For the first time, kids’ writing skills are being assessed in large-scale standardized tests throughout the nation. And the news isn’t good. "We’re discovering that what our high school and college teachers have been saying for many years is true—the vast majority of students do not write adequately," says Dr. Doug Reeves, President of the Center for Performance Assessment and author of numerous books, including 20-Minute Learning Connection (Kaplan, 2001). Fortunately, good writing can be learned, and in states where writing is emphasized, students’ test scores in other subjects also improve. "When students write more, it really develops thinking skills that help them in every other academic discipline," explains Reeves.
Dr. Reeves blames the writing lag on overemphasis of creative writing in early grades. While writing stories exercises the imagination, he believes it doesn’t prepare students for the analytical writing they must do in high school and beyond. "We want to value the rich tradition of children’s literature, but we’ve gone way out of balance. In one third-grade classroom I looked at, the writing was 90 to 1 fiction over nonfiction," says Reeves.
Writing at Home
How can parents fill in the writing gaps? From an early age, give kids writing tasks with a practical purpose.
- Knock-’em-Dead Thank-You Notes
Robyn Spizman of Atlanta has certainly taught her own kids to value writing. Her son Justin is now studying at the University of Texas School of Communications, and her 14-year-old daughter Ali has just published her own book, The Thank-You Book for Kids (Longstreet Press, 2001). Spizman herself has written 68 books, and clearly served as an exceptional role model for her kids. She believes she passed down the love of writing with a simple task: the thank-you note.
"From a very young age, both our kids learned that writing was a gift, a way to express your feelings," says Spizman. Parents can help kids write meaningful thank-yous by asking questions to help kids capture the moment in vivid details.
What did they give you?
They didn’t just give you a ball, they gave you a big, red, bouncy ball.
And how did you feel when you saw the package?
Did your eyes pop out?
How did you feel when you held the box?
Did you feel good? How good? So excited you ripped off the paper? Let’s write that down...
"You start to teach children to write like they feel and then their pen is connected to their heart and their feelings," says Spizman. "That’s the art of writing."
- Letters that Make a Difference
If kids feel strongly about an issue, encourage them to write someone a letter. Who can forget 10-year-old Samantha Smith’s impassioned letter to the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1982 asking him to "help to not have a war?" Andropov's unexpected reply included an invitation for Samantha to visit the Soviet Union, making her a peace envoy who helped bridge two rival nations during the heart of the Cold War. While letters to important or famous people may not get a response, they are still a good exercise in helping kids express a point of view and learn more about topics that matter to them.
"If your kids hear a story about animals being hurt and it makes them mad, by gosh, tell George Bush about it. Tell your mayor about it," says Reeves. "Writing with passion and emotion is something that will engage students and also get to what I think is important academically—talking about facts and not mere opinions."
For her new book, 14-year-old Ali Spizman wrote to numerous well-known people and received responses from many of them, including the President of Disney, the President of Harvard, Hillary Clinton, and the Governor of Georgia. Kids should believe that their words and opinions matter and can make a difference.
The Joys and Hazards of Writing on a Computer
Studies show that kids can learn to write at a younger age by using a computer. However, the computer can also encourage superficial writing if kids begin typing an assignment before adequately collecting and organizing their ideas. Jan Venolia, author of Kids Write Right! (Tricycle Press, 2000), suggests that parents turn off the computer and have their kids begin a writing project the old-fashioned way—with pencil and paper.
"The advantages of having a computer at your disposal are enormous, but it should be used later in the process when you’ve got either a very thorough outline or you’ve done the first draft by hand," says Venolia emphatically.
And, of course, spell checkers have their limits...sum thyme’s their knot sew grate. A good dictionary should sit beside your child’s computer. Help him or her use it in conjunction with a spell checker to ensure that words are not only spelled correctly but used correctly.
Responding to Your Kids’ Writing
Read and respond to your child’s writing assignments. But don’t simply look for errors or, worse yet, correct the errors for your child. First of all, find something specific about the assignment to praise. Does the beginning grab your attention? Does a particular phrase seem lively? Is it clearly organized?
Next, focus on the message the child wants to convey and help him or her clarify it and bring more specific detail to it. Do this by asking questions.
What did you want to say here?
Why do you think that?
Can you tell me more?
"Kids are too used to saying I feel or I believe as a sufficient rationale to express a point of view," explains Reeves. "What we want them to do is say Here’s what I believe and here are three reasons why I believe it and give evidence and examples and citations to support why they believe it."
After receiving feedback, kids should get used to revising their work before handing it in. "It’s like hand-washing," says Reeves. "Can you imagine a child telling a parent Gee, mom, I washed my hands yesterday, I don’t have to do it now? Editing and revising are academic hygiene."
The Benefits of Writing Well
Clear writing reflects clear thinking. Kids who write well have better analytical thinking skills and perform better in other subjects as well. "The computer doesn’t help you think," cautions Venolia. "But the process of writing develops your critical thinking skills in ways that are going to apply everywhere. Taking a subject and wrestling it to the ground so that you can communicate—whether it’s altering a city park or writing a book report—that whole process is like muscle building for the brain."
Using words effectively also helps kids relate to other people, says author and mother Robyn Spizman. "When you teach a child to write, you open a door. It’s not just that they will write a good letter or be a great businessperson, it’s that they will connect in life. They’ll never be at a loss for words."
Writing Exercises to Do At Home
From 20-Minute Learning Connection: A Practical Guide for Parents Who Want to Help Their Children Succeed in School by Douglas Reeves, Ph.D. with activities by Abby Remer (Kaplan, 2001)
- Have your child create illustrated name cards to decorate each person’s place at the table. Include the person’s name on the card as well as pictures that identify that person.
- Begin silly sentences that your child will complete: "Maria stood on her head because..."
- Play "Spellaroo," an online spelling game at http://funbrain.com/tour/sr.html.
- Have your child write a letter to a favorite sports, television, movie or music star asking about his or her accomplishments.
- Have your child write about his day in a journal. Encourage him to describe people and places in vivid detail with words that evoke all five senses.
- Play the fun interactive "Paint By Idiom" game at http://funbrain.com/idioms/index.html.
- Have your child imagine being the local weatherperson and prepare a report of the day’s weather to perform at dinner. Have her include details such as the color of the leaves, the strength of the wind, and the clothes people are wearing to support her conclusions.
- The next time your child asks for something (a later bedtime, a larger allowance, a slumber party), ask him to persuade you in writing, listing all the reasons and addressing your possible objections.