As a teacher and former homeschooling mother, I found that two subjects always found themselves at the center of instruction: reading and math. These subjects deserve to be at the forefront. But with the ever-increasing expectations for classroom teachers, other subjects get pushed out of the spotlight. I’m thinking of one subject in particular. Writing.
When teaching writing becomes a 15-minute chunk of time (and let’s be honest, it’s really 12 minutes) in which kids follow a journal prompt and race against the clock to produce something, they’re not learning to write. They’re practicing it – and not very well.
Unfortunately, many of these kids are learning an unhappy lesson: that writing is hurried, uninteresting, and difficult. How do you get kids to love reading? You read to them. How do you get kids to love writing? You write with them.
- Have a story-filled life. The best writers are avid readers. Read to your child every day. You say your child’s in middle school? Read to your child every day. Pick a book above your child’s reading ability, or take turns reading pages in a book of his choice. When your children are young, tell stories in the car, the doctor’s office, or when you’re pushing the stroller. Above all, talk to your children.
- Recognize and celebrate early writing. When your two-year-old scribbles and calls it his name, he’s writing. When your preschooler writes a string of letters and tells you what it says, he’s writing. And when your kindergartner draws a picture and adds a single word, she’s writing too. Call it that. Celebrate it!
- Let your child see you write. When you’re in a rush to head out the door and are scribbling down a grocery list – and your preschooler hangs over your shoulder and asks what you’re doing – take a second. Show him. Let him watch you make lists, send e-mails, write thank you notes, and compose a note for his lunch box.
- Provide a great variety of writing tools and surfaces for writing, and give your child easy access to them.
Give your children pens, chalk, paint, and markers. Get big pads of newsprint, a chalkboard, or a dry erase board. When your child knows her letters, put her at the computer. Make the font big and bright, and let her type.
- Create a writing space. Set up a quiet corner for your child to write. If space is an issue, pack writing materials into a portable container that your child can pull out at the kitchen table. Include pens and pencils, pads of paper and envelopes, a notebook, and a spelling dictionary appropriate for your child’s age.
- Schedule quality writing time into your day. Don’t put a writing prompt in front of your child and call that teaching writing. While prompts can serve a useful purpose, the focus of your writing time should be short mini-lessons and plenty of time for independent writing. What’s a mini-lesson? Here are just a few examples:
- a) Teach your child how to stretch out a word and write its sounds.
- b) Teach your child how to brainstorm writing ideas.
- c) Teach your child to reread her work after she’s written it.
If your child is resistant, use your best judgment. But keep in mind that frequent writing develops the habit of writing. I think that three days a week of 20-40 minutes (depending on age) is better than five days of just 10 minutes a day.
- Give your child authentic writing experiences. Let her help write the grocery list. Give her the pen to add a note at the end of the letter you’re writing. Let her write the note for the mail carrier or neighbor. An older child can plan the menu or write out the packing list for vacation. All children can write thank-you notes – even if it’s just a picture and their name.
- Let art be a part of writing. When children first begin writing, their stories are mainly pictures. Let them write the story they want to tell and then write or dictate words to you. As they get older they’ll still love to illustrate their stories or add embellishments with stamps and stickers. Older children might enjoy drawing comics to tell their stories.
- Teach your child to write in all different genres. For many of us, writing time at school was either “creative” writing to a prompt, or a report. There’s so much more! Poems don’t have to rhyme. (A list of sounds you hear outdoors is a poem.) Writing down a favorite recipe (as the child recalls it) is a wonderful way to practice nonfiction writing. A story doesn’t have to be an original tale; your child can retell a favorite fairy tale in writing.
- Have realistic expectations about spelling and grammar. Spelling and grammar are absolutely important, but not all at once. Focusing too much on spelling and grammar will squelch creativity in young writers and destroy enthusiasm in older ones. As your child’s literacy grows, you’ll know what words to hold him accountable for. But you will only know this when you have regular writing time.
- Don’t forget about spelling and grammar. Wait a second. Didn’t we just talk about this? Some teachers and parents become so concerned about not overdoing grammar and punctuation that they adopt a “hands-off” approach. Kids know when their writing is careless. If you don’t hold them accountable for what they can do, and teach them new things as they are ready, they will continue to produce sloppy work that they cannot take pride in. Remember that words, sentences, and ideas are first. But spelling and grammar are a definite second.
- Play games to teach writing skills. Take a break from the radio or DVD player in your car. Instead, play word games to increase vocabulary. At home, pull out board games like Scattergories and Apples to Apples.
- Give support and encouragement. When your child is writing, be as helpful as you can. Talk through ideas. Supply help with spelling and punctuation when it’s asked for. Think of yourself not as a critic, but as a helper and encourager.
- Publish your kids’ writing. Let them make their own books. Submit their writing to contests or children’s magazines. Let them type their work on the computer. Consider putting their finished stories into a book with an online publishing program.
Whether you’re a homeschooling parent, a parent who seeks to supplement your child’s education at school, or even a classroom teacher, I hope you’ve found this list beneficial.