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A Recipe for Raising Great Writers

by Mary Leonhardt


Mary Leonhardt

Mary Leonhardt is the author of many books about literacy issues, and one about homework issues as inspired by her experience as a high school English teacher for 35 years. A description of her books, as well as her comments on current educational issues, can be found at her blog, Teaching a Love of Reading. Read more »

Sorry, Mary Leonhardt is no longer taking questions.

Remember all the writing you did in school? Research reports. History papers. Stories for English. With the implementation of the new Common Core Standards, your children are going to be required to write even more than you did.

How can you make this easier for them? You want them to be able to write easily and competently. They need to for school—homework is moving from worksheets to paragraph writing--and they will surely need to later in high school and college and in their profession.

Help your children become avid readers.

I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Only avid readers acquire the sophisticated sense of written language needed to become great writers. Kids who don’t read very much write oral language, which is less complex and uses voice inflection, rather than punctuation, to make meaning clear.

And it doesn’t matter what they read. Some of my best writers spent their childhood reading R.L. Stine and comic books. Any reading is good. Books lead to more books, and pretty soon avid readers tire of formula fiction.

Try to make writing a part of your children’s everyday lives.

Encourage scribbling for young children, and then note-writing, diary writing, and story writing. Let your older children text their friends and keep a blog online. Any kind of writing will make your children more fluent, adept writers. Plus I think texting is great for developing a voice.

Don’t worry about the kind of short-cut writing that texting and tweeting encourages. It is getting ideas formulated and down on paper, or a screen, that is difficult for most writers. Texting and tweeting are good practice.

Realize that writing skills are developmental.

Here is an excerpt from a journal entry by one of my best writers:

“Anne Rice has a sneaky way of getting you to believe her darkly luscious tales. If I had to make a food analogy of Anne Rice’s books, I would say that her novels are like cherry cordials--dark chocolate with ruby red; luminous cherries hidden inside. Yum . . .”

And here is an excerpt from a mediocre writer:

“I liked this book (The Outsiders). Johnny went in the burning church to save some kids, but a big piece of wood came down on his back. He was hospitalized and then died. That’s pretty much it.”

Notice the strong voice, the embedded imagery, and the lurking humor in the first piece. It’s vivid, persuasive writing that makes even readers who don’t believe in witches want to rush out and buy Lasher. The second excerpt is much more literal. It is solely concerned with plot, and lacks the distinctive voice and style of the first piece. Both writers are about the same age, but the first one clearly has a much more fluent developed writing style.

Children acquire writing skills in much the same way they acquire oral language skills. When your one-year-old says, “Go bed NO!” you don’t say, “Oh Honey, embed your negative!” We respond to the content of what she is saying, not her grammar. And we respond using correct, complex sentence structure that she will eventually acquire. “Oh, I’m sorry Honey, but it really is bedtime now.”

Writing works the same way. Children who do a lot of reading, and have fun with lots of writing, gradually acquire more complex sentence structure, and more ability to write about subjects in depth. But it takes time.

Do whatever you can to get your children to take a keyboarding class.

Years ago, when women could only be teachers or secretaries, my mother told me they would only pay my college expenses if I would take Business Typing, which met at 8 a.m. every morning, all year. But it is by far the most useful course I have ever taken.

By middle school most writing is done on computers, and it’s much easier to write all those papers when you can type 60 wpm.

Do gentle coaching but resist the urge to over coach.

You can point out a few simple axioms: Stories in the first person (“I” instead of “he”) produce more vivid stories for new writers. Use lots of dialogue. Describe people and places. It’s okay to be funny. Tips like that.

But don’t give long, detailed critical feedback. Few children have either the writing skills, or emotional skills, to process that kind of criticism. You will just discourage them.

Give lots of praise and encouragement.

Laugh at their funny stories. Take seriously their written notes to you. Read their school papers thoughtfully and tell them you love their ideas. As your children develop into better writers, they may ask you for more specific help, and then, of course, you can (gently) make some detailed suggestions. But wait for them to ask.

Do a bit of writing yourself.

And ask your children for feedback on it. Children love to give advice to parents, and this makes you and your children part of a writing group—which is much more fun than being a kid with a paper due, and a parent hanging over, supervising.

Sorry, Mary Leonhardt is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.

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