If your older child is struggling with writing, you can help — and you don’t have to be a great writer yourself to do so. That’s the thinking behind one Northern California writing program that trains volunteers to work one-on-one with middle and high school students. The WriterCoach Connection (WCC) puts college students, lawyers, retirees, and other community members (no teaching experience necessary) through six hours of training before placing them in Albany, Berkeley, and Oakland schools.
Volunteers are trained to coach young writers, not correct their papers. They learn strategies to help students organize their ideas and revise drafts. Associate Director Lynn Mueller describes a good writing coach as a “patient, friendly listener.”
WCC isn’t magic — or a substitute for a strong writing program at your child’s school. Since the best way to become a better writer is to practice, practice, practice, students should have time to write at school or home every day.
What can you do if your child is stumped about how to even begin an assignment? Or just “stuck” partway through? These ideas, drawing on the experiences of WCC volunteers, might be key to releasing your child’s inner scribe.
1. Know the assignment
Without fully understanding the details of their homework, it can be hard for kids to start writing. Ask your child to explain the assignment in his own words, and, if he’s unable to, consult the assignment sheet provided by the teacher. If you can’t find one, have your child call or email a friend to get the scoop on what’s expected.
2. Plan ahead
Some students struggle with writing because they haven’t thought enough about what they want to say. Ask your child to articulate the main point he wants to make: If he can explain his ideas before putting pen to paper, writing will be that much easier.
Ask him to list examples that support his thesis or main points, which should help him plan out his argument. If your child reacts negatively to an assignment, talk to him about what he dislikes. If you can help him articulate his ideas, he might be able to write a persuasive paper based on his objections to the assignment. Not bad!
3. Gather the facts
Strong evidence makes a paper that much better. Do the examples support your child’s main idea? Are they accurate? Lively? If your child is having trouble, ask him to take a minute and describe the scene as if he were a reporter, using the “five W’s” of journalism: who, what, where, when, and why.
4. Get organized
Great organization facilitates great writing. See if the teacher has given instructions on how to write the introduction, body of the essay, and conclusion. Review the sequence of ideas in each paragraph of your child’s writing. Can you follow his thinking, or are there gaps in his logic? Are transitions needed to link the paragraphs?
Talk about what works well and how the introduction and conclusion relate to the theme. Does your child draw in the reader with his introduction? Does the conclusion include his thesis and sum up his ideas? The WCC coaches found these tips helpful once their kids had the beginnings of a piece of writing.
5. Lend a hand
As your child’s de facto writing coach, part of your role is to listen and figure out what he’s trying to say. Ask how you can help. “You’re giving the child a sounding board to talk about their ideas,” says Mueller. “You’ll help him organize those ideas and support them with examples.”
6. Read it out loud
By reading what they’ve written aloud, children are more likely to notice any obvious mistakes. But remember: Reading requires concentration, so try not to interrupt. Otherwise, you risk interfering with your child’s thought process.
7. Start with the strengths
Always start with the good. Identify three strengths in your child’s writing, and point them out. Look for concrete details, clear sentences, and vivid words, and offer encouragement for what you find. Parents can point out the writing they like and read passages aloud for emphasis.
Explain what you find engaging — “I really think you understand the main character in this book” or “I love the colorful details in that sentence.” You’ll be showing teens that writing isn’t a mystical process but one that requires skills anyone can master.
8. Ask for more information
Ask questions to understand what your child is trying to say. Don’t be afraid to tell him if there’s something you’d like to know more about, like an idea that’s not fully expressed. Don’t criticize or give the answer, but help him find his own answers. If you respond to his writing as a reader, you’ll be showing him that writing is a way to communicate ideas.
“Every writer has an audience,” says Mueller. “Student writers may not realize this because they’re writing an assignment for a teacher.”
9. Ignore grammar in rough drafts
Sometimes young writers will correct their own errors during the revision process, especially if you encourage them to read their work aloud. If your teen makes consistent mistakes in mechanics at this stage, ask him if he knows how to correct them. If he doesn’t, explain how to make the appropriate corrections. In the final draft, encourage your child to edit his own work, resisting the temptation to make the paper “perfect” from your point of view.
10. Respect your child as a writer
What to revise — and how to revise it — should be your child’s decision, not yours. By extension, the “voice” he uses should be his own too. Instead of doing the writing for your child, offer suggestions. Remember that your child must learn to think and write on his own.