Originally Published: February 2003
Writing and thinking are intricately connected. Therefore, any activities that help children think analytically will ultimately contribute to the content of their compositions. Children can practice grouping things according to similarities and differences, classify a group of objects according to something they have in common, recognize the link in an analogy, and identify the main idea in something heard or read. When discussing a story, they can figure out why? and what if? instead of stopping with who, what, when, and where. They can do the same when learning about customs and events during historical studies. And they can use information, whether from fiction or nonfiction, to form an opinion and offer support for that opinion.
Their thoughts, however, need to be expressed as specifically as possible for others to see what they see. Therefore, activities building vocabulary also contribute to good writing. I encourage kids to use a dictionary while they read by using one as I read to them. As we discuss what I’ve read, they usually recognize the value of finding out the meanings of words instead of becoming satisfied with a vague notion of what is going on. When children who are able to read quickly and easily enough to use a dictionary ask me the meaning of a word as they read on their own, I only occasionally supply a meaning. More often than not, I suggest we find out together, helping them look up the word in a dictionary. I always hope that by doing this they’ll begin viewing the dictionary as a handy tool.
Narrative writing gives kids an opportunity to feel successful by simply recording a sequence of events. It also helps young children recognize order and develop vocabulary expressing that order: first, second, before, after, until, later, shortly, etc. They can retell a story just heard, or describe an experience—making cookies or a craft, attending a birthday party, or just shopping at the grocery store, for example. It is the teacher’s task to direct them as they write, encouraging a variety of types of sentences, and helping them combine ideas into one longer sentence at times in order to avoid a tedious “We did…and then we did…and then we did…” style.
As children listen to and discuss stories, they should be taught to identify the problem to be solved or any unusual occurrence. Then they can add these elements to their own narrations. For example, they can tell about an embarrassing moment, a day in the park when something exciting happened, or an incident which evoked a strong emotion. Kids can practice these ideas as they write to a relative or a pen pal in order to break away from the tendency to simply list what has happened since their last letter. These types of short and specific stories based on real experiences are easier than those based entirely on imagination, but will help build a foundation for writing longer, more creative stories for any especially imaginative children. Keep in mind, creative writing is not easy for many children and is an elective, not a requirement, in high school.
Therefore, students should have plenty of practice with expository, persuasive, and descriptive writing (mentioned in part one) as a means of building and using thinking and vocabulary skills. Expository writing refers to explanations—what, how, or why. Explaining what involves facts, which kids tend to list in the order they find them. These assignments allow the teacher to help the student develop skill in organizing the facts and finding examples as support. Famous quotes, adages, and proverbs can be used in order to supply a point, which the student must then explain, providing examples. Ultimately, the goal is to have students think of a point about their topic—a position they can write succinctly in one sentence—and then support it with facts and examples.
Writing “how” paragraphs helps kids learn to be specific, providing details instead of writing in vague generalities. Their explanation must allow someone else to follow their directions and achieve success—how to brush your teeth, wash the dishes, mow the lawn, groom a dog, etc. Because these assignments can be read out loud with family members doing only what is instructed, it’s often fun to see what happens when directions are not as specific as they need to be. I remember picking up a toothbrush by the bristles and putting the handle against my teeth because that detail was left up to the reader. Once the laughter died down, my kids recognized the importance of such details. It hardly needs to be pointed out that kids generally enjoy this type of follow up.
“Why” compositions are more difficult. I read tales like “Why the Leopard Has Spots” to help kids get the idea. Exercises that develop the ability to identify cause and effect as well as those that help them compare and contrast points help here.
Persuasive writing gives kids practice having a point (what do I want my teacher to change her mind about?) and supporting it (now I need at least three reasons). Kids have definite opinions, but difficulty supporting them. They are more likely to resort to loud voices and a vague “because I say so” attitude when disagreeing with peers. With a teacher’s help, they can learn how to present a convincing argument about topics close to their hearts. Are they begging to stay over at a friend’s or to buy something? Can they give you three good reasons why you should agree?
Just like the short descriptive writing assignments mentioned in part one, none of the other types of writing need to be lengthy. In fact, it is easier to make adjustments and build skill when pieces are short. I assign lots of one paragraph topics in order to help students of all ages learn to become succinct—combining sentences and choosing more precise words.
It is not just writing a lot that teaches kids how to write. It’s writing a lot with the teacher’s input in the revision process. Practice with a variety of types of writing in order to focus on various skills keeps composition as a subject from becoming either tedious (nothing but reports) or overwhelming (too much creativity required). Certainly, all this requires more time than merely assigning a grade. But, if our purpose is to teach children how to express themselves well, not just get through a composition curriculum, then taking that time must be a priority. And that should be our purpose!
Kathryn’s book Comprehensive Composition offers descriptions of each type of writing along with more teaching tips and topic ideas.