Do the Write Thing
At the first parent-teacher night we attended when our older son entered kindergarten, the teacher took a poll:
“How many of you consider yourselves to be readers?”
Almost every adult in the room raised a hand.
“How many of you consider yourselves at least a little athletic?”
Again almost everyone’s hand went up.
“And how many of you consider yourselves to be writers?”
Only 4 of the 30 parents in the room raised their hands: My husband and me, both writers, and two others.
The room grew silent. The teacher, knowing a teachable moment when she saw one, commented: “This isn’t unusual. Most adults were intimidated out of writing years ago. Yet as parents, your job is to help your children learn to write as well as to read.”
I’ve pondered the ensuing discussion ever since. Just what is it that makes it so hard for people to put their thoughts down on paper? And how can we make it different for our own children?
Most of the current crop of parents grew up in a time when the principal measure of whether we knew something in school was what we were able to write down. We wrote book reports. We wrote papers. We wrote answers to essay questions. We wrote stories in the styles of the authors we were reading. Sometimes we even got to write stories of our own. Except for the occasional dreaded oral presentation, we wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more.
Some of us were lucky enough to get the occasional inspired teacher who taught us to love language and use it courageously. But much of the time, perhaps even most of the time, we got red-penciled.
In their efforts to teach us how to do it right, our teachers showed us all the things we were doing wrong. In their efforts to teach us the intricacies of grammar, they had us parse sentences and practice using past participles. (I can still diagram a prepositional phrase but that doesn’t mean I always know how to use one.) In their efforts to make writers out of us, they quite often terrified us out of ever wanting to write again.
For many students of that time, the act of sitting down to put thoughts on paper became more and more discouraging. Unwilling to face more red comments and corrections, these discouraged learners figured out how to play it safe by keeping things simple or gave up trying, focusing instead on areas where they could succeed. (I wonder how many mathematicians or artists or scientists were born of a retreat from the task of writing paragraphs.) Writing became something someone else did.
Righting Past Writing Wrongs
Fast-forward 10 or so years. Now these discouraged writers have to face the whole issue again. Their kids are coming home with assignments for book reports, papers, essays, stories, and tests.
Fortunately, school and learning theory has changed some over the past 20 to 30 years. Alternative methods that focus on creativity, fostering self-expression, and enjoyment of language have been developed to help kids learn how to write. My kids have made up songs about diversity, poems about geography, and stories to show what they know about history. Spelling and grammar didn’t count.
Alternatives to writing often are offered to kids as the means for showing what they know so that even the kid who has difficulty with writing can get decent grades. This past year, my youngest made dioramas for book reports, board games to demonstrate the life cycle of a frog, and traced the route of the Underground Railroad on a map. She made star charts to show understanding of the seasons, and posters and murals to explain science lessons. Writing wasn’t an issue.
And yet, kids still do need to learn to communicate information and ideas through the written word and in conventional English. Their ability to advance in the world still depends on it. Although the advent of the computer has changed the nature of the task markedly, kids still have to know how to write coherent sentences. (No, they can’t rely on the computer grammar check to succeed. As useful as that tool can be, it is often dead wrong.)
What You Can Do
As another school year approaches, it is a good time to think about what we can do to help our kids become competent and confident writers. As that kindergarten teacher told me so many years ago, teachers need and deserve our support in this important task. So take a deep breath and make language and writing come alive for your kids through activities like these:
- Write. As with so many things parental, modeling is probably the most important thing we can do. Use e-mail. Write cards and letters. Write grocery lists and “to do” lists. Keep a journal. Let your kids see you using writing as a basic tool for daily life. Little kids take in what we do like little sponges. They want to do what we do.
- Get your kids to write. Put up a dry-erase board and a big calendar in your kitchen. Each evening, have the kids take turns writing down the schedule for the next day on the board. Who is going where? What chores need to be done? Enter events and due dates on the calendar. Not only will the kids get some practice writing, but the whole family will get more organized.
Surprise the kids with occasional notes of encouragement in their lunchboxes, under their pillows, or hidden among their socks. Encourage them to leave notes for you and each other.
Encourage your kids to use instant messenger and to send e-mail to family and friends. Install a “nanny” and monitor your computer for unwelcome visitors, of course. But don’t let fears of the Internet deprive your children and you of valuable lessons in written communication. The immediacy of the computer is very reinforcing for kids and adults.
- Play word games. As soon as they are old enough to spell, get a Scrabble Jr. game. Make up your own variations on the rules: See who can use the tiles to make the most words that start with the letter “g,” play in teams, or have the whole family try to use up all the tiles to make a board full of interconnecting words.
- Instill a love of words. Play with words that make their own sound like “pop,” “buzz,” or “fizz.” Talk to the kids about “tasting” words. Roll really interesting ones around in your mouth. Savor the flavor of words like loquacious or quagmire or smidgen. Memorize rhymes and poems as a family activity. Kids who grow up enjoying language become comfortable using it.
- Catch them doing it right. If your child shows you an assignment, start out by commenting on everything you can find that is right about it. Then choose a couple of things to focus on to improve the writing. With elementary-aged kids, you can make a game out of finding all the words that need capital letters or all the nouns that need verbs to make whole sentences. Middle school kids can be encouraged to make their writing more interesting by using new and different adjectives. High school students are ready to take on the challenge of more sophisticated argument or more complex sentences. The point is not to overwhelm your child with corrections but to help him delight in making a good thing better.
- Read. Read. Read. Kids who are read to and who read a lot often develop an intuitive sense for what looks and sounds “right.” Help little kids become involved with language. Point out the interesting shapes of words. (“Elephant” looks very different from “the.”) Show them how proper names always have a big letter at the front. Talk about how the author uses describing words to help us see what he or she sees. Show them how the different punctuation marks change how a sentence is said.
Learning to Write Well Is, Well, Natural
The most important thing we can do to foster writing skills is to have a positive attitude — both about the value of writing and about our kids’ ability to learn how to do it. Learning to write really can be as natural and rewarding as learning to talk. Even kids who struggle at first can rise to the challenge when their parents and teachers are optimistic about their success and supportive of their efforts.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Do the Write Thing. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/do-the-write-thing/