By Kathy Kuhl

Why teach writing to kids who struggle with it? Is written expression still important in a digital age? Written letters have largely given way to phone calls, Skype, and emails. (At the beach last month, I discovered no one sold postcards anymore.) Teens and young adults I know have largely abandoned email to text, Instagram, Snapchat, and on to newer toys and tools.

Can’t we just let our kids dictate into a smartphone? Who needs composition?

The next few weeks I’ll share a few tips on how to teach writing to students with learning challenges– handwriting, grammar, and composition– but today let’s consider why.

As author and speaker Janice Campbell says, words matter. Written words last and so deserve more care and crafting.

Teaching composition means teaching clear thinking. I’ve seen this as I have taught composition to teens, and as I recall learning to write. In tenth grade, my English teacher Mrs. Cooper astonished her class of gifted students by shredding our first assignments with her red pen. “Vague”, “wordy,” “repetitive” and other painful but accurate criticism dotted our margins. Worse yet, we  all got only Cs, except for one girl who got a B. (She went on to join the staff at Rolling Stone.)

But Mrs. Cooper and her colleagues taught us to organize our reasons, have a train of thought instead of a dust cloud, and defend our conclusions with evidence and clarity.

Writing with heart
Finally, we write to communicate with others.

Do you save old letters? I do. I have love letters from our long-distance courtship. (That was back before email and cheap long distance calling.) I also have a few letters from my late father and one from my late brother. He only wrote me once, while I lived overseas, but it’s full of his humor and I cherish it.

As we teach our kids to write, we should show them how writing can build relationships and show love and respect. So we begin with short thank you notes, because Aunt Emily deserves our gratitude for that sweater. Kids who struggle can draw, write, or dictate short notes. Get well cards put compassion on paper. Fan letters demonstrate respect, and sometimes get answered!

Jody Noland helps people write unusual letters. She helps the terminally ill compose those last letters that share love, restore relationships, and affirm loved ones. Because some of us homeschool despite terminal illness, and others have children with serious illness, I want to highlight Jody’s work today.

After cherishing a few special letters from loved ones and then seeing the pain of others who didn’t have such mementos, Jody conceived a plan to help the terminally ill compose letters to those dear to them. Leave Nothing Unsaid, Jody’s book and blog, equips family members, loved ones, and friends help people think through why they ought to bother writing these letters, how to begin, and how to keep going. Thanks to Jody, people communicate in those important last months. The Atlantic Constitution featured her work here. 

Recently, I read one of Jody’s blog post that made me sad and glad. She described helping children at a pediatric hospice center. She’s not maudlin, and I recommend it. What gifts she is helping these kids leave for their families.

Whether you have reasons as profound as Jody Noland’s readers, or as simple as wanting your children to write you when they grow up and move away, writing matters.

Do you save old letters that remind you why writing matters? Or do you have other reasons you want your children to learn to write? Please post your comments below.

[For part 2 of this series, click here.]