Editor's Note: This article first appeared in The Old Schoolhouse magazine, Feb. 2013 edition. To visit that site, go to http://www.thehomeschoolmagazine-digital.com/thehomeschoolmagazine/201302/?pg=67&pm=2&u1=friend
As an editor, writing tutor, and homeschool teacher of twenty years, I am frequently asked for advice about improving children’s writing skills. Most of the calls I receive are from parents of high schoolers, while some calls concern college-aged students. Although it is never too late to improve skills, there are some ways that young parents can ensure that their children have the best start and the greatest chance at writing success.
First, all children who are not yet reading independently should have books read to them on a daily basis. This may sound obvious to many, but a lot of modern-day parents do not read and do not understand its value. My daughters have babysat in homes where there are no books – and I am not exaggerating, as shocking as that may be. It is simply unfathomable to me that there are any parents in this country who do not have a stockpile of books for their children to peruse. This does not have to be a budget-breaker, either, since our country has thousands of libraries full of books available for borrowing at no charge. The importance of this cannot be overstated: Children who are read to develop a love for books, and tend to have greater and more active imaginations. They are also more curious and ask more questions, and they are more able to discern good literature, especially if what is being read is well-written. In addition, parents who take time out of their busy schedules to read to their youngsters are demonstrating, in a concrete way, that they highly value books and reading. This is the first and most basic step that must be taken if parents want to ensure academic success later.
After your child has learned to read, the way that he or she learns to write is no less important. When my oldest child was in public school kindergarten (our first and last year in the public schools), the philosophy at that time was to encourage pupils to write, even if they were not ready. The thinking was that somehow, if the child created something, such as a “book,” he would feel good about it and be proud of the achievement. The problem was that the child was applauded for a story that might have lacked basic sentence structure and could be riddled with spelling errors. That philosophy never made sense to me because I always thought it made more sense to teach a subject the right way from the start, rather than letting the child do whatever he thinks is right and then having to fix problems later. What happens to the child’s self-esteem then? Instead, the best way to start a child in writing lessons is by having him do copy work. The student or the teacher reads a brief passage from an excellent children’s book, not more than two or three sentences, and then the student copies those sentences. The teacher should then look to see if there are any errors, but she should not mark it at this point because she will then ask the child to try to find any mistakes. This teaches the child to be a keen observer, which is essential when proofreading later on. It also gives him a chance to catch mistakes and fix them before his teacher gives the work a final inspection.
The next step in training your child to be a competent writer is dictation, which should be started when copying starts to seem too easy or too childish. The teacher dictates a brief passage of literature or poetry, going slowly and repeating as necessary so that the student is able to write it all down. Then, the student checks his work for obvious errors, such as missing periods or names that accidentally had not been capitalized. Once that is done, either the student or the teacher can check the work against the original. Even if the child looks first and corrects errors, the teacher needs to pay careful attention in case the same mistakes are being made repeatedly. The dictation stage is also a good time for the student to start keeping a spelling log in which misspelled words are written correctly ten times, which also happens to be a great way to practice penmanship. Those troublesome words should comprise weekly or biweekly spelling tests. The study of grammar should begin at this time, and there are some excellent, inexpensive, and easy-to-use resources available, such as Easy Grammar and Daily Grams.
In middle to upper elementary, while continuing dictation and occasional copy work, the child should start writing brief summaries about relevant topics, such as a paragraph about something interesting that he has learned in science or history, current events, a book, a special outing, and so on. This is harder and requires a certain amount of creativity on the part of the student since he is, in fact, creating something from nothing. In addition, this is the time when the teacher will really start to see the comprehension level of the student. The child should be encouraged to start thinking more deeply and analytically about everything. Good thinking precedes good writing.
Some of these steps will overlap, and there is variation in when a student will be able to start doing harder work or work that requires analytical thinking. For instance, it isn’t necessary to completely abandon copy work once a child is ready for dictation. There will still be days when copying is the right choice for that day or perhaps a better choice if the literature passage is too difficult for dictation. Also, grammar, spelling, and editing should be introduced when the student is ready and kept up, as needed.
Perhaps this is too obvious to mention, but the importance of reading, on a daily basis, cannot be overstated, which is why I need to mention it again. First, read to your child until that skill is mastered, as stated earlier. Then, do not stop reading to him, but do make sure that there is always a supply of books that can be perused independently. I let my kids read in bed for at least a half hour before it is time for “lights out.” A quiet half hour before or after dinner is another great way to sneak in more reading time. Also, make sure that the books your kids are spending time on deserve their attention. Just as it is okay to have junk food now and then, it is okay to read fun books once in a while, but they should not form the foundation of our literary “diet.” Look up lists of great classic literature for children and bring a few titles along when you visit your library. The more that your child is exposed to excellent writing, the more his literary “ear” will develop and he will be able to discern what is well-written. This is not optional: Reading great literature – and lots of it – is an essential part of becoming a competent writer.
By now, you will probably be able to guess my last point: The more a student writes, the better a writer he will be. Do not overwhelm young children with massive writing projects. That is not my point at all. In fact, a little writing every day is better than assigning one big project every few weeks. What is expected of a child should increase as he is able, but remember that most children need to be prodded since it is human nature to want to do the least amount of work possible. As deemed appropriate by the teacher, the child should be given writing projects that increase in difficulty and amount as his ability increases.
By the time a child enters high school, he should know how to write a basic five-paragraph essay, complete with an excellent thesis statement, topic sentences, and supporting sentences, all held together by the use of interesting transitions. I have worked with a number of high school students and even graduates who are not at all confident in their writing ability. Fear coupled with lack of experience can make any writing assignment seem torturous. Improving writing skills will boost confidence, and confidence will then lessen fear and dread. Finally, remember that it is never too late to improve writing skills.