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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.

Comments from readers

"Writing went pretty well until 9th grade English, but now its just a C with no suggestions. The last idea here, I recognize from my son's 5th grade class. They wrote to a candy company, and my son even received a bag of candy from the company for his effort (Smarties). He still remembers that assignment!! The best assignment all year just came out, a review of the Hunger Games. I wish there was more of that creativity and less emphasis on achieving an unspoken standard. "
"Wow! I was just reading what passes as good writing by my middle schooler and was feeling dismayed. I understand that there is no structured instruction provided in the classroom and I struggle to determine what to do. I have given up on my high schooler and will be hiring a tutor as his expression is terrible. Public schooling has been an up and down and sometimes a major disappointment and I live in a high achieving district. Forget it if your child needs direct instruction - it is not in the teachers tool kit. "
"Thanks! This article re-inspired me as a parent. "
"Nice article. BTW, I couldn't disagree more with the comment about word choice. Compare, say, Hemmingway with Joseph Conrad and you will see vivid, exciting action in a stark syle and a more ornate one. Shame on his/her vituperation! "
"Thanks for the wonderful tips, Carol.Right on time when i needed them. "
"Your writing is fraught with cliches. Your word choices are condescending and only known to a select few. You are not writing to your audience, you are writing to impress yourself. If you use a more common vocabulary your words will reach more people. "
"Thank you! I am bookmarking now for reference to help my son in virtual school who has a great vocabulary and a love of reading but writing is like pulling teeth. "
"Super helpful article! I too am horrified by the lack of writing instruction at school these days. Now I have some great concrete ideas to try at home! "
"I think it is a great idea. I've always encouraged my granddaughter to carry a tablet, pen or pencil wherever she goes and to write about what she sees or what she is thinking. I was never successful, and then this weekend being Labor Day Weekend, I guess she suddently had some time on her hand and she said she found herself writing so I asked her what she wrote about, and she said a singer she saw on yutube. I've encouraged her to each day to read for 15 minutes, and then write answering the questions,"What was it about, Who was the main character, and what do you think will be the conclusion? We're not there yet, but I'm continuing to encourage her to write. "
"Thank you for this article. It helped me with the great tips you gave. "
"Very helpful. Thank you."
" Thank you for sharing this wonderful information, It will help me to be of help to my daughter, she is in first grade ( just started this week) and friday she was crying because she had failed to complete her classwork writing assignment therefor missing on school fun day. Is her distress to be expected?"
"There is a much better way to teach your child to write effectively: convince your school to eliminate all multiple choice (so-called multiple guess) tests and make every test answer require complete sentences or even a paragraph. Then grade those answers for spelling, punctuation and grammar, whether the test is for history, math or any other class. If children are required to write well as soon as they can put together a complete sentence, writing well becomes second nature to them. "
"This was a great article. I teach Spanish part-time to middle schoolers at a private school in Philadelphia. At times, I give them short writing exercises in English about cultural aspects of Hispanic culture which we've covered in class. They have so many deficits in their writing; I feel that I should teaching them English composition, instead of a second language. Thanks, val"
"LOVED this article. My younger daughter approaches every writing project with frustration, fear and tears. This inspires me to make writing a fun summer event that the whole family can do together. Thank you for the fabulous writing. And it horrifies me how often papers coming from teachers or the principal at school are poorly written, filled with grammatical errors and misspelling."
"Carol, I commend you on bringing up this issue. I think you have missed all of the amazing scientific resarch that has been done in this arena. A huge gap exist between what the scientific community has proven and knows about students learning literacy vs. how educators are trained and teach literacy skills. Our students are suffering greatly! Every child deserves to learn how to read, write and spell. Check out our website for more information. Thanks. Lynn"
"Loved the article and ideas mentioned! Good to know I am not the only mom shocked by my son's writing skills at times. Would love to buy the book mentioned, but it is out of print. If anyone has one to sell let me know (not the students handbook). Thanks. "
"Thank you for a great article! I have been so frustrated by the lack of writing instruction in my daughters' early education. I would love to find a copy of Reason to Write by Douglas Reeves but it doesn't appear that the major bookstores have it available for purchase. Do you have a resource for ordering this book. Thank you for addressing this issue in our kids education. Cindy"
"very helpful to a new parent like me who was sleeping that my kid is doing well by reading well. "
"This article was very practical and helpful for use with my son who is ADD and possibly dysphagic. Thanks so much for the ideas and suggestions. JR"
"I think that this is a great article. I passed it along to my wife to pass it along to my elelmetanry school age son. Thanks "
"Thank You for this article! It is exactly what I need for my rising middle school daughter! Being our 'baby', my husband and I didn't take the time with her when she read books at night to actually summarize the stories and she does have some challenges with comprehension, which in turn, makes coming up with ideas and writing a real chore. This article gives some great suggestions for us to work on this summer."
"Please consider the published status of books before recommending them! It has been a nightmare to get a hold of these, and sellers are charging over $100 for them, as they are out of print!"
"A very good article. I agree very much with the ideas and found it very helpful. Thank you."