Quick writing tips for every age

Turn your child into an unstoppable scribe with this grade-by-grade advice.

By Joe Quirk

Preschool

Demands on kids start so early! Soon after learning to walk, they are being scrutinized for their language skills. By four they sure do chatter a lot, but are they on the right track? How do we prepare them for kindergarten?

Children at this age are developing "metacognition," which is thinking about thinking. Building verbal fluency helps children develop emotional fluency. Well before they are writers, children should be storytellers.

Try this: Tell a short story about something that happened to you, and then ask your preschooler to tell a story about something she remembers. Don't worry about putting words on paper yet. Parents should model the fun of storytelling as if the family is sitting around a campfire.

Ask your kid to tell true stories with "remember when" questions: "Remember when you went on a class trip? And then what happened?" Inspire imaginative stories of possibility with "what if" questions: "What if you could fly? Where would you go?" If your preschooler is stuck on relaying facts only, ask: "How did that make you feel? And how do you think the other person felt?"

Kindergarten

Children love action and movement, but they are not always so crazy about sitting still and writing words. When 5-year-olds are made to sit at a table with a pen and paper, many fold their arms and sulk. We don't want them to think that when writing begins fun stops.

Children write when they think it has a purpose. Don't "assign" writing tasks as if they were homework. Instead, incorporate writing into play.

Try this: Here's a neat-trick — 5-year-olds love to pass secret notes, so slip your kindergartner a Post-It with a question on it. Do you want a Hershey's Kiss? Your child may write: Ys! You write back: Yes, what? Your child: Yes, pees! Then you can write: Can I have a real kiss first? (Even if you have to read this aloud to your child — or he has to ask another adult for help — you're still teaching the fun of writing and communicating in print.)

Never correct spelling and handwriting at this stage. That will come after your child learns to write words. Child specialists say "invented spelling" is just fine. Your role is to make writing fun — but did you notice how the exchange above prompted your kindergartner to learn the correct spelling of yes?

First grade

It's hard to get kids to write with so many distractions. From video games to television, siblings to pets, everything seems to conspire to prevent children from attaining the focus required to write.

By first grade, kids should be writing on their own initiative. How would you like to get yours to write without saying a single word?

Try this: Fill every room with writing supplies. Every parent learns that kids will grab and experiment with whatever's in reach, whether it's a joystick or a box of matches. If paper and pencils are always around, kids will play with them. Put the remote control on a high shelf, and keep writing supplies on the dining-room and kitchen tables.

Long pieces of paper encourage list making. Note cards and envelopes inspire kids to write letters to each other. Hang a paper mailbox on each bedroom door, and never throw away those freebie note cards from charitable organizations — they're perfect for kids who would just as soon write a note to someone in the same room as put one in a mailbox. Index cards, labels, folded paper, Post-It-notes, staplers, sticker, tape, and glue are all guaranteed to lure kids into writing.

Second grade

Many parents think their kids are overscheduled. After school they have a commute home, a meal to eat, and homework to do — not to mention extra activities guaranteed to "enrich" them. Parents sometimes feel like scheduling writing won't leave any time for what kids do best: playing. How do you get kids to write without feeling like a drill sergeant?

When kids make up games, they invent rules, which should be written and posted. Hang up a whiteboard in the playroom so that your child can write on it as her playing demands. Write this at the top of the whiteboard: "Writing is part of pretending."

Try this: When playing with kids, try to think of ways to include writing. For example, playing restaurant can include menus and little waitress pads. Police officers write tickets. Robbers consult maps of the bank. Cowboys and indians sign treaties. Playing house would include cooking, thus writing out recipes, grocery lists, and to-do lists.

Don't worry if you've never heard of The Penguins of Madagascar. All of today's games are derived from ones you played as a kid. If your 7-year-old says, "The penguins need to spy on the lemurs to bring home the blimp," don't try to figure out what that means. Say, "This spy mission needs a map and a written plan! Write it in invisible ink!"

Third grade

Kids are so spontaneously creative, but it can be tricky to get them to capture those insights on paper. Sometimes when you sit them down and say, "Be creative!" they freeze up. Then when you let them run around and jabber, suddenly they are producing one unique, funny thought after another. How do you get what comes out their mouths onto the page?

Try this: Give your child a notebook. Kids don't switch instantly from talking to imagining to writing pages of creative stories. An easy way to make the transition is to get your child in the habit of carrying a notebook (compostion books come in all colors and designs) or keeping one nearby.

Every time your third grader comes up with an idea, remind her to write it down in her notebook. Teach your child that her ideas and memories are valuable and collectible and might come in handy for future writing projects — a nature journal, secret diary, spy notebook, and so on.

Fourth grade

In fourth grade students face the challenge of reading their first textbooks. Where once their schoolbooks were simple narratives with illustrations, now they are filled with bold print, bullet points, photo captions, tables of contents, subtitles, headings, indexes, and glossaries.

The first time a fourth grader sees a textbook, it can be dizzying. This is Big-Kid Land, and students are treated like little scholars. How do you keep yours from panicking?

Try this: Ask your child to pick a topic he loves and write about it using bullet points of fun facts — he can also illustrate his ideas and write captions for the pictures. Whether he writes about whales, outer space, soccer, dancing, or chocolate, all topics can be described using chapter headings, subtitles, bullet points, and illustrations with captions. (Many kids actually enjoy writing the table of contents, which helps them imagine an outline for their essay.)

When 9-year-olds become familiar with the features of textbooks by writing them, they will find it much easier to read them.

Fifth grade

If you have a fifth grader, you don't need to be told the challenge is motivation. Many fifth graders think that life is far too full of drama to focus on actual schoolwork.

Puberty is percolating. If your fifth grader has started writing, you may have noticed that, despite your best efforts, his or her preoccupations are disturbingly gender stereotyped. Your boy may be writing about shooting and blood, and your girl may be writing about clothes and friends. How do we get our sons to write about cooperation and our daughters to write about being assertive leaders?

Try this: As much as it makes you cringe, let your boy write about guts and explosions, and allow your girl to write about frenemies and fashion — and by all means encourage the kids who are exceptions to these stereotypes.

The goal at this stage is not to squash their preoccupations but to, as the child specialists say, "celebrate their interests" and get them writing! We'll teach our sons to be sensitive and daughters to be world leaders later, when they're sophisticated enough to care what society thinks. For now, let 10-year-olds write about their interests.

Middle school

Welcome to the age of protest. Middle schoolers start to look beyond their schools and neighborhoods and think of themselves as citizens of a larger world. And the first thing they notice is that they could do a better job. You may notice repeated exclamations like "It's not fair!" or "That's wrong!" or "Why can't we share our leftovers with starving children?"

The years of self-righteousness have begun, and you will be the focus of most blame. After all, it's an adult world, and you're the nearest adult. As an enforcer of rules, you are the most convenient oppressor. Sometimes even Mom can feel like the Man.

Try this: Don't tamp it down. Use it. Next time your tween starts shouting at the dinner table, listen and talk but also encourage her to get her angst out on the page, even if it's just a private diary. Point out that her favorite rappers and songwriters often write disciplined, evocative poetry, and she should cultivate the same skills.

Kids at this age may be attracted to slam poetry or pop lyrics. If it sounds to you like ranting with no rhyme or meter, don't worry — we're too old to get it. Even if it means spraying criticism all over your happy family, turning your tween's unfocused passions into focused prose is redemptive — and a habit that could last a lifetime.

High school

The demanding adult world is approaching. Teens will be entering college or the workforce in no time, and they're already thinking about "what they want to do when they grow up." Trouble is, the opportunities they typically see are extremely narrow. They know about your work. They know about the teachers in their classrooms, nurses, doctors, and garbage men. Beyond that, most professions they've familiar with come from the media — i.e. pro athletes or pro entertainers. It's time they understand how writing fits into many professions and encompasses many different professions in and of itself.

Invite teenagers to consider that every minute of every TV channel must be filled by the creativity of writers. List all the ways that effective writing suffuses their lives, on every web page, podcast, radio, billboard, and cereal box. Everywhere they look, somebody is making a living writing. Now let's have fun with it.

Try this: Challenge adolescents to think like professionals with deadlines by offering scenarios:

"You just got hired to write for Jon Stewart or Glenn Beck. He needs a monologue by the end of the day. Pick a partner and write it together."

"Imagine you're the publicity writer for your favorite band. What would you write on their iTunes page?"

"Design your own automobile. Write an advertisement you'd see on TV."

"You have to create video game characters and write their dialogue. The deadline is tomorrow! Create your ultimate game!"

"You have to sell a perfume you think smells bad. Write a paragraph convincing women reading a magazine to buy it."

Teenagers can take their assignment seriously, or they can satirize the form, but these exercises are guaranteed to teach them the monetary value of writing.

Joe Quirk is a novelist, science writer, and creative-writing teacher living in Berkeley, Calif. His bestselling book, The Ultimate Rush, is an action thriller about rollerblading.