Writing provides an opportunity for us to communicate with people we may never meet face to face. Helping children become effective writers will equip them to share their ideas and their feelings—and perhaps even influence others.
However, many people—children and adults alike—find writing to be a stressful challenge. Writing instruction can loom as an even more daunting task.
The Writing Process
Writing can be distressing, because it is an extremely complex process in which people must tend to many tasks simultaneously: form an idea, put the idea into words, spell the words correctly, capitalize and punctuate appropriately, and shape letters (or find them on a keyboard). In addition, while working on one sentence, the mind is probably racing ahead to consider the next one!
A key to successful writing—and to successful writing instruction—is to break the writing process into manageable parts in order to focus on one step at a time. This can dispel the panic or confusion that can otherwise paralyze the overburdened brain. The process approach provides a way to complete a writing task with minimal frustration.
A word of caution regarding writing instruction: Teachers often replace the challenge of writing with the security of worksheets. Completing a worksheet is quicker and easier than writing a composition, and the worksheet is easier for a parent or teacher to evaluate. However, in the vast majority of cases, completing a worksheet is not writing. A worksheet may help to hone a particular skill, but unless it allows students to express their own ideas, it cannot truly be considered writing.
The bulk of language arts time is best spent in genuine communication—listening, speaking, reading, writing, or thinking. The most effective way for people to improve their writing skill is to write. It is important to practice all steps of the writing process; however, students might not go through the entire process with each writing experience.
The following tips for writing instruction apply to writers of all ages and abilities. Most of the tips relate directly to the writing process. While Tips #1–3 may not appear to involve writing instruction, they in fact establish a vital foundation on which to build.
1. From the time your children are toddlers—or even before—show them that you value communication.
Listen attentively when they talk to you. Expect them to listen attentively when you talk to them. When you are communicating something important, be sure you have eye contact with them. Be sure you are looking at them, and be sure they are looking at you. Your children’s perception of your attitude toward communication will carry over from listening and speaking to reading and writing.
2. Do some writing yourself.
This serves a dual purpose. First, it provides experience with the writing process so that you will be a more effective guide for your children. Second, if your children see you write for a variety of purposes, they will understand that you value writing, and they will begin to identify situations in which writing will work for them as well.
3. Expose children to a variety of genres—stories, poems, non-fiction articles, essays, plays, etc.—both for reading and for writing.
Reading provides excellent preparation for writing. Sometimes a piece that has been read serves as a direct model for writing. Other times the influence is more subtle. All aspects of material read—content, structure, sentence patterns, imagery, sound—remain in the storehouse of the mind, often below consciousness but available for use, perhaps in a composition.
Students should write in every subject, not just in English class. Writing provides a chance for students to demonstrate their knowledge, expand their understanding, and clarify their thinking. Following the same writing process in all subjects will help students see writing not as a meaningless drill but as a tool that will serve them well in a variety of situations throughout their life.
4. Help children think of—and keep track of—their ideas for writing.
Thinking of something to write about often becomes a writer’s first difficulty. Writers can avoid this obstacle if they capture ideas when they occur instead of waiting to look for ideas when they are needed. When something sparks your child’s interest, say something like “You might want to write about that sometime.”
Help your child establish a system for saving ideas so that they will be available when they are needed. They can be kept on separate note cards or listed on a sheet of paper. A loose-leaf notebook is perhaps the ideal format, allowing ideas to be categorized yet easily moved. A loose-leaf notebook also easily accommodates pages that have been printed on a computer or acquired from other sources.
In addition to lists of possible writing topics (perhaps with a few notes for development), an “idea book” may include intriguing questions, observations, descriptions, conversations, opinions, etc. Keeping an idea book sharpens writers’ awareness of the world around them, records thoughts and experiences, and preserves ideas for future use.
5. Help children find an audience for their writing.
Writing is more meaningful when it is genuine communication rather than a mere exercise. There are many opportunities for children to share their writing with their family and their community. They can write letters, stories for younger children, or contest entries. They might write some pieces on special paper, enhance them with a drawing or photograph, and/or frame them or bind them into a book. Such treatments show high regard for the work and invite a larger audience. On occasions when writing is “just an assignment,” have children write with a specific audience and purpose in mind so that they at least imagine an audience beyond the teacher.
6. Provide opportunities for children to get feedback throughout the writing process.
Professional writers regularly consult others, yet adults often make the writing task more difficult for children by requiring them to “do it all themselves.” There are four points at which a writer benefits from feedback. The “responder” in a writing conference could be you, a sibling, or a peer. Help your children learn to select people who will be most helpful in specific situations.
In the planning stage, the main job of the responder is to listen and question. The writer should do most of the talking, since talking provides excellent rehearsal for writing. The responder’s questions show the writer which parts of the composition need further development or clarification.
After the first draft has been written (this will be discussed in Tip #7), the responder does more of the talking, helping the writer know what comes across from the composition. It works well for the writer to read the piece aloud and for the responder to “tell back” what he or she has heard. This keeps the focus on content rather than mechanics. Help students realize the value of a listener’s feedback in revising the composition. Writers who ask open-ended questions about specific parts of the composition will encourage additional feedback; however, writers who become defensive will discourage suggestions. Writing conferences are likely to be most productive when writers know what specific help they need at that time. Although a writer may confer with many people, ultimately he or she is the one who must decide which revisions to make.
7. Free children to write their first draft without worrying about correctness of anything—spelling, capitalization, punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary.
They should write their first draft very quickly. The important thing is to unleash the flow of ideas. Some writers find it helpful to dictate their first draft.
A first draft need not be written in sequence. The introduction, in fact, is often one of the most difficult parts of a composition to write. Encourage students to write any section they feel ready to write. Using a different sheet of paper for each part (or using a word processor) will simplify assembly of the finished piece. Encourage young writers to experiment with various techniques in order to find what works best for them.
8. Help children succeed with editing.
After the writer has weighed feedback and made revisions, his focus should turn to editing for mechanical correctness, such as capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. Provide essential resources, such as a dictionary, an English handbook, and thesaurus, so that young writers can easily find the information they need in order to use English correctly. Remind them to use their computer’s spell-check feature—but not to rely on it completely.
9. Respond to children’s writing as a reader before you respond as a teacher or critic.
Respond to the content of a composition so that writers know their message was received. For example, if the writer has described his or her grandmother’s kitchen, you might say something like “I can tell that Nana’s kitchen is a very special place to you.”
As you begin to evaluate the writing, again respond first to the content rather than the mechanics. Take time to tell the writer what was done well. A natural way to do this is to be specific about what made the content effective. You could say, for example, “You’ve described the sights and sounds—and smells!—so vividly that I felt I was there myself.” After pointing out several things that have been done effectively, point out two or three aspects of content that the writer seems ready to learn. Don’t try to point out everything that could be improved, because the writer won’t remember all you say and will only become discouraged.
Follow the same pattern for mechanical skills: Point out things that were done well, focus on a few skills for instruction, and point out additional strengths. Keeping a list of writing skills taught will help you remember which skills you can expect the child to apply correctly, and it can also help you and the child see progress.
10. Make writing enjoyable for both you and your children.
The previous tips will make writing more enjoyable for your children—and will make writing instruction more enjoyable for you.
Think about activities you enjoy. The more you enjoy them, the more you do them—and the more proficient at them you become. Writing works this way too. Students who enjoy writing will be caught in an upward spiral of writing success. They will have a tool that will serve them well throughout their lives.
Copyright 2009. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse®Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.