by Fran Santoro Hamilton
Writing provides an opportunity for us to communicate with people we may
never meet face to face. Helping children become effective writers will equip
them to share their ideas and their feelings—and perhaps even influence others.
However, many people—adults and children alike—find writing to be a stressful challenge. Writing instruction can loom as an even more daunting task.
Writing can be distressing because it is an extremely complex process in
which people must tend to many tasks simultaneously: form an idea, put the idea
into words, spell the words correctly, capitalize and punctuate appropriately,
and shape letters (or find them on a keyboard). In addition, while working on
one sentence, the mind is probably racing ahead to consider the next one!
A key to successful writing—and to successful writing instruction—is to break the writing process into manageable parts in order to focus on one step at a time. This dispels the panic or confusion that may have paralyzed the overburdened brain. The process approach provides a way to complete the writing task with a minimum of frustration.
A word of caution regarding writing instruction: Teachers often replace the challenge of writing with the security of worksheets. Completing a worksheet is quicker and easier than writing a composition, and the worksheet is easier for a parent or teacher to evaluate. However, in the vast majority of cases, completing a worksheet is not writing. A worksheet may help to hone a particular skill, but unless it allows students to express their own ideas, it does not require them to write.
The bulk of language arts time should be spent in genuine communication—listening, speaking, reading, writing, or thinking. The best way for young people to improve their writing skill is to write. They should practice all steps of the writing process; however, they might not go through the entire process with each writing experience.
The following tips for writing instruction apply to writers of all ages and abilities. Most of the tips relate directly to the writing process. Tips #1–3, which may not appear to involve writing instruction, in fact establish a vital foundation on which to build.
1. From the time your children are toddlers—or even before—show them that you value communication. Listen attentively when they talk to you. Expect them to listen attentively when you talk to them. When you are communicating something important, be sure you have eye contact with them. Be sure you are looking at them, and be sure they are looking at you. Your children's perception of your attitude toward communication will carry over from listening and speaking to reading and writing.
2. Do some writing yourself. This serves a dual purpose. First, it provides experience with the writing process so that you can be a more effective guide for your children. Second, it gives you the opportunity to model writing. If your children see you write for a variety of purposes, they will understand that you value writing, and they will begin to identify situations in which writing will work for them as well.
3. Expose children to a variety of genres—stories, poems, non-fiction articles, essays, plays, etc.—both for reading and for writing. Read to your children, and read with your children—even when they are able to read independently.
Reading provides excellent preparation for writing. Sometimes a piece that has been read serves as a direct model for writing. Other times the influence is subtler. All aspects of material read—content, structure, sentence patterns, imagery, sound—remain in the storehouse of the mind, often below consciousness but available for use, perhaps in a composition.
Students should write in every subject, not just in English class. Writing provides a chance for students to demonstrate their knowledge, expand their understanding, and clarify their thinking. Following the same writing process in all subjects will help students see writing not as a meaningless drill but as a tool that will serve them well in a variety of situations throughout their lives.
4. Help children think of—and keep track of—their ideas for writing. Thinking of something to write about often becomes a writer's first difficulty. Writers can bypass this obstacle if they capture ideas when they occur instead of waiting until ideas are needed. When something sparks your child's interest, you might say, "You might want to write about that sometime."
Your child needs to keep track of these ideas. They can be kept on separate note cards or listed on a sheet of paper. A loose-leaf notebook is perhaps the ideal format, allowing ideas to be categorized yet easily moved. A loose-leaf notebook also easily accommodates pages that have been printed on a computer or acquired from other sources.
In addition to lists of possible writing topics (perhaps with a few notes for development), an "idea book" may include intriguing questions, observations, descriptions, conversations, opinions, etc. Keeping an idea book sharpens writers' awareness of the world around them, records thoughts and experiences, and preserves ideas for future use.
5. Help children find an audience for their writing. Writing is more meaningful when it is genuine communication rather than a mere exercise. There are many opportunities for children to share their writing with their family and their community. They can write letters, stories for younger children, contest entries. They might write some pieces on special paper, enhance them with a drawing or photograph, and/or frame them or bind them into a book. Such treatments show high regard for the work and invite a larger audience.
On occasions when writing is "just an assignment," have children write with a specific audience and purpose in mind so that they at least imagine an audience beyond the teacher.
6. Provide opportunities for children to get feedback throughout the writing process. Professional writers regularly consult others, yet adults often make the writing task more difficult for children by requiring them to "do it all themselves." The flow chart below shows four points at which a writer would benefit from feedback. The "responder" in a writing conference could be a parent or teacher, a sibling, a peer. Writers should learn to select people who would be most helpful in specific situations.
|A key to successful writing—and to successful writing instruction—is to break the writing process into manageable parts in order to focus on one step at a time. Each pair of vertical arrows represents a loop that may be traveled repeatedly. A writer may confer many times—with several people—before he or she is ready to move on to the next stage of the writing process.|
The process for obtaining feedback differs at various points of the writing process. In the planning stage the main job of the responder is to listen and question. The writer should do most of the talking, since talking provides excellent rehearsal for writing. The responder's questions show the writer which parts of the composition need further development or clarification.
After the first draft has been written, the responder helps the writer know
what comes across from the composition. It works well for the writer to read the
composition aloud and for the responder to "tell back" what he or she has heard.
This keeps the focus on content rather than mechanics. A reader's feedback is
invaluable in helping the writer improve the composition. A writer who asks
open-ended questions about specific parts of the composition will encourage
additional feedback; however, a writer who becomes defensive will discourage
suggestions. A writing conference is likely to be most productive when the
writer knows what specific help he or she needs at that time. Although a writer
may confer with many people, ultimately he or she is the one who must decide
which changes to make.
7. Free children to write their first draft without worrying about correctness of anything—spelling, capitalization, punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary. They should write their first draft very quickly, and that draft can be very rough. The important thing is to unleash the flow of ideas. Some writers find it helpful to dictate their first draft.
Remind your children that a first draft need not be written in sequence. The introduction, in fact, is often one of the most difficult parts of a composition to write. Encourage students to write any section they feel ready to write. Using a different sheet of paper for each part (or using a word processor) will simplify assembly of the finished piece.
Young writers—like professional writers—may prefer to write at a certain time of day or in a particular place. They may prefer a certain kind of paper (small pages, for example, may seem less intimidating). They may prefer a particular kind of writing implement, or they may prefer to compose directly on a word processor. Encourage young writers to experiment with various techniques in order to find what works best for them.
8. Help children succeed with editing. After the content of
a composition is established, a writer's focus turns to editing (making
mechanical corrections, such as capitalization, punctuation, and spelling). Have
realistic expectations. Hold young children responsible for applying basic rules
they have studied, such as capitalizing the first word of a sentence and using
appropriate end punctuation. Add new responsibilities as children learn new
Provide resources, such as a dictionary, an English handbook, and thesaurus, so that young writers can easily find the information they need in order to use English correctly. Remind them to use their computer's spell-check feature—but not to rely on it completely.
Many writers—especially those who find mechanical correctness challenging—may benefit from subdividing the editing step, focusing on one skill at a time. For example, a writer may start by checking to see if each sentence is complete. Then he or she may check to see if each sentence starts with a capital letter. Editing may continue with checking end punctuation, subject-verb agreement, and spelling—checking each skill throughout the composition.
Editing should continue until the writer has checked the composition for each skill and has gone through the composition at least twice without making any changes.
9. Respond to children's writing as a reader before you respond as a teacher or critic. Respond to the content of a composition so that writers know their message was received. For example, if the writer has described his or her grandmother's kitchen, you might say something like "I can tell that Nana's kitchen is a very special place to you."
As you begin to evaluate the writing, again respond first to the content rather than the mechanics. Take time to tell the writer what was done well. A natural way to do this is to be specific about what made the content effective. You could say, for example, "You've described the sights and sounds—and smells!—so vividly that I felt I was there myself." After pointing out several things that have been done effectively, point out two or three aspects of content that the writer seems ready to learn. Don't try to point out everything that could be improved. The writer won't remember all you say and will only become discouraged.
Follow the same pattern for mechanical skills: Point out things that were done well, focus on a few skills for instruction, and point out additional strengths. Sometimes your questions can help the writer find and correct errors. You might say, for example, "You have this word spelled two different ways. Which one is right?" or "Which word in this line should you capitalize?"
Keeping a list of writing skills taught will help you remember which skills you can expect the child to apply correctly and can also help you and the child see progress.
10. Make writing enjoyable for both you and your children.
Children are more likely to enjoy writing when they understand the value of
communication and can share ideas they care about. They are more likely to enjoy
writing when frustration is minimized.
Think about activities that you enjoy. The more you enjoy them, the more you do them—and the better at them you become. Writing works this way, too. Students who enjoy writing will be caught in an upward spiral of writing success. They will have a tool that will serve them well throughout their lives.
Copyright © 2009 Fran Santoro Hamilton
636-527-2822 or (888) 641-5353