Notice I said “simple,” not “easy.” Good writing is based on just a handful of sound principles—that makes it simple. But getting those principles through the head of each individual child is not easy. Or, usually not: some kids seem to be natural born writers with a feel for what makes it work. (Not that certain rules and principles don’t have to be pointed out to them, but once they see it, they’ve got it.) Others just aren’t geared that way: they can take apart a bicycle, calculate in their head, or grasp all the possible moves on a chessboard in two minutes, but verbal dexterity is not their forte. That’s doesn’t mean they can’t learn, only that it will take longer.
Writing is a craft, like needlepoint or cabinet-making. Anybody can learn it, but not everybody will be a genius at it. Unlike needlepoint or cabinet-making, however, writing is a craft that all students need to learn if they’re going to succeed in school, and perhaps even in life. The bad news is that it takes time. The good news is that you have time.
Public schools make a big mistake, I think, in pushing writing too soon. Just last week someone told me about an elementary school program that was teaching three-point essay writing to first graders. What’s the rush?? Little minds need time to grow and develop and get a firm grasp on good language patterns, and that comes mostly by reading. The first step is to read to them. Every day. And talk to them, every day—not just necessary communication like, “Clean up your room.” Talk about future plans and past mistakes. Tell them stories about your day, and ask for their stories. Talk about sequence, ask for details (“What kind of dog?” “What color was the beach ball?” “What happened next?”). As they learn to read, set aside independent reading time for them. Every day. Ask questions occasionally to make sure they’re comprehending (though not all the time, because you want reading to be a pleasure, and not a “school subject”). Consider discussing with them, whenever appropriate, the books that you’re reading. And keep reading aloud to them, even after they can do it for themselves, because nothing teaches good language better than hearing it.
Reading should be center of the language arts study for the early-elementary grades. Of course the kids need to learn some form of penmanship, but this doesn’t have to be original composition unless they want to write stories. Taking dictation is great penmanship practice, and programs like Learning Language Arts Through Literature teach grammar lessons along the way (the more you can integrate grammer with actual composition, the better).
By fourth and fifth grades, kids are generally ready for real writing assignments, and all that reading in the earlier grades should have already bestowed a sense of sequence, narrative, dialogue, description, exposition, syntax and paragraphing. Upper-elementary children may be more comfortable with writing factual material (exposition) than with imaginative stories or personal essays. If your kids love to write stories, let them—but if they don’t, stick to simple research projects and reporting. Concentrate on complete sentences and coherent paragraphs. If they’re not pushed into premature adolescence, elementary-age students (especially boys) are interested in communicating facts, and don’t care how they feel about them.
That’s likely to change in junior high, when young people start feeling everything, and writing can be a good way to help sort those feelings out. Given that a 7th or 8th graders knows how to write complete sentences and logical paragraphs (and I know that can’t always be assumed), the focus here is learning how to write effectively. My four basic principles of effective writing are these:
- Use personal experience. A creative writing assignment (as opposed to an expository one) should be based on what the student knows, what she has experienced, or what she can relate to. Don’t ask for her thoughts on family relationships in the abstract before she’s had a chance to write a description of her own grandmother.
- Keep it focused. Generalization is death! Most kids will need a little help with this before they start writing, so talk about what the focus should be and how to maintain it. For instance, expound on one aspect of your favorite movie; write about the one experience of summer vacation that you remember most vividly; explore one quality of your best friend that you appreciate. A bit of summary writing will be needed for context, but should take up no more than a paragraph or two. And for the rest of the assignment?
- Be specific! Use telling details, dialogue, sensory impressions to create a picture. I’ve found it helpful with beginning writers to make a list of guidelines to go along with an assignment. If he’s describing a place, ask him to include an indication of the time of day and season of the year; describe a smell associated with this place; show one or two activities going on, etc. This may seem confining, but it isn’t. It helps him maintain the focus and gives him tangible goals.
- Finally, teach revision, because no writer writes it right the first time. Learning to evaluate and rewrite is just as important as learning how to write in the first place—in fact, revision can’t be separated from the process.
What about resources and programs? That depends on the kind of learners you have, and the kind of teacher you are. Workbooks, free-writing, story starters, cooperative writing (such as writing a newsletter together), and outlining can all work if the student’s minds are wired that way. Any good program, whatever the approach, should do two things: stress the above four principles, and relate grammar and mechanics to actual writing. My problem with a lot of workbooks is that students fail to see that that the lesson on “they’re, there, and their” has anything to do with, you know, composition. My own children could get all the exercises correct and still write, “We were to tired two walk the to miles too the park” in a journal entry. I eventually ditched the workbooks. Instead, we learned about grammar by studying another language (Latin, which helped them appreciate English), spelling by keeping a personal spelling notebook, syntax by learning to diagram and rewrite sentences, and composition by practice. Maybe good writing genes run in our family, but they still had to learn it, and reading formed a rock-solid foundation.
I’ve posted several writing tips on my website to address some specifics of good writing, such as “Show don’t tell,” writing a thesis sentence, finding your focus, etc. Go here for a list.
OKAY, okay, if you insist: My philosophy about teaching composition and my approach to it are captured in a series of—I’ll have to admit it–workbooks: Wordsmith Apprentice (an introduction for 4th-5th graders), Wordsmith: a Creative Writing Course for Young People (the four basic principles, for 6th-8th graders), and Wordsmith Craftsman (practical writing and essays, for high school).