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By Carol Lloyd
“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.
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.
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