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.
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.
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