Developing a Writer — Part I

Originally Published: January 2003

Parents and teachers hoping to develop both interest and skill in writing should borrow from the Suzuki method for teaching young children to play a musical instrument. Children love listening to songs and want to imitate what they hear. Therefore, instead of immediately teaching them to sight read music, limiting them to rather boring tunes, the teacher has them listen daily to a tape of a more interesting song to be practiced, showing them the fingering. The parent then directs the child’s daily practice. Eventually, sight reading is incorporated into lessons, but by degrees, allowing them to continue to play complicated pieces they cannot yet read.

Children enjoy listening to stories and willingly imitate an author’s style as they write (or dictate) their own ideas. The parent can direct their writing by making simple suggestions as they work. At first, the parent should correct grammar, teaching these points bit by bit the way sight reading is introduced in the Suzuki method. Because he isn’t afraid of using only words he can spell or sentences he can punctuate, the child writes something interesting which also gives him a sense of satisfaction.

Just as children are more willing to attend to details when learning a song that is to be performed in order to get it “just right,” compositions polished for “publication” motivate them in the same way. “Publication” can be as simple as sending a letter or invitation to someone by mail, displaying the piece on the refrigerator, or placing it in a composition notebook to which everyone contributes and to which everyone has regular access.

Early writing assignments should be appealing topics that are not too broad, and do not require much imagination. Children are comfortable with imitation and explanation, but to write creatively or persuasively takes a broad base of experiences from which to draw. They are likely to have greater success writing a different ending for a story they’ve just heard, or a simple conversation that could be taking place in a picture, for example, than creating an entire story on their own. Persuasive writing is most easily introduced by having children think of three reasons why they like or don’t like something.

When I want to get an idea of a child’s skill I frequently have him choose an object and then describe it well enough for me to guess what it is. This usually leads to several follow-up lessons where I provide the object and have him describe it orally, writing down his words and phrases in list form. I prompt him with categories: size, shape, texture, use, material (what it is made of), color, and smell or taste if applicable. We work from developing one sentence, choosing several adjectives, to writing a short and more thorough paragraph.

Perhaps more enjoyable is the use of pictures for descriptions. I collected fifty or sixty pictures from various magazines as a teacher to use as story-starters. When I tutor, I pull out a picture I think the child will find appealing and ask questions to stimulate discussion—what is happening? what is the mood? what might a character be thinking or saying? I frequently encourage creativity by asking him to supply names and even a conversation if two or more people are shown. In response to questions I directed about a picture of a puppy and a cat, a nine-year old wrote these charming sentences, “The cat, Cuddly, is kissing the puppy. The puppy named Cutie doesn’t know what to do back. He sits there and takes it.”

I wrote down notes as we discussed a picture of a lamb and lion cub snuggled together:

  • lamb and lion cub cuddling
  • lion – orange fur with some white around his ears and on
  • his chest and belly.
  • lamb – white wool
  • lion looks happy—(I asked why: smiling, eyes are closed) sleeping on hay

Then we worked on combining some of the ideas to make an interesting sentence, which I wrote down as she dictated: “The orange lion cub with white fur around his ears and his chest and belly is happily cuddling a white, wooly lamb sleeping on hay.”

It doesn’t take long to move on to the comparisons of two objects. Categories are listed on the left side of a piece of paper with the objects across the top. That way, characteristics are organized for comparison. It the student observes something that doesn’t fit a category listed, he can add it along with a new category. Finally, a paragraph is written. Here’s a finished paragraph from a 10-year-old:

“Both cups, which are four inches high and three inches in diameter, are used for holding drinks. The white ceramic mug with a red heart has a handle in order to hold hot drinks. The clear glass, however, is used for cold drinks. It has ten sides, making it easier to hold.”

The examples presented here were completed in one sitting (within five to twenty minutes) and illustrate how a teacher directs the student to improve content. Too often, time spent on grammar exercises robs kids of time to develop real skill in writing. At one time, the National Council of Teachers of English were divided on how to improve writing skills, but a majority ruled that grammar should be emphasized in elementary school rather than waiting until high school to cover a more thorough look at parts of speech. In response, curriculum companies introduced complex grammar to young children. About ten years ago, the Council admitted that their strategy had failed. Good writers, they now agreed, were produced by using the writing process—write, revise, edit, and publish—with a teacher or mentor helping with the revision process.

In other words, we learn to write well by writing and getting specific suggestions about how to improve what we have written. Combining this feedback with topics that kids find interesting can help maintain interest as we help children develop real skill.