For the past few years, I have been blessed to teach high school writing classes to my own child, at our local homeschool co-op, online, and, most recently, at a local private school. What I have found most fascinating about teaching writing is how intimidated most homeschool parents are when faced with a child who is ready to learn to write. To prepare your child for higher level writing, you only need five steps in the elementary grades to reap huge benefits in your child’s writing future.
Patience to develop skills.
Despite what is happening in public schools, I believe children are best served by waiting until upper elementary to begin a formal writing program. Why? True composition requires an ability to think logically about how to sequence a paragraph or paper, an ability to synthesize information and restate it, and an understanding of the basics of writing (basic grammar and punctuation and composing strong, varied sentences). For most children, it takes time for all three of these writing necessities to appear.
The ability to write should never be tied to a specific age or grade, but to each individual child’s development. I often tell parents who are considering enrolling their children in one of my high school classes that the only prerequisite is the ability to construct a solid paragraph. Do not stress about having a child mastering a five-paragraph essay by middle school. I would rather teach a child whose parent has taken their time and really made sure their child grasped how to write one great paragraph, over one who had been pushed too quickly through a program with unrealistic expectations. It is easy to teach how to connect paragraphs to form an essay. It is not as easy to undo the damage done by pushing a child before they are ready.
Encourage, encourage, encourage.
I do not fully understand why, but writing is unlike all other academic subjects. Whenever someone writes, even a child, it leaves a bit of us on the page, a personal part of us because these are our ideas, stories, thoughts, beliefs. I have met many parents who see every writing attempt by their child as an opportunity to teach a lesson in spelling, correct grammar, or a myriad of other mistakes. When children are beginning writers or even pre-writers, all writing should be viewed only through a lens of encouragement and pride.
One of the worse, if not the worst, responses to a child sharing something they have written is for a parent to read it and immediately begin to critique and correct it. A child who has struggled and worked over something so personal feels these critiques and corrections as attacks on them, which can be internalized as, “I’m a horrible writer.” Editing is definitely a skill that needs to be worked on in elementary, but you should never use the child’s work to edit. Instead, use a separate resource specifically for editing. Writing in the elementary years should be a spontaneous, enjoyable activity where a child is allowed the freedom to write about what they wish with the full expectation that when their composition is shown to their parent, it will be met with nothing but praise and encouragement.
Support from you.
Writing is never a solitary endeavor. Even bestselling authors have entire groups of editors and publishing companies to assist them in their writing efforts. No matter how old your child is, you will always be involved in the writing process in some way, even if that’s just helping them to brainstorm ideas and edit at the high school level.
For elementary or beginning writers, support is even more important. Once you, or your elementary writing curriculum, has introduced the proper way to construct a sentence or paragraph, you cannot expect your child to grasp the concept. Every time your child is faced with a writing exercise or assignment in the weeks to come, you need to be present to ensure that your child remembers the steps to do it correctly. All too often parents assume a child has mastered a writing concept when they have not, which again can lead to a belief they are a poor writer. Actually, they need more practice and support.
Saturate your home with words.
The research is overwhelming that good writers are made by being well-read. To help your children develop their writing muscle make sure you surround them with good books. Encourage them to read classic children’s books like Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden, which will introduce them to not only some great stories, but expand their vocabulary (this is a big problem in my writing classes) and allow them to internalize what quality writing looks like. Even if you have a child who either can not read yet or does not want to read, read-alouds or audio books provide the same future writing benefits.
Think outside the box.
No matter how perfectly you prepare and plan, you can still have a child who digs their heels in at the thought of any type of writing. While these children can seem challenging, I have yet to find one who does not enjoy telling a story. It might be about their latest video game obsession or a new kid who moved in next door, but stories are a form of writing. Only in the last 150 years or less has almost all of the population been literate, so do not discount story-telling as writing. To move into the actual writing phase, offer to write down their story for them, so they can illustrate it.
In our family we have a fun sentence game we play, one person starts a sentence by saying one word, and each subsequent person in the family adds another word until we’re all laughing too hard to continue or the sentence is at an end. Games, such as this one, are developing writing skills. Usually, kids protest a writing assignment because the subject matter or prompt is uninteresting to them.
Once you find a child’s interest, however, it can be used to inspire compositions. Be stealthy. Do you have a child who is devoted to Fortnite? Let him write a quick comparison chart of his top five favorite weapons in the game. Or a child who loves cats could draft a persuasive paragraph about why they make great pets. At the elementary stage, the goal is to get kids writing and enjoying the process. Once they move into middle school and high school, there will be plenty of time to work on forced writing assignments.
Like so many other subjects, the foundations for good writing skills are laid in the elementary grades. Unfortunately, all too often, the foundation being laid is either non-existent or shaky. By patiently encouraging and supporting your elementary child’s writing skills in a language-rich environment where writing is fun and interesting, you can be more confident that when writing challenges arise, they will be ready to meet those challenges and flourish.