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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Check the organization.

    If it is an essay, see if the teacher has given specific instructions about the introduction, body paragraphs or conclusion. Go over the sequence of ideas in each paragraph your child has written. Can you follow the thinking or are there missing steps that you need to understand his logic? Are transitions needed to link the paragraphs together? Talk about paragraphs that work well, identifying why they are effective. Discuss how the introduction and conclusion relate to the topic. Does the writer draw in the reader with his introduction? Does the conclusion include his thesis and sum up his ideas? The WriterCoach Connection coaches found these tips helpful in coaching once their kids had the beginnings of a piece of writing. You can read more on the WriterCoach Connection website.

  5. Start by asking your child, “How can I help you?”

    As a coach, your role is to listen and help your child figure out what he is trying to say. “You’re giving the child a sounding board to talk out his ideas,” Mueller says. “You’ll help him organize those ideas and support them with examples.”

  6. Listen to your child read the piece of writing aloud without interrupting.

    Writing is hard work that requires concentration. If you interrupt, you risk interfering in your child’s thinking process.

  7. Find three strengths in your child’s writing and point them out.

    Always start with strengths. Look for concrete details, sentences that are clear, words that are vivid, and praise them when you find them. Point to the phrase, sentence or paragraph and read it aloud. Tell her why it’s effective: “I really like the way you understand the main character of the book,” or “I love the colorful details in that sentence.” You’ll be showing her that writing isn’t a mystical process but one that requires skills that she can master.

  8. If something is unclear ask for more information.

    Ask questions about what your child is trying to communicate. Tell him if there’s something you’d like to know more about, an idea that’s not fully expressed. Don’t criticize or give the answer, but help him find his own answers. If you respond to his writing as a reader, you’ll be showing him that writing is a way to communicate ideas to an audience. “Every writer has an audience,” Mueller says. “Student writers may not realize this because they’re writing an assignment for a teacher.”

  9. Don’t correct grammar or mechanics on a rough draft.

    Your child may correct her own rough-draft errors as she revises her writing, particularly if you encourage her to read her work aloud — to you or to herself. But if your child makes a consistent mistake in mechanics at this stage, see if she knows how to correct it. If she doesn’t, give her the correct form. On the final draft, encourage your child to edit her own work. Resist the temptation to make the paper “perfect” from your point of view.

  10. Respect your child as a writer.

    What and how to revise is your child’s choice, not yours. The “voice” he uses should be his, not yours. Offer a suggestion, and remember that your child must learn to do the thinking and writing.