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`Writing Box' Helps Kids Enjoy Writing, Aids Reading

IT'S wet outside, the evening breeze moist with that misty drizzle for which the Pacific Northwest is famous. Inside the Beaverton Public Library, however, nothing can dampen the spirits of a roomful of families who have turned out for a workshop on kids and writing.

Surrounded by children, Sharon Edwards, an animated, dark-haired woman, kneels on the carpet at the front of the room and holds aloft a box. It's unimpressive - a plain, clear-plastic rectangle with a plastic lid.

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But as Ms. Edwards decants the contents and the young members of the audience crowd closer, oohing and aahing, it quickly becomes apparent that the commonplace container (officially known as a "Writing Box") is a treasure chest of creativity.

"All children read," Edwards asserts, holding up the first item so parents can see. It's a pencil sharpener with a tiny globe attached. "They read faces, pictures, numbers, and some words," she says. "All of the children here this evening are already writers. And children's creativity is the heart of their learning."

Together with Robert Maloy, a University of Massachusetts professor who is her research and writing partner, Edwards invented the Writing Box, a simple hands-on tool for encouraging literacy in a way.

The idea grew out of Edwards's frustration as an elementary-school teacher with the fact that some children left her classroom at the end of the year able to read, and some didn't. How writing leads to reading

She says that an experiment with "invented spelling," a process-writing technique that encourages children to write phonetically without first learning "book spelling" or grammar, resulted in her very young students being able to "write fluently from their own ideas," something that was naturally reflected in improved reading ability.

Intrigued, Edwards noted that the children who caught on most quickly were those who had been encouraged at home. She mentioned this to Mr. Maloy, adding that she wondered "what would happen if we got writing materials into everyone's home and then talked to parents about the value of letting kids create and invent before they move into conventions."

Maloy suggested they write a grant. The resulting funds provided boxes for Edwards's students for two years. "Then manufacturers donated materials over the next two years," Edwards says.

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They have put the fruits of their research, together with instructions for assembling a Writing Box and ideas for its use, into a lively and inspiring new book, "Kids Have All the Write Stuff," (Penguin, $10, paper). Of equal value at home or in the classroom, it's the focus of the activity this evening at the library here.

Edwards holds aloft and then distributes the Writing Box's contents: crayons, a glue stick, colored pencils, transparent tape, a child-size stapler, a ruler with an alphabet template, scented markers ("the scents work better if you keep the caps on," the ever-practical Edwards says to parents with a wink), construction paper, drawing paper, scissors, notebooks in various sizes, and stickers. ("I use stickers that have words on them," explains Edwards, "so that the reading/writing connection is built.")

Everything in the box aims for what Edwards and Maloy call "kid allure." Colored pens that clip together, for example, aren't any more effective - "`It's just the allure," notes Edwards. "What we're trying to say to you this evening is that there is a playful way to learn everything," she says, and then sets her eager volunteers to work. Celebrating childrens' efforts

Bearded and bespectacled, Maloy looks the part of the professor that he is. In a gently modulated voice, he explains that the box has no rules attached, no restrictions. The contents can be simple or elaborate. It's a gift to the child, to use as and when he or she wishes. The parents' job, he says, is simply to praise and encourage.

"How do children learn to talk?" he asks. "By experimenting. And parents naturally support the process by celebrating and encouraging each new sound, each new word. Same thing with walking or throwing a ball. Writing is no different. Too often we make it into work, and turn off creativity rather than promote it.

"Writing can become a wonderful focal point of family activity," Maloy suggests, adding that a vital part of the parents' job is to "publish" what a child creates. This can be done in many ways - from simply hanging their work on a wall, to sending it to relatives, to saving it in a binder or putting it into book form.

Across the room, children ranging in age from 3 to about 10 are sprawled on the floor on their stomachs, oblivious to their surroundings, writing, drawing, doodling, and - though they may not realize it - learning.

Edwards works the crowd, pausing by each child, admiring, praising, "celebrating" the creativity at work.

Finally, it's time for "publishing."

Emily, smiling broadly, dressed in a pink jacket and denim skirt, dark hair drawn back in a ponytail, reads her story of a girl who finds treasure in a mine. The tale is embellished with flourishes of gold and silver metallic crayon. Edwards admires Emily's illustrations and commends her use of the word "presious" [sic] - noting how close her spelling is to what she and Maloy call "book spelling."

David, a slender, dark-eyed boy in yellow T-shirt and bright-blue sweat pants, softly begins to read his story of a dolphin named Ohio.

"Use your announcer's voice, David," Edwards encourages. David takes a deep breath and starts over. At the end of his entertaining tale, he receives an enthusiastic round of applause. He beams shyly.

A writer is born.

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