Writing skills don’t come naturally. It is a bigger struggle for many children even if they are good readers. You know, it’s interesting that here in California — and my read of studies from around the country suggests that this is relatively consistent — we find across the board, whether students are doing pretty well or not so well, that they’re usually doing better in reading than they are in writing. So we find that this is kind of a generic issue. That in general, our students, our young people are not writing as well as they should be or could be. So how do we teach better writing?

Parents often think there is not much they can do to help their older kids except keep on them to finish the paper — or do it for them. But the answer very much mirrors the answer about how to address reading issues: it’s a combination of excellent instruction and age-appropriate practice — and lots of it.

For better writing, start with strategy and process

For example, say you have a student who is in middle school, and they have to do a report on some famous person in American history in their eighth grade U.S. history class. It’s important that they have a strategy for how to gather information, how to organize that information, how to execute a rough draft, how to edit that draft. There’s got to be a step-by-step process, and it’s got to be taught and supported.

So what can parents do? Really, a couple of things. One is to partner with the schools, to make sure that we understand what the expectations are in writing, and to break the expectations down into specific skills. So, for example, it’s really helpful, if the school’s not requiring it, to support your kids by providing an assignment calendar where they see: Oh, this major report, an eighth grade biography report, for example, is due in three weeks. We then help them come up with an outline by the end of week one.

It doesn’t mean that we have to necessarily be doing it with them, but just orienting them. “Make sure that you have this outline by the end of week one. Make sure that you’ve gathered research on these eight topics (about the person’s educational background, their contributions, their politics, whatever the elements are).

Monitoring and supporting better writing

So, breaking it into manageable parts and then monitoring and supporting the kids to accomplish the parts. Not waiting until two nights before and then having the parent write the whole thing, which is what we find sometimes happens. Either the kids don’t do it, or they do it poorly, or the parents wind up stepping in and writing it for them. And so it’s really a matter of understanding what the requirement is, helping our students break it into manageable parts, and then working with the schools to make sure that they’re being taught strategies for how to accomplish these parts.

In sum, it’s very similar to the approach to learning to read.

  • We have to really look and analyze what needs to be taught. What are the expectations? What are the standards?
  • Then separate it into manageable pieces.
  • Then give them lots and lots of instruction and lots of practice.

Organization skills and work habits

So parents are really helping their kids with a lot of their work habits and their organizational skills. And that’s something that I think is very appropriate for parents to do. We’ve been doing that with our seventh grade son, and at first there’s quite a lot of resistance. You know, it’s, “Get out that assignment calendar. Okay, what’s due?” And I show Max, my son, my calendar and say, “Hey, this is exactly how I’ve managed my time at work.” I get a lot of grumbling, but I think over time we back out. We monitor or we do less and less as he shows us that he’s really taking responsibility for it.

But earlier in the year, I was monitoring it every night. When he came home, I wanted to see what the new assignments were for that day. Did he have them? Of course, at first he would say, “Oh, nothing, Dad.” So I’d say, “I don’t know about that.” And we would call up one of the neighbor kids in his class and say, “How about that science report?” “Oh Gosh, Dad, I forgot about that.” So it’s two parts: It’s modeling — such as modeling with your own calendar — and then monitoring. A big part of it is supervising the use of these skills, as well as reading and writing and math, at home.