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Ten expert tips for improving writing

If your child has writer's block, these tips from writing coaches may help.

By GreatSchools Staff

Does your child struggle with writing assignments? You can help, and you don't have to be a great writer yourself.

That's the lesson from a writing program based in Berkeley, California, that has been training community volunteers to work with middle and high schools students for the last seven years. The WriterCoach Connection puts lawyers, nurses, accountants, college students and retirees through six hours of training. Each coach then works in one-on-one sessions with a student on a piece of writing assigned by the classroom English teacher.

Volunteers are trained to coach writers, not correct their papers. They learn strategies to help students think through what they want to say, organize ideas and revise their writing. Lynn Mueller, the program's associate director and the mother of a recent high school graduate, likens a writing coach to a "patient, friendly listener."

I went through the training and worked as a coach for a year, and I found it a powerful way to help students at all levels discover they had something to say and figure out how to say it. I also used these strategies to help my own teenagers.

The program isn't magic. It's not intended as a substitute for a strong writing program at your child's school. The best way to become a better writer is to keep writing, and if your student isn't writing every day in school, you should take your concerns to teachers and administrators.

How can you help if your child is stumped about how to even begin an assignment? Or "stuck" part way through? These tips, drawn from the experiences of the writing coaches, may help:

Clarify the assignment.

Ask your child to explain the assignment to you. If he can't, ask him if he has a written assignment sheet from the teacher. If he doesn't, have him get the assignment from a friend.

Clarify the content.

Some students struggle with the writing because they haven't done the thinking about what they want to say. Ask your child to tell you the main point she wants to make. If she can explain her ideas verbally first, the writing will be easier. Ask her to tell you examples or anecdotes that support that main point. That will help her think through how she'll support her main point, or thesis. If your child is reacting negatively to an assignment, ask her to tell you why. If you help her think her ideas through, she may be able to write an effective paper based on her objections to the assignment.

Check the evidence.

Do the examples or anecdotes support your child's main idea? Are they accurate? Are they lively? If your child is having trouble here, ask him to take a minute and tell you about the scene or event he's describing as if he were a reporter, using the 5 W's and H: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Comments from readers

"these are things that i had'nt thought about : i would like to learn more about how to put my notes together to make my message put across to the audience that i am speaking to."
"My daughter Julia Murray is working on a novel and sometimes has asked me for my input these tips have helped me to be possitive and allow her to develop her story. Thank you Bonny L Schallock"
"I found this advise helpful. I value this type of advise because I want to be prepared to help my child if I need to in the future."
"This was very helpful and it arrived on a perfect day as my son was struggling with an assignment and I was at a loss at how to help him without putting to much of me into it. His biggest problem was that he had so many ideas he became overwhelmed and they became jumbled as he tried to organize them. In addition to the help in the article I let my son use my mini tape recorder to read his paper out loud and record it so he could listen to his paper as he played it back and make notes as to where he thought changes needed to be made. He said that helped him so much he recommended doing that to a friend. I look forward to more great tips, thanks a ton."
"Absolutely wonderful advise throughout the article. I will incorporate the ideas next time my children are at a loss. Thanks!"
"Oh! Just fabulous advice. My 17 yr old son struggles with writing and its been agonizing for us both. Now I am armed with tools to help him. He's gonna be shocked!!"
"Thank you for the writing tips. This information will help me assist my teenager(s) with their writing assignments. It is very important to let your child be the author of his paper and encourage them to expand on their idea when a paragraph is not clear. Positive feedback is the key. "