If your kids are like mine, they don’t take well to their parents giving them advice on much of anything — academics, athletics, you name it. In many ways, I am thankful for this. My kids are independent and have learned to do their homework on their own.
But I had to step in recently to help my middle-schooler with a term paper that needed a lot of help. I started with my red pen, crossing out sentences and circling misspelled words. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.
I ended up buying him a book on Amazon.com on “how to write a good term paper,” put it on his desk and hoped he would read it. So much for parental guidance.
According to Robert Menzimer, Executive Director of the Oakland, California-based Writer Coach program, which provides one-on-one tutoring to help students develop writing and critical thinking skills, many parents feel completely at sea about offering writing support. “Math assignments? No problem. Science projects? Absolutely. An essay for English? Lemme out of here!” says Menzimer.
And based on his many conversations over the years with adults at our volunteer recruiting booths, it’s not hard to see why: adults are often as freaked out about writing as kids are.
“They (adults) are fraught with anxiety over what they perceive as their lack of writing skills,” says Menzimer, “and say they’ve been plagued by this anxiety their whole lives, including into their professions.”
So how do you help your child with their writing? Here are a few tips:
1. Adopt a coach’s role.
According to Menzimer, a coach’s role is different than that of a parent. As a parent, you need to stifle the urge to correct your child’s writing. Rather, start by asking her what she feels she needs help with. In so doing, you are validating her ability to do some critical analysis. Second, you are affirming that her opinion is just as important as anyone else’s. And third, you are establishing a reader/writer relationship with your child. You are fostering the idea that she needs your help not because her paper needs “correcting,” but because every writer needs a reader, a second set of eyes and ears on the work. That’s why professional writers have editors. Somewhere down there is your child’s response to the writing assignment. Your role is to help her find it.
2. Practice, practice, practice.
If your child wants to become a better basketball player or a guitarist, what do they do? Practice, practice, practice. Writing is no different. To become a better writer, your child needs to practice. Daily writing is the ideal; once a week is not enough. I always kept a journal when I was young. I used it to write down my thoughts, emotions, problems and ideas. Nobody read it but me. My journaling kept me “exercising” my writing skills every day and most likely led me to a career in writing.
3. Read first, then write.
As Stephen King writes in his book, On Writing, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” All the great authors of our time were also voracious readers. In order to write well, your child must first read, and read everything — from blogs and newspapers, to poetry and great works of literature. And no — tweets and texts don’t count.
4. Let your kids see you write.
As a parent, you are both a model and a teacher. If your kids never see you write (or read, for that matter), they get the impression that writing only happens at school. What you do is as important as what you say. Have children see you writing notes to friends, letters to business firms, perhaps stories to share with the children. From time to time, read aloud what you have written and ask your children their opinion of what you’ve said. If it’s not perfect, so much the better. Making changes in what you write confirms for the child that revision is a natural part of writing — which it is.
5. Edit their writing.
Teachers today are often overwhelmed with grading dozens of papers and may not have the time to correct every essay thoroughly. Your child will benefit from having you point out exactly where her sentences are choppy, what a run-on sentence means, and how to structure an argument. Let your child know that editing and re-writing are part of the writing process. Most papers need to be corrected and re-written to fix improper sentences and confusing passages.
6. Hire a writing tutor.
If your child doesn’t take well to tip #4, with you editing their writing, it may pay to hire a tutor. Besides paid professional tutors, you can look into free tutoring at your local library, or find high school or college students who charge less than professionals. Your school might be able to recommend one, as well.
7. Be encouraging.
As parents and writing coaches, we need to resist the tendency to focus solely on errors of spelling, punctuation, and other mechanical aspects of writing. What matters most in writing is words, sentences, and ideas. According to Menzimer, identify three strengths in what your child has written, and point them out to her. Do this at the beginning, right after she’s read to you, and be specific about what you like. Describe it in terms of its impact on you as a reader, not as a parent, or a grade-giver. You do this because positive reinforcement is extraordinarily powerful in writer coaching. For every error the child makes, there are dozens of things he or she has done well. Your input only works if your child learns from it. It shouldn’t seem like a form of punishment.
8. Ask your child to read his writing aloud, and listen without interrupting.
According to Menzimer, you do this for several reasons. One is that you are demonstrating that her writing has value and you are paying close attention to it. Another reason is that as often as not, your young writer is thinking while she reads aloud what she’s written, and you don’t want to interrupt her thinking process. (A significant part of developing effective writing skills is developing effective critical thinking.) A third reason is that you are reinforcing your role as a coach, not someone who is passing judgment, dictating corrections, or assigning a grade.
9. Practice free writing.
This is one of my favorite techniques for getting started with a writing assignment. Free writing is analogous to the warm up you might do before exercising. There is no “correct” way to free write, so try a variation of these steps: Begin with a blank computer screen or a pad of paper. Set a time for yourself. Try five or ten minutes. (Longer times may not be that productive since free writing is a “warm up” for more focused writing). Put the topic of your paper at the top of a blank page. Write down things that are related to the topic. Don’t worry about order of ideas or grammatical correctness. When time is up, look over what you have written. Pull out ideas and phrases that can be used in your essay. Then try putting this free writing into outline form. If you were to use the writing to begin a paper, which points would you make first? Second?
10. Make writing a priority.
Work with your PTA and school board to make writing a high priority. Learn about writing and the ways youngsters learn to write. Encourage publication of student writing in school newspapers, literary journals, local newspapers, and magazines. See that the high school’s best writers are entered into the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Achievement Awards in Writing Program, the Scholastic Writing Awards, or other writing contests. Let everyone know that writing matters.