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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.

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."