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How To Build Writing Skills

Whether your child dreams of becoming a writer, a scientist or a police officer, he needs to be able to write clearly and effectively.

Writing skills are important for getting into college and getting a job,” says Shanyn Fiske, PhD, associate professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden, as well as the co-founder and director of Axis Achievement, a literature-based enrichment program for middle school and high school students. “I see lots of freshmen who come to college unprepared for college-level writing, and these kids are at a disadvantage from the outset.”

Solid writing skills are necessary for college entrance exams, application essays, term papers, resumes, cover letters and reports for work. They’re also needed for everyday tasks such as writing instructions or composing an effective message in a letter or e-mail. You can help your child become a better writer by helping him overcome these common writing problems.

Lack of Interest and Confidence

Show your child how you use writing to communicate in your everyday life, says Christine Evans, EdD, program coordinator for the Delaware Center for Teacher Education at the University of Delaware. This could be a note to a babysitter, instructions on how to cook dinner, a work report or even a grocery list. These examples show your child the importance of writing and what its use will be in her life. Then build her confidence in her writing skills.

“Don’t focus on misspelled words,” says Evans. “Focus on the content of what your child writes and celebrate the writing by hanging it on the refrigerator.”

Writer’s Block

Sometimes children have a hard time knowing what to write about when given the chance to select their own topic.

Evans says, “Talk with your kids. Children in homes with more conversation have more to write about because they talk about different topics.

Give your kids experiences to write about. Take them to parks, museums or the zoo. And encourage them to write about what they’re interested in.”

Leif Gustavson, PhD, associate professor of education and director of the Qui Vive! Center for Writing, Book Arts and Performance at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, says when his children come home from school with a writing
assignment he encourages them to just start writing and see where the writing takes them.

Translating Thought to Page

According to Fiske, many college freshmen are unable to “think in writing,” meaning they have trouble translating the thoughts and ideas in their head to the physical page. The best way to facilitate thinking in writing, says Fiske, is to practice writing and know that the writing is being read and appreciated by an audience, rather than endlessly drilling grammar, syntax and mechanics which can inhibit a child’s desire to write.

We always say read with your kids.I say write with your kids too.” — Dr. Leif Gustavson

“We always say read with your kids,” says Gustavson. “I say write with your kids too. Talk about your own writing and explain how you’re trying to find the best way to say something.” Then try writing together. You can write stories, poetry, letters to grandparents, thank-you notes or even a description of how your child built something.

Conversation and experiences also help, says Evans, because they build a child’s vocabulary, giving him the words to express his thoughts.

Stuck in a Formula

Kids often need help to break out of a formula. Writing in school can be very structured, with standard formats such as the five-paragraph essay or starting each paragraph with a topic sentence.

Evans says, “Kids need other tools for structuring their writing. Read with your child and talk about how the work is structured. Show him how to begin an informational piece with a narrative or start a story with dialogue.”

Expressing Ideas Proficiently

“In order to become fluent writers, kids must get exposure to reading,” says Evans. “Read with your child from a very young age and ask your child questions about what you read together. Talk about how the piece is crafted.”

Does Texting Help or Hurt?

Texting on cell phones has become widely popular among kids, but do these short written blurbs that often ignore the rules of English help children become better writers?

“There’s no easy answer to this,” says Rutgers-Camden writing program director Shanyn Fiske. “On the one hand, texting is helping kids to ‘think in writing.’ I know some kids who are obsessive texters. Writing has become almost simultaneous with thought for these kids, which is a good thing. On the other hand, texting also ignores many of the properties of good writing like complete sentences and organized, sustained and careful thought.”

As long as your child is practicing more traditional, detail-oriented writing as well — and not sending your cell phone bill through the roof — there’s probably no need to cancel that text plan.
 

When your child writes something, have him read it aloud with you as the audience. Reading aloud helps a child spot where his work gets confusing or where he may have repeated himself, explains Evans. If he doesn’t spot a problem area, ask him questions to draw his attention to a missing detail or another needed fix. This revision process helps create clear, organized and effective writing.

Mechanics

While parents should focus on the content of their child’s writing, that doesn’t mean they should ignore grammar and spelling. Gustavson recommends focusing on the mechanics last.

“Second and third graders especially, will spend a lot of time saying, ‘How do I spell that?’” says Gustavson. “Tell them not to worry about it yet and just get their ideas down. Then they can go back at the end and circle what they think isn’t spelled correctly.”

During the revision process when your child reads the piece aloud, he may also notice incorrect grammar or where a comma might be needed. If not, help him see these errors and over time he’ll start to catch them on his own.

Susan Stopper is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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