A lot of parents want to help their children write. It’s an essential skill for many future professions—whether writing memos or briefs, articles or reports, many disciplines are deeply intertwined with the written word. And for most college degrees, writing is an essential skill to have.
So how do we help children write, and enjoy writing? That’s a question the New York Times is considering this week, with a three interesting pieces on writing. Many young adults struggle deeply with the written word, they note, and it’s a problem both schools and parents need to take seriously:
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to successfully complete a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.
Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.
So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.
My daughter’s still a toddler—which means I have yet to experience the great joys and terrors of teaching her to read and write. (Wish me luck.) But as a homeschooled kid who went on to become a journalism major, then, somehow, a paid writer, I would argue my parents largely succeeded in teaching me to write. So here’s how they did it.
Reading—And Reading Aloud—Matter Most
Children have incredible auditory and visual learning capabilities. They absorb principles of grammar, sentence structure, and spelling via the mere act of reading a text. Dr. Seuss teaches them rhyme and rhythm, “The Giving Tree” shows them the pattern of a narrative, “Aesop’s Fables” helps them learn the art of the short story. Reading “Little House in the Big Woods” taught me the art of narrative, dialogue, and description, while “The Chronicles of Narnia” taught me the beauties of fantasy and allegory: how to pick up patterns and suggestions that are simmering beneath the surface.
All of this affects (and infects) a young person’s writing. The more time people spend with good texts, the more inspired they become to write and invent their own. Writing is a process of trial and error, discovering strengths and addressing weaknesses. Young writers are more apt to see and tackle their own mistakes when they encounter literature’s best narratives.
Here, too, reading aloud often helps young readers—especially those who are still struggling with the written word. My little brother, for instance, was deeply reluctant to read. But when I started reading books aloud to him, the excitement of the book (Hardy Boys mysteries, G.A. Henty’s novels, “The Bronze Bow,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) pulled him in. Funnily enough, when I was too busy with school or sports to read on a given evening, he’d sneak the book out of my room and finish it himself. When I cautioned him (perhaps somewhat sneakily) that “Ivanhoe” would be too hard for him to read on his own, he quickly grabbed it and finished it. He’s now a strong, concise, and hilarious writer in his own right (the latter literary gift blossomed out of copious “Calvin and Hobbes” reading over the years).
Reading won’t teach you everything. But for readers, the stepping stones of grammar and spelling already make sense. Lessons regarding prepositions and adverbs fall into place, because they fit within a larger body of knowledge. The reader already understands the “why” behind spelling and grammar; that knowledge helps them learn the “what.”
What’s more, reading aloud grows the auditory skills of the child—by imparting skills like pronunciation and inflection, by growing their memorization capabilities, and by helping them to learn the art of focus. All those skills are vital to writing, as well.
Don’t Skip The Boring Work
As homeschooled children, we took countless spelling tests, memorized phonetic grammar and pronunciation cards, worked our way through Shurley Grammar, practiced listening to and copying down texts. Once we were older, we began learning rhetorical devices, writing descriptive, expository, and persuasive essays, short stories, and (lots of) book reports.
The “dirty work” of learning to write is deliberative and repetitive. It turns every book into a book report, every reading-aloud time into an opportunity for dictation. It means working through difficult-to-spell words until they finally click with a child, helping him or her learn spelling exceptions through mnemonic tools.
This is why the aforementioned reading and reading-aloud times are so important: they make all the deliberative and repetitive work more enjoyable. They fit the boring work of spelling, grammar, and punctuation into the larger why and wherefore. But that doesn’t mean we can skip the important work of teaching the basics, and hammering in the principles. Children can read well and still spell atrociously. The two go together—they don’t exclude each other.
For The Struggling Writer, Take Every Opportunity
Homeschoolers are notoriously good at turning everything into a learning experience. (Just ask a homeschooler whether her vacations were glorified field trips, and she’ll have countless stories to tell.) But that’s not a skill that we need limit to the homeschooling world. Parents from every walk of life and education background or choice can help their children read and write.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as helping a child connect with the right text: in my brother’s case, “Calvin and Hobbes,” and later on, “Ivanhoe.” Sometimes, it’s about presenting every opportunity (and the right medium of opportunity) to connect with a text: listening to books on tape while folding laundry, doing chores, or going on road trips helped me to delve into new, interesting texts and learn new writing principles and styles. Offering children both fictional and nonfictional books that accord with their interests (science, butterflies, ballet, fire trucks, earthworms, basketball) enables them to transcend other hesitancies they may feel toward reading and writing. My brothers’ books on football history and medieval armor helped them connect with new knowledge and modes of writing.
Encourage Your Kids To Become Mavens
Little kids are not usually adept at keeping new information to themselves. When they learn something, they want to share it: it’s how we’re built as human beings. We want to connect people with our newfound knowledge and experience. And that is the most basic building block of writing. The desire to write stems out of the desire to share information.
I believe all kids are natural “mavens”: accumulators and sharers of knowledge. If anything, I think parents and teachers often destroy this natural skill in children—either by not giving them information they’re excited about, or by not listening and getting enthusiastic when kids do share what they’ve learned. My mother patiently stood in the kitchen and listened to me give countless page-by-page verbal accounts of the latest books I had read, because she knew I was excited and had to share. Similarly, she listened to my brother break down every Super Bowl play-by-play, and asked him questions about his favorite “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strips.
Parents make or break a writer by tapping into their children’s loves, helping them learn about those loves, and—perhaps most importantly—listening to them talk about those loves. The more discussions a parent has with their child or children, the more they’re able to say, “You should write about that.” And that’s where the love starts.
What About High School?
Every child should have a favorite author—whether it’s Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, or J.K. Rowling. Often, favorite writers lead to favorite genres (fantasy, history, science fiction), and favorite subjects (British literature, biology, American history, or poetry). High school is a prime opportunity for the reader and writer to hone their loves via concentrated study.
But I also think that reading and writing in high school should be increasingly fun: you’ve learned the art and science of writing, and now it’s time to enjoy the fruit of your labor. High school writers should dabble in various disciplines, and discover what they love best. Fiction and short story, lyric and poetry-writing, speech and essay-writing: there are countless possibilities. College will again be a time for weighty assignments and stringent guidelines. High schoolers should be afforded opportunities to grow their passions for reading and writing, to see the joy amid the discipline.
Ultimately, writing is born out of love: love of information, of words and their potency, of the ability to share knowledge with others. Writing is something we can teach via austere means—but unless we also translate the passion behind the discipline, children and young adults are unlikely to grasp or enjoy it.