Five tips for painless writing

Searching for ways to turn the page on your child's writing? Look no further.

By Carol Lloyd

I glanced over my daughter’s paper and caught my breath. The child who had leaped into long, filigreed sentences at 18 months and spoken-word poetry at four (sample pull quote: “Love tastes so sweet when the world dies”) was now, at age 10, working diligently on a book report of The Ice Worm, a chapter book she claimed to have adored.

But the markings on the page defied decoding. It wasn’t that the misspellings and tortured handwriting camouflaged a flair for words, ideas, or even logic. No, “a lot of stuff happened” — some “funny,” some “crazy” — but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what this “stuff” entailed. Perhaps most troubling, long gone was my lively little word fairy. In her place, a dull-eyed workhorse trudged across textual dirt clods.

Now my child hadn’t been identified as needy or gifted. She worked hard and occasionally struggled, but generally reflected the teacher’s efforts with some accuracy: If the teacher emphasized math, she excelled there. If it was spelling season, she buckled down and got serious about words.

So what did this web of inchoate language say about the writing instruction? When queried, my daughter explained that the assignment was primarily defined by length. A one-page summary followed by a one-paragraph description of the main character and a one-paragraph recommendation and bingo: instant book report!

Did her teacher talk about choosing the right words? No. What about organizing ideas or outlining? No. Brainstorming? Topic sentences? Mommy, you’re not helping! Only at the point when tears were soaking her pillow did I realize just how right she was. I wasn’t helping.

What was worse, I didn’t know how to help.

Like so many public schools nowadays, my daughter’s focuses on test scores. Despite larger class sizes, dwindling budgets, and a majority of English-language learners, the teachers had managed to boost reading and math scores each year. But standardized tests for elementary school grades do not cover writing, so it’s easy for that subject to slip under the data-driven radar.

What’s a parent to do?

After scouring the available literature (most of which is geared to teachers and — dare I say it? — poorly written), I found a bar-none killer solution to my predicament: Reason to Write and its companion, Reason to Write: Student Handbook, by Douglas B. Reeves. Though aimed at elementary students and their parents, the books have enough substance to inspire even academically advanced middle schoolers.

Don’t be scared off by the lackluster title. Reeves writes with a wicked sense of his audience, so it’s like having a one-on-one with a master writing teacher. Even my aforementioned daughter happily took a break from Avi’s gripping Crispin to listen Reeves’s Student Handbook as a bedtime story!

Here are some tips, adapted from Reeves’s ideas (and tested on my kid), to nurture your child’s love of self-expression and develop writing skills.

Love bomb them (with precision)

“What accompanies the first tentative baby step? Encouragement, enticement and enthusiasm …”

Reeves’s observations about the difference between typical parental responses to a baby’s first steps and that of a child’s first writing assignments cut to the core of the matter. As Reeves notes, when babies start walking, we cheer them on with shameless pleasure, celebrating each new attempt and coaching them every step of the way.

But when older kids show us their error-strewn attempts at summarizing Harry Potter, do we bring down the house with our carefully considered praise? Quite the opposite, says Reeves. More commonly parents pick the writing apart and pour on the constructive criticism. Or, if they’re feeling especially caring, they may offer a blanket compliment like “Great job” for writing that may be many things but is not uniformly “great.”

In a word, we forget what we knew as young parents: that explosive exuberance and high expectations are not mutually exclusive. Reeves recommends approaching student writing with the same level of enthusiasm and exactitude that we approached our child’s first steps. Focus on what’s good and praise with as much detail as you can muster. Then when offering suggestions for improvement, use all of your mental powers to avoid general statements and give specific observations:

“Can you find a stronger word than interesting here?”
“That paragraph confuses me. Maybe if you just tell me what you’re trying to say, we can figure out what’s confusing.”
“This sentence has some wonderfully strong words, but I wonder if it should come after you tell us what happens in the story.”

None of this is easy. It requires engagement of the parental mind in a way that most homework help doesn’t. But since schools may not teach writing skills systematically, writing support is one of the most important kinds of homework help you can provide.

Five-minute habit

Though it’s standard for teachers to require their students to read X number of minutes per night, few teachers require nightly writing. Thus many kids master the mechanics of reading but fail to develop reading-comprehension skills.

Based on the idea that summarizing is an essential skill for more advanced learning — whether it’s writing notes for a chemistry exam or summarizing a novel for a high school English class — Reeves recommends devoting a tiny portion of reading time to summarizing. (This could be applied to second-graders and up.)

In other words, if your child reads 30 minutes a day, have them read 25 minutes and spend the remaining five minutes quickly summarizing what they just read. This daily practice of responding to texts works to develop both reading comprehension and simple expository writing skills.

Dearest diary

Introduce your child to the secret art of keeping a journal or an idea book. Though much school writing (even in elementary school) is focused on teaching composition skills, Reeves notes that if a child can tap into their powers of imagination and observation, then learning formal writing skills will make more sense.

It need not even be a book: Reeves tells a story about whitewashing a wall in his basement and encouraging his son to use it as his "idea wall." "The wall became a visible idea factory, covered with stories, pictures, lists, and ideas," Reeves recalls.

From the home laboratory: After reading my diary entries about being bullied in seventh grade, my daughter and I talked about how journals can help during tough emotional times. Then, using a simple notebook, some fabric, and glue, we "made" her a journal. No one would read her book, I reminded her, or God forbid, correct her spelling. Her ebullient “Thank you, Mommy”’s conveyed her appreciation, but I held out little hope she’d ever use it. Then the other day, I wandered into her room to see her quickly closing her book on a page of microscopic text.

Inchoate and misspelled? Maybe, but at least a journal offers kids one place to write for pleasure not report cards.

The perfect (brain)storm

Teaching the art of brainstorming is one of the easiest things for a parent to do and yet it’s also easy to skip when up against a homework deadline. But if you explore brainstorming techniques with your child when there’s no deadline or early in the writing process, you can help your child become a much more confident thinker.

Reeves offers the acronym LEAP to arm parents with brainstorming tools no matter when your child screams, “I don’t know what to write about!”

Here they are in an abbreviated form:

  • Lists: Ask your child to come up with a list of things based on a basic category: scary animals, favorite foods, things adults say too often. Have them make a list to get their ideas on the page.
  • Exaggeration: Encourage your kid to think outside the box with questions that defy logic or reality. A couple of Reeves’s examples: How would people treat you if you had eight arms? What if you could read people’s minds?
  • Action: What could happen next? What would happen if we slowed everything down like a slow-motion film? What if we sped everything up? When your child is writing a creative story, having them play with these questions can elicit a list of new ideas to get them past momentary writer’s block.
  • Pictures: Use pictures, photos, even abstract images to spark ideas for your child’s future writing projects. Offer one picture as a prompt and have them list possible ideas and interpretations on a page.

Write your senator (or favorite cereal maker)

Since so many of assignments are written for teachers (whose only response may be a grade), kids may never understand how their writing can move those who read it to change or act.

Reeves recommends that parents give kids the chance to experience the power of the pen by having them write a letter to someone in the outside world.

A letter written to a grownup — be it complaining to a politician about the quality of school lunches or requesting that a favorite author write a sequel to a much-loved book — can make a powerful impression about the larger reasons for writing. If the child gets a response, the lesson is that much more powerful.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.