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The Informed Parent

Writing Right

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Mar. 13, 2000

"Yuk! I have to write a report for history," groaned Jason. His parents groaned, too. Jason had difficulty thinking of ideas, organizing the material, and getting onto paper the information necessary for a satisfactory report. He is not alone. According to recent statistics released by the national Education Department, only one in four students possess the knowledge and skills needed for writing stories and reports proficiently.

Parents could blame the schools for such a dilemma. Teachers could blame lack of parent involvement at home. Television could be blamed. But blaming doesn’t solve a problem. Knowing that a problem exists and each person taking responsibility for its solution leads to successfully overcoming a negative situation.

Assisting children to become better writers will take the effort of students, parents, and teachers alike. In this article, we’ll look at several strategies that can be used to increase children’s enthusiasm and skill for writing.

Most very young children begin to "pretend write" long before they have learned to correctly form letters. They make curly queues on a paper and bring you their handiwork. They read it to you. They enjoy doing something that you and their older siblings do. They like seeing your pleasure in their stories and messages.

What happens to that enthusiasm? The physical act of correct letter formation is difficult for some children. Finding interesting topics to write about poses a problem for others. Many children have difficulty organizing their material. Some students have had so little instruction in writing stories and reports that they have no idea how to begin. No one feels enthusiastic when tasks are too difficult.

To help children become better writers, the following four ideas can be used successfully both in the home and classroom. Each is necessary for developing good writing habits.

1) Good writers are readers.

Children who read and are read to begin to hear the flow of words. They become accustomed to proper sentence structure. They notice that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Often middle school children write stories in the tone of a favorite author. This kind of modeling serves as an effective tool for developing a style of one’s own.

Assisting children to become more proficient writers requires a commitment to setting aside a time each day to read with them. Ten to fifteen minutes will do. Choose stories that you and your child both enjoy. Read both fiction and non-fiction. When you read, read with enthusiasm and expression. Make the story come alive.

When the child reads, listen attentively. Don’t worry about the correctness of each word. This is a time for getting the rhythm of the story. In this kind of reading, children often substitute one word for another. For example, if the sentence says, "Jack ran to the mailbox," the child might read, "Jack ran to get the mail." In a reading lesson we would correct the mistake or ask the reader to reread the sentence. In getting the flow of the story, interruptions interfere.

2) Good writers use their imagination.

Encourage imagination. Ask "what if" questions. "What if the lights went out in this storm?" "What if you stayed home from school today?" "What if you had $100.00?" There are no right answers. When given the opportunity, children love to depict silly or wild scenarios. They like to create mysteries. Reinforce their imagination with statements like, "Well, that really would be something, wouldn’t it!" or "My, oh, my!"

When you’re on your way to the market or on the way home from day care, be aware of your surroundings and ask questions that spark the imagination. "I wonder what that family will eat for dinner tonight?" "Look at that bus filled with people. I wonder where each of them is going?" Not only will you stimulate the imagination, you will learn what interesting ideas your child has.

3) Good writers are observant.

An exercise that teachers of writing classes recommend is walking. Taking a daily walk and noticing one’s surroundings sharpens the senses. Sharpening the senses can be done anywhere, however. While you're sitting in McDonald’s waiting for your Big Macs, ask questions like, "How many items do you see that are red?" or "Look out the window and count how many different kinds of vehicles you see."

If you’re on an outing with the family and in the out-of-doors, sit and listen to how many different sounds you each hear. See how many different kinds of leaves the children can find before you count to 25.

Assist your children to pay attention to sight, sound, smell, and touch. Connect descriptive words to their findings. "The leaf feels rough." "The flower smells sweet." "The clouds look like whipped cream." As you do these little activities that may at first seem silly, you’ll be amazed at how much more aware of your environment YOU become. Your own creativity will expand as you find more to pay attention to. Thinking up questions will become easier.

Practicing observation increases a child’s interest in life. Young children are curious. As they get older, sometimes the sense of curiosity wanes. When the sense of curiosity remains alive, the child has more material to bring to his or her writing.

4) Good writers practice.

This is the hardest and least interesting strategy. Practice can be boring and not much fun, but writers write. When you go on a vacation, ask your child to keep a small journal. Writing several sentences about what has been experienced provides a reminder of the trip. It also is practice. Journal writing should not be corrected for spelling. The purpose is for the child to learn to enjoy the process of getting thoughts down on paper.

The custom of writing thank you notes is rarely practiced these days. Thank you notes offer an excellent opportunity for writing practice, though, and the recipient feels grateful for the acknowledgment. The formula that goes, "Thank you for_______. I will use it when________. I appreciate your thoughtfulness." is simple and straightforward. It is not creative, but thank you notes should be spelled correctly and written neatly so creativity can be forsaken for accuracy.

When children write stories and reports for school, prime them by talking them through their ideas. Sitting in front of a blank piece of paper can be intimidating. When the ideas have been talked through prior to beginning the task of writing, the writing itself goes more easily.

Check a writing project with the child. Use the dictionary together to look up misspelled words. Ask questions to grease the wheels when the child is stuck. "What happened after Columbus talked to Queen Isabella?" "What happened when the wagon train got stuck on the Donnor Pass?" Encourage children to know that writing is talking on paper. If they can tell you what happened, they can write it.

Children will learn the "hows" of writing in the classroom. The above suggestions will enhance the student’s abilities to bring richer information to the task. Along the way, you will be assisting in increasing skill.

A bonus from using some of the suggested ideas is the fun you will be having with your child. You will find that you are communicating more and enjoying the richness of each other’s company.

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