Learning to write

The ability to express thoughts in writing is a vital and valuable skill

My friend Lenore’s son, then 11, was finding it a struggle to write reports and stories, even though he was a good reader with a solid grasp of spelling and grammar. She wondered if I could help. When I talked to Neil and realized his challenge was in organizing his thoughts, I was able to show him an easy approach to outlining that I’ve frequently used. He loved it.

Neil’s not alone. At this age, the expectations on reports and creative writing are higher: Teachers are looking for written work that is more organized, with a logical flow, yet many children find this difficult.

Sandy Moore of Guelph, Ont., is home-schooling her two children (Matthew, 12, and Alisa, eight) and works with other home-schooling parents to offer writing programs. “I think the most important thing is to start by helping them find a connection to what it is they are writing about,” she says.

For example, if your child is asked to write a book report on a novel that really doesn’t grab him, spend a little time talking with him to see if there are some aspects of the book that did foster this kind of connection. Did any of the characters remind him of someone he knows? Could he see himself doing some of the things the main character did? Once you find the connection, you have a starting point for the writing.
Some more tips to help your ready-to-blossom writer:

• Talk to his teacher. That can help you pinpoint areas of concern and learn which writing skills are being emphasized in class.

• Remember the old adage: Keep it short and sweet. “Writing a long piece is a very daunting process,” says Moore. Breaking it down into shorter sections is one strategy to make it feel more approachable for your young writer. And the process of breaking it down may also help her to organize her thoughts on the topic.

You can also encourage your child to practise writing shorter pieces in between major school assignments (a thank-you note, a caption for a photo, etc.).

• Try the outlining approach to writing that I taught Neil.

Here’s how it works: Write the topic in a circle in the middle of a big blank page. Then draw spokes going out to other circles from that first one, and fill in those circles with whatever words or phrases come to mind related to the topic. Look at those new circles, and see if they generate other words or ideas, and draw new lines with circles attached to those. Fill in the circles with the words you thought of. When your page is full, you’ve captured your ideas and you’ll find natural groupings of ideas. That’s the basis of your outline.

• Children who are perfectionists sometimes find writing difficult because they can’t tell when they’ve done it “right.”
Moore suggests encouraging these children to write journals that they can keep private. This strategy is not only a way to practise writing — it also helps them feel comfortable with and expressing emotions.

• Many children find it easier to talk about what they want to write than to actually put the words down on paper, and you can help by taking notes. To refine this skill, you can try what Moore calls “narration.” She explains: “I might read Matthew a paragraph or a short section from a story, then ask him to tell it back to me in his own words.” You could try doing this with a piece of research that your child is expected to incorporate into his report — saying it out loud helps keep him from just copying the words in the book he used as a reference.

• Taking the “talking about it” strategy a step further, you could have your child talk about what she needs to write while you take point-form notes, either by hand or on the computer. Then the two of you can look over the notes and discuss how the points might be organized into a report.
Nicola Aquino of Antigonish, NS, says that she sits down with her sons, Anthony, 12, and Patrick, 10, to plan out how they will write and to edit their assignments.

“When a project is assigned, I get out the calendar and help them come up with a strategy — maybe two days for researching the topic, three days for the rough draft and two days for editing. I think building in time for editing and revision really enhances their writing.”

She helps with the editing by asking a lot of questions. “Both the boys have my tendency to be brief to the point of omitting essential things, so asking them to explain a term or a sentence makes them realize that a little — or a lot — more explanation is needed.”

Aquino agrees that it can be time-consuming to do this kind of editing with her sons, but she thinks it’s worth it. She already sees that Anthony’s writing skills have improved considerably. “My suggestions now are mostly grammatical (add a comma, split up a run-on sentence) rather than content or structure,” she says.

Learning these skills now will make handling the heavier workload in high school easier, and give your child a head start if she goes to college or university. Who knows? She might even discover she likes writing enough to make it a career.