

I have a son in the first grade who is learning to write. I mean literally, letter by letter, starting with the first swoop in the small a to the last slash in the letter z.

The process begins with the stick-figured Capital Letters –– a good jumping off point for learning how to hold a pencil –– and moves quickly to the curving D’Nealian forms of the small ones. It occurs in conjunction with the acquisition of other first grade skills like reading, counting, drawing the shapes of squares and circles, and, perhaps most important, paying attention when the teacher is talking.

Learn to Read, Read to Learn

In our first meeting with his teacher Mrs. Brody, she said, “First grade is where kids learn to read so that in second grade they can read to learn.” Wise counsel that greatly simplifies the repetitive exercises she must give her students to discipline their hand-eye-mind coordination into handwriting someone else can read.

Whatever lesson plans a first grade teacher works off of, learning to write is not a linear process. My son comes home every Monday with handwriting exercises that she invariably grades with smiley face stickers and “Awesome!” comments, even though, after many months, the bubble on the bottom of his small d’s winds up on the b side and he hooks his j’s in the wrong direction. This is not uncommon. There are a lot of letters to learn in the alphabet, both capital and small, with long and short vowel sounds, often strung together into words with tricky combinations like au, ie (except after c), th, gh and qu ­­––it’s a long list when you think about–– that defy explanation.

Letter School

Like many modern parents, my wife and I believe there surely must be computer programs that can assist our son in the learning process. One of the most popular is an iPad app called Letter School where kids trace out each letter with their finger three times. The first time, a race car or train engine or some other graphic and sound effect shows them they are on the right track; the second time, they connect the dots without lines; finally, they make each letter on their own, forced to start over if their curve is too far off track but rewarded with huzzahs and exploding stars when they get it right.

Letter School is a clever and engaging way to drum the shape of letters into their little minds, if you use it enough times. But it is no substitute for the manual grind of the handwriting homework that asks the child to write a letter 20 times –– “then circle your best one” –– or what has always been my favorite learn-to-write tool: the spelling test.

Spelling Tests

Mrs. Brody is almost diabolical in the way she hands out spelling tests. Every Monday, she sends home ten new words that sound alike, but are often spelled differently. Early in the year, they were all pretty simple: cat, hat, bat, etc. But they have become progressively harder, demonstrating the increasing complexity of the language. The one my son studied this week included: right, night, pie, lie, high, and might.

“You expect me to learn all this? I’m only in the first grade,” he complained after one particularly grueling test.  But he has bulled his way through. Now in the seventh month of first grade, he is reading stories and writing sentences about them with periods, question marks, and a lot, a lot, a lot of exclamation points!

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Remember Letter School? And that iPad? Well, it wasn’t long before my son discovered iPads also have games. One in particular, Minecraft, has been dubbed by the whisper network of first grade boys to be the coolest thing to come around since Thomas the Train.

You can tell your son has discovered Minecraft because his arm will suddenly begin churning in circles like the rotary drill in the game that allows players to break through rocks in search of hidden treasures. You will wake up one morning to find him huddled in bed over your iPad digging caves and building mountainous towers out of pixilated blocks. When you ask what he is doing, he will response himself with a question. “Dad, how do you spell dynamite?”

Minecraft has spawned a variety of mini-games downloadable from the app store, so it wasn’t long before my iPad was filled with other games like Pixel Gun 3D and Scribblenauts that allow players to use the search function to acquire new tools and weapons. Before I knew it, I was helping my son spell words like pick axe, army man, tank, armor, rifle, bazooka, exploding grenade, and stink bomb. Stink bomb?

When his friends come over on play dates, they bring their own iPads and, soon enough, they’ve figured out a way to tap into the Wi-Fi and operate in multi-player mode. The amount of time they are now willing to devote to homework becomes a negotiation that must be offset by a like amount of iPad time.

“Holy Crap!”

It is only a short hop from playing Minecraft to finding videos on YouTube where other players record their own Minecraft adventures.  “Holy crap!” I heard my son shout one day as he churned through his minescape, That’s when I realized that not all learning in the first grade takes place in the classroom.

His mother quickly took a new interest in watching the Youtube videos, and the consequences did not work out favorably for my son. We put a password on the iPad and restricted his playing time. But so-called “parental controls” on electronic devices are no match for a 6-year-old’s determination to get around them.

During one particularly long Minecraft session, he refused to come to dinner until he could dig his way back to his cave and store all his weapons. The next day, the iPad mysteriously disappeared.

Computer Class

“Well, can I play Word on your computer then?” he asked.

It was the first encouraging sign I’d seen in a month. In school, kids start taking computer classes as early as the first grade. Initially, they are just getting used to the rudimentary motions involved in handling the mouse, typing, scrolling, searching, printing, and using the drop down menus. But Microsoft Word also has some graphics functions that allow kids to cut, paste and draw shapes ­­–– what my son calls “making scribble scrabble.”

I was happy to set him up on my computer. I had no clue how to find the graphics menu. Silly me, I use Word to type words. The best I could offer was an array of funny fonts in very large type.

Learning to Write

Although the options were limited, my son took to the idea of making words in funny fonts like a quill to an inkpot. He is just at that point in his school year when, after reading a story, the teacher asks the class to write three sentences that describe the action.

My son balks at doing this during homework time. His handwriting is still unsteady, and he concentrates so hard on forming the letters that he forgets what sentence he is trying writing. But on the computer, the letters come pre-formed. Even in cursive, which makes him happy because that’s a second grade concept.

After a little instruction, I left him at the computer to fend for himself. (Writers need their alone time.)  Twenty minutes later, he emerged with a huge smile on his face. He needed me to come print out his story.

On the screen, I saw this:

I couldn’t have been prouder.  There’s room for improvement, but it’s a start. And practice makes perfect.

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