Some teachers, meaning well, might think: "It won't be 'fair' if I help too much. I shouldn't just tell them what to write, it wouldn't be their own work." There's truth to that statement, but let us not forget our purpose and goals: To model structure & style, teach through application and develop confidence and fluency. It is OK to help a child past a block, even so far as dictating to them two or three possible "which" clauses, and allowing them to choose one and use it. Did they think of it themselves? No--but so what? They chose one, they used it and in the process of using it, they have learned. You may have to "spoon feed" some examples many times, but ultimately, they will start to think of possibilities on their own. Children who read a lot will be more likely to come up with the words and constructions needed for success with the stylistic techniques, but there's nothing "illegal" about teaching by providing examples and options. It is especially important for reluctant writers. How else will they learn?

#3 Unclear assignments. This is perhaps the most frustrating problem for children, whose basic nature it is to want to know exactly what is expected of them. "Write a 3 page story set in the 1800's; be sure to add plenty of descriptive words." Ugh! How about this: "Write a paragraph about a friend; include three specific details." Or perhaps: "Write a two-page book report on "Little House on the Prairie." These types of assignments are tough for children, especially those who don't really like writing, because they are vague and open-ended. Most of us would prefer an assignment which is as specific as possible, perhaps like this:

Write a six paragraph story set in the 1800's. It could be the Old West, the South, during the Civil War, or in a foreign country. The first ¶ should describe the setting, the second ¶ should introduce one or more of the characters. In the third ¶, create a problem for one of the characters, using ¶ four and five to have them solve the problem. The last ¶ should give a little bit of epilogue and hint at a message or moral. Each paragraph should have the following stylistic techniques: '-ly' word, who/which clause, dual verbs, dual adjectives, an adverbial clause and a prepositional opener. The title should repeat key words from the last sentence. Write a first draft in pen and do not erase. Take it to your editor before typing your final copy.

Given structural and stylistic guidelines like this, students can know more precisely what the finished product should look like, which promotes enthusiasm, gives confidence and encourages sincere effort.

#4 Over-Expectation. How many of us might be guilty of saying (or thinking): "You had that word on your spelling test just a few weeks ago. How could you spell it wrong in this story?" "And can't you be a little neater?" It is, without question, difficult for anyone to catch their own mistakes, but while striving to keep a student motivated, it is important that we, as teachers, not forget this fact: Spelling, Handwriting and English Composition are very different neurological functions. These activities don't even happen in the same areas of the brain. Not that spelling and handwriting are not important-- they are. But they are very different activities than English composition, which is the logical combination of words into acceptable patterns. For many young children, writing neatly requires full concentration. For many, stopping to determine the correct spelling of a tricky word can derail a whole train of thought. Adults often find it difficult to "do everything at once" when it comes to spelling, neatness and composition.

Separate complexity. Allow children to focus on one aspect of writing without expecting them to do everything right the first (or even second) time. Finished products should reflect excellence, but not instantly. Always look for something to compliment--a good point to reinforce--first, before pointing out a careless error or awkward expression. Success breeds success, and you, the teacher must be the coach, not the judge. With practice, repetition, age, maturity and motive, most children will grow to produce work that is well-written, correct and neat. But don't expect it to happen all at once, yesterday.

Teaching, like writing, is an art. We practice; we improve. Just as we try to guide our students to be effective--while avoiding mistakes--in writing, we must likewise endeavor to recognize and avoid the most deadly errors when teaching. Certainly none of us will become the perfect teacher, but if we continue to strive toward that goal, all will benefit: parents, teachers & children alike.

Copyright 2007. Originally used with permission.

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