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Help Your Children Write Well
Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: November 1997
E-mail to yourself
"Has composition been a priority in your home school, or have you felt intimidated by the subject? Have you hoped that grammar workbook pages would be enough for your students to write well eventually? Actually, such practice sheets are most useful as aids to composition once the student realizes that he has a weak area in need of improvement Otherwise, he is likely to fill in the blanks passively, transferring little or nothing to his own work.
Hopefully, the following suggestions will make it easier for you to help your children write well. After all, it is a skill they will draw on throughout their lives as they compose thank you notes, letters to friends (even if it is via e-mail), letters to businesses or editors, resumes,business memos, or even business reports.
WHAT TO WRITE
- Include some variety in the type of compositions assigned, especially if the students have lost enthusiasm about writing.
- Assign topics narrow enough to be completed in a few paragraphs more often than topics requiring several pages. Shorter work is easier to critique and, therefore, to build skills that will be needed to write those longer pieces well.
- Assign topics that interest the student.
- Include regular opportunities for writing various types of letters that are actually sent to someone: thank you letters, invitations, friendly letters (friends, relatives, pen pals), business letters to companies inquiring about free materials offered or to express an opinion, letters to editors of magazines or newspapers. Include addressing and stamping the envelope as part of the assignment as soon as the student appears capable. (Begin by making a master for him to copy.)
Types: descriptive, narrative, persuasive and expository writing
Assign: news stories, accounts of an experience, reports, editorials, book and movie reviews, friendly letters, business letters, answers in writing to "Think About It" types of questions in history and literature texts
Examples: reviews of books or movies about which he has a strong opinion; analysis of a book or movie he enjoyed; stories for a group newspaper or group performance of a news broadcast; reports resulting from research in a field of interest; invitations and announcements of real events; persuasive pieces on topics he believes in and for which he really does want the agreement of others. (The parent can be the target audience for the student to convince to purchase some item, or to give permission for the student to do something. For example, my son tried, in writing, to convince me to buy him a bow and arrow set, and my daughter enumerated her reasons for a later bedtime.)
There is one assignment which can be used regularly to build reading comprehension skills while providing practice supporting a main idea: Have the student choose a character from a book he just read (or heard) or a movie he just watched. He should then list as many adjectives as possible describing that character. Next, he chooses one of those adjective and thinks of three examples from the story that will "prove" that adjective does indeed fit that character. (If he can’t think of three examples, have him try another adjective in his list.) He should then write (or dictate) this composition, elaborating on each example to the extent that someone who has not read or watched the story can understand his meaning.
HOW TO CRITIQUE COMPOSITIONS
Don’t hold the student responsible for perfection. Instead, work with the student during the writing process. The final result will be as perfect as you want it to be, without demanding the student to do independently what is beyond his capability.
Nothing discourages a student more than looking at negative comments, mistakes marked in red, and a low grade on papers that have taken his time and effort. Therefore, explain what you are looking for and then have him meet with you to discuss each rough draft. Now "mistakes" are dealt with in the context of a lesson and changes can be made until the final draft will be considered an A paper. Perhaps even more importantly, you are teaching him by example how to eventually critique his own work.
Each discussion should begin with praise for specific aspects of the composition that are well done, such as the use of an interesting word, variety in types of sentences, or the selection of a good example. Then discuss aspects of content. Save spelling, punctuation, and comments on run-on sentences or fragments for the final discussion. After all, there’s no point in changing something that might be eliminated.
- Does every idea belong in the paper?
- Are the ideas organized logically?
- Is there enough explanation?
- Does the student use a variety of verbs? Or do most sentences use is or was? Do sentences vary in structure? (not all subject-verb in form.)
- Are all verbs in the same tense (present tense or past tense)?
The student may include a variety of points he found interesting, or he may have added unrelated details just to make the paper longer. Even more common, however, is the inclusion of an opinion as support. Here the student assumes that the reader will accept those same opinions. Point out that a writer should not assume the reader knows about the topic or agrees with his own thinking. Have them get into the habit of asking "What’s my point?" and "Will the reader understand what I just said?" There should be only one main point (theme) which is elaborated on by giving examples (at least three) to help the reader understand that theme. The teacher should point out anything that doesn’t fit, explaining why, and crossing it out.
Rearrange sentences so that progression follows a predetermined order: by time (chronological), like ideas together, or comparison and contrast point by point. Decide where paragraphs should begin and end. Be sure that the point of the paper is expressed at the beginning (introduction) and the final sentence(s) give the reader a sense of completion (conclusion).
This is often a major weakness. A student may write "and then he earned his reward" without telling the reader what that reward was or how the character earned it. The student remembers the story and assumes the reader of his paper (mom) knows all that he knows about the subject. When you read the paper, look for areas that need more development. It may be just a matter of adding a phrase or a sentence. Critique by asking yourself (as you read) whether you need to know who, what, when, where, or how in order to have a clear mental picture of what is being said.
Check pronouns. Do you know to whom each pronoun refers? Sometimes the source of confusion can be eliminated just by replacing a pronoun with a name. (And while you're checking the pronouns, notice whether or not the singular or plural form used is appropriate.)
Teach students to prevent the reader from becoming bored by replacing repeated nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs with synonyms, and including sentences that begin with words other than the simple subject.
Example: "Mrs. McDougal was the neighbor." Change to: "The neighbor, Mrs. McDougal…" and add the verb from another sentence (perhaps the next sentence) where she does something.
Continue the critique by looking at punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. (These rules are listed in the Natural Speller.) As you make changes, explain why.
The ideas offered here highlight important points in teaching writing. However, if you would like tips specific to each type of composition, or just a list of writing ideas, Comprehensive Composition should prove helpful."