I sat outside the high school band room simultaneously on the verge of either tears or a full-fledged panic attack. In my hands were the notes I had taken about the assignment due in two weeks: a research paper in MLA format with a minimum of five resources and no less ten pages. The number of research papers I had previously written? ZERO. The amount of guidance the teacher offered us? ZERO. Almost twenty years out from high school graduation, I remember only a handful of assignments from those years. That one, though? I doubt that the memory of my utter despair and desolation of my confidence as a writer will ever fade.
This experience was an extreme example, but my old teacher made a mistake that a great many writing teachers make. They fail to TEACH writing. Telling kids what you want them to write about isn’t teaching writing. Telling them how many pages they should write isn’t teaching writing. Lighting up their work with red pen marks after the work has been done isn’t teaching writing. That’s assigning and assessing writing.
So how does one TEACH writing then?
1. Mentor Texts. Mentor texts are samples of writing that come from skilled writers. They’re an important tool in both the pre-writing and drafting stages of the writing process.
Before writing, mentor texts can be studied and even dissected. A child writing an expository essay about a historical figure could study biographies to see what techniques biography writers use to begin their books. A child writing a book review could open up the Sunday newspaper to investigate the book and movie reviews written by professional writers to see how they write conclusions without saying, “You should read it, too.”
During writing, mentor texts can be a valuable reference. A child who is struggling with the mechanics of dialogue can refer to an admired novelist’s books to see how the rules of dialogue play out in “real” writing.
2. Modeling. Don’t worry—no one is asking you to put on a swimsuit or strut down a runway. Modeling in this case means that you own your role as the most skilled writer in your homeschool, dig in there right alongside your students, and show them how it’s done.
I know, I know. Writing is hard work. Actually, Hilda Taba called writing “the most complex of all human activities.” I promise you, though, that if you make the investment of chewing on a writing project alongside your child, you’ll be amazed at the improved outcome.
It’s worth noting that you don’t need to complete every step of the writing process every time to be successful with this teaching tool. Usually I find that it’s most important to be there at the beginning of each step in the writing process, and then it’s okay, even for the best, for me to get out of the way.
Probably the most important aspect of modeling is thinking aloud. Don’t just let your child see the product of your inner thoughts—speak your thoughts as you think them. It’s okay, too, to share when you struggle with something. “I’m really frustrated with this, so I’m going to leave it and come back to it later,” is a no-joke important lesson to learn as a writer.
Learning to write doesn’t have to feel overwhelming or bewildering. Using mentor texts and modeling absolutely has the potential to transform both the outcome of your child’s writing and the way your child feels about him or herself as a writer. Writing is hard. Don’t send them into the wilderness of words alone.