teaching

The Most Important Change You Can Make to Improve Your Child’s Writing

The Most Important Change You Can Make to Improve Your Child’s Writing

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. 


5 Things I've Learned From Teaching a Homeschool Writing Class

Great tips for teaching writing to homeschoolers. Number three gives me hope! #homeschool

I teach a creative writing class at our homeschool group. It’s one of the best parts of my week because the class always comes together like an explosion of creativity. (Also all my students are just fantastic humans.) I’ve been lucky to watch the students I’ve taught get accepted to college, find professional writing jobs, and even go from mumbling that they hate to write to telling everyone that writing is their favorite class. I like to think that my students have picked up some knowledge over the years, but the truth is, I’ve probably learned more than they have—and all these lessons have proven helpful in helping my own kids to be better, more engaged writers.

  1.  It’s smart to go back to basics. The first time my class turned in a story assignment, I realized that some of them had never turned in a written assignment before: No one wrote names on papers, and some kids wrote on the back side of the paper instead of the front. Obviously that’s no big deal in a class like mine, but I made a mental note that I wanted to be sure to talk to my daughter about how to set up a paper that she’s turning in to someone else.
  2. Deadlines are your friend. My first class, I didn’t want to risk curbing creativity by being hard-core about deadlines and encouraged kids to submit work on their own timeline. But I realized that my writers did better when they had a firm deadline—otherwise, like me, they would just keep poking and poking at a piece until long past its best-by date. Setting deadlines gave them permission to finish a story and call it done-for-now. I still believe writer’s block is a legitimate excuse to miss an assignment, but now I set lots of deadlines and students consistently rise to them. 
  3. Spelling and grammar are easy to fix. I don’t worry much about about grammar and spelling in creative writing—that’s not really the point—but I do mark recurring errors in spelling or grammar, no more than two or three per story. And you know what? Probably 80 percent of the time, students don’t ever repeat an error after I mark it once. 
  4. Good writing does not only happen on the page. When I was planning my class, I envisioned kids bent over their notepads, the sound of their furiously scratching pencils echoing through the room. Instead, I found myself surrounded by non-stop conversation. (I even attained a dubious level of fame for having the loudest class in our group.) But I soon realized that all these conversations—even the ones that seemed the most off-track—found their way back into what the students were writing—and their work was better because of them. Lesson learned: Creativity doesn’t have to happen in vacuum. 
  5. You cannot give too much positive feedback. My students like to tease me about all the little green comments I leave on their work. (Also about my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s another story.) When I was a teenager, my papers would usually come back with As scrawled on the top and sometimes “nice work” or “good job.” But I wanted more feedback—I wanted to know where my word choice had been spot-on and where my arguments had been particularly strong. I wondered if my teacher had caught my allusions or gotten the joke I’d tried to make in my conclusion. So I mark up papers with that memory in mind, making a point to note great sentences, smart ideas, and interesting constructions. If I think there’s a place where something could be stronger, I definitely note that, too, but the majority of my notes focus on what the writer is doing right—which is usually a lot.