Raising Compelling Communicators
- Debra Bell Columnist, author and conference speaker
- 1999 12 Oct
Editor's Note: To become an effective communicator, a child must master the discipline of writing. Many of us were never taught how to write, so how can we teach our children? Deb de-mystifies the process for us. You can enjoy the writing process together.
Evaluating Your Children's Writing
Your 8-year-old hands you a letter she's just finished for Grandma; what do you do? Circle all the misspellings; correct the punctuation and grammar errors? Or let her send the first draft with a kiss and prayer that Grandma won't call concerned that home schooling is ruining her grandchild? Or maybe something in between....
Here are some ideas for evaluating your kids' writing without turning it into a discouraging experience.
1. Major on content not grammar: Heres why. If you over-emphasize spelling and grammatical accuracy, then kids won't take risks - they will only use the words they know how to spell and their sentence structure will remain quite simple. But that adds up to boring writing. Growing writers are adventuresome. They feel free to try new things, like use a sentence that requires a colon or experiment with words. We have to reward our kids for these efforts.
I tell my writing students that their job is to paint a picture with words. Grandma really doesn't know how exciting the field trip to the fire station was until you fill in the details for her five senses. What were the colors and shapes of the things you saw? What sounds did you hear? And don't forget how it all smelled? What were the textures of the things you touched? And for a real bonus, can you add some taste words to your description?
My first response to any piece of writing I receive from my writing students, from elementary through high school, is to highlight for them (I use a blue marker) all the parts I find most interesting because of their vivid descriptions. Even reports and research papers should include examples and illustrations that help a reader visualize the topic being explained.
Make a big deal out of the best parts of a piece of writing. You want kids to come away from a writing experience excited about the things they did well, not overly focused on the things they've done wrong.
2. Focus on unanswered questions in the readers mind. A writer needs to understand he has a commitment to his readers. They have needs that must be addressed - namely they have questions he must answer. When my students respond to each other's works-in-progress, I have them write down the unanswered questions they still have in their minds.
At what points did you want to know more? Where did you have to re-read sections because the sentences are confusing? When did your interest begin to dip? All these indicate points at which the content can be strengthened. If these are presented to the writer within the context of being better entertaining or informing his readers, he is usually motivated to work on those parts. (Remember from last time, motivated writers have real readers.)
3. Look for the logic. Writing reveals thinking, and as Christian parents we should be intent on teaching our children to think well. If kids have little to say, then it may be they don't have enough to think about. Before writing, kids need to read about a subject or experience a subject. Then we help stimulate the writing by talking with them about their reading and experiences. Ask open-ended questions that help kids learn how to articulate what they are thinking. This exercise is a good warm-up for good writing. Once they have their ideas down on paper, look for the logic.
First, is it organized logically? Is there an organizational pattern? Are they moving through the material chronologically? Or from least important to most important point? A good composition book, such as the Great Source program, will teach kids a variety of organizational patterns.
Second, is the content logical? I tell my students that they must build me a three-legged stool if they hope to convince me that their opinions or conclusions are sound. For instance, if your 8-year-old says the trip to the firehouse was exciting, then he must give me at least three examples of interesting things he saw or did at the firehouse before I will concede the trip sounds exciting. If my high school students tell me the Puritan influence on the American way of life can still be felt today, then I need three big areas in which that is still evident before I think their thesis is reasonable.
4. Finally edit for accuracy. Those pieces intended for an outside audience; i.e., Grandma, the editor of the newspaper, or a writing contest, need one final polishing step. After the content is as fully developed and richly detailed as necessary to meet the readers' needs, go through the piece for grammatical errors. Even during this stage, I want my writing students to understand that all of the rules of the English language are to help the reader accurately understand our message. Show kids how easy it is to misunderstand the writer's intent by removing all the punctuation, capitalization and paragraph indentations from a piece of writing. Making the readers' needs the emphasis will help give kids a real purpose for paying attention to these final, important details.
Next time: Opportunities to have your children's writings published! No greater motivator.
In His Sovereign Grace,