By Jamie L. Scheppers
In the words of Susan Taber, former communication arts consultant for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “Reading and writing are reciprocal processes that strengthen each other.”
Success in life relies heavily on literacy and, specifically, on the ability to communicate clearly through writing. The easiest way to improve your child’s writing skills is to encourage him to read. Your child will do a lot of this in school, but it’s important to encourage reading outside of school work.
It’s a parent’s job to ensure that reading material is age appropriate, but this is just the beginning. Guide your child to a wide variety of authors and subjects. No doubt your child will have his favorites. Taber says this is normal. “They go through different stages. That’s good,” she says.
“One thing we’ve realized, and that research has brought out through the years, is that [children] should really be reading more nonfiction,” Taber says. If the children love to read, it can be even more beneficial for them to learn something valuable at the same time. “Interestingly enough, kids love nonfiction. That’s something we’ve missed through the years.” So, if you and your child are browsing for books at the library, head to the nonfiction section.
Once the reading is under control, it’s important to help your child bridge the gap between reading and writing with a form of free writing. Paraphrasing and summarizing are two important skills that will help your child with academic writing, but it’s also important to encourage journal writing. Taber says summarizing isn’t the only thing that can improve comprehension and suggests “journal writing about the day’s events, current events, or anything.”
Paraphrasing is the act of taking someone else’s words and revising them in your own words. Consider paraphrasing a "translation" of a complex work into your own words. This is important for children to do because it helps them more fully understand the things they read. It also helps them learn what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Summarizing has very similar benefits, but involves condensing the material so that it can be reviewed in less time than it took to read the source material.
Original text: In the 18th and 19th centuries, commercial hunting of belugas by Europeans and Americans caused a drop in the Canadian Arctic beluga population. In addition to using the meat and blubber, Europeans also used the beluga whales' fine melon oil to lubricate watches and machinery, and to illuminate lighthouses. From 1868 to 1911 Scottish and American whalers took more than 20,000 belugas in Lancaster Sound and Davis Strait. (Silich, Steven “Beluga Whales Discovered” (1991): pp 67-69)
Paraphrased: In the past two centuries, European, Scottish, and American beluga whalers have decreased the Canadian Arctic beluga population in both the Lancaster Sound and Davis Strait. The whales’ meat, blubber and melon oil is used for many things from watch and machine lubrication to lighthouse illumination. (Silich, 67-69)
Summarized: In the past two centuries, whalers have significantly decreased the Canadian Arctic beluga population in both the Lancaster Sound and Davis Strait. (Silich, 67-69)
Both of these skills are indispensable for report writing. While it isn’t normal practice to paraphrase and summarize when reading for fun, there are ways you can help your child learn these skills. If your child comes to you with a question on a subject that is new to him, direct him to the encyclopedia. Because the entries often are written for adults, he may have difficulty understanding the text. This is a perfect opportunity for him to practice paraphrasing and summarizing. Also, the time taken to do this and the active role that your child will have taken both ensure that the information will be retained better than if you had verbally answered the question.
Making a book jacket is another activity that will give your child summarizing practice. This one is a little more fun and integrates art as well. After reading a book, have your child write a short summary of the book and create a new cover design. This helps your child learn to summarize large works in a brief manner. It reinforces the skill of selecting the topic of the book. You may find you have a budding book reviewer on your hands.
Here's a little practice paraphrasing and summarizing (with answers to check your child's work!). It’s important that you review your child’s answers with him and explain why they are correct or not. The first exercise is a bonus provided to give your child practice in word choice and spelling of homophones — words that sound alike, but have different spellings and meanings. These types of words must be memorized. You may even find that you have trouble with some sets; many adults do.
Below are pairs of sentences. Decide whether or not the second sentence (B), which paraphrases sentence (A), has changed the original meaning of sentence (A). If the meaning has been changed, try to paraphrase the sentence so it retains the same meaning.
#1 A. The mouth was beaked and the jaws held leaf-shaped cheek teeth.
B. It had a beak and leaf-shaped cheek teeth.
#2 A. The front wall or face of a building is termed the façade.
B. A façade is the front wall (or face) of a building.
#3 A. They are retiring animals, not particularly inclined to attack people, but a jaguar may launch an attack or even stalk a human being if threatened.
B. Jaguars may attack or stalk human beings if they feel threatened, but they stop doing this once they retire.
#4 A. Padre Island National Seashore is located in the undeveloped central part of the island, where more than 350 kinds of birds, and many small animals, reptiles, and varied marine life are found.
B. Padre Island National Seashore has more than 350 kinds of birds, small animals, reptiles and marine life forms. It is the undeveloped center of the island.
#5 A. Moisture-laden air over the oceans is drawn toward this center of low pressure. The air cools as it ascends the slopes of mountain barriers; it can no longer retain moisture, resulting in heavy rainfall.
B. The heavy rainfall comes from the moist air that cools as it rises near mountains. Low pressure pulls the air up the mountains.
The following is an excerpt from an encyclopedia. Read it thoroughly, and then write a summary. Remember, your summary should be shorter than the original and only contain the main points.
Earthquake – trembling or shaking movement of the earth's surface. Most earthquakes are minor tremors. Larger earthquakes usually begin with slight tremors but rapidly take the form of one or more violent shocks, and end in vibrations of gradually diminishing force called aftershocks. The subterranean point of origin of an earthquake is called its focus; the point on the surface directly above the focus is the epicenter. The magnitude and intensity of an earthquake is determined by the use of scales, e.g., the Richter Magnitude Scale and the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale.
#3 Jaguars usually won’t attack or stalk humans unless they feel threatened.
#4 In addition to the many small animals, reptiles and types of marine life, there are more than 350 kinds of birds in Padre Island National Seashore, which is located in the undeveloped center of the island.
Sample summary: Most earthquakes are small, but some are large and gradually become smaller before ending. These small movements are called aftershocks. Quakes start underground at the focus. The point above this on the surface is the epicenter. The Richter and Mercalli scales are used to measure quakes.
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