Education: Home Help No.4 Writing: Pen, paper, poetry and plenty of praise

In the fourth part of our series on how parents can help their children do better at school, we look at writing. It's a mistake to concentrate too much on spelling, grammar and length early on - having something to say is what counts.
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The Independent Online
WRITING IS one of the hardest challenges for children. For many it is not until about the age of 12 that their powers of written expression begin to match their oral ability.

For those just starting to write, there is the physical struggle - of holding the pencil correctly, keeping the paper still, moving their hand to form letters. As they progress, handwriting - particularly for boys, whose fine motor skills often develop later than in girls - continues to be an effort.

Then there is the question of what to write, and for whom, which is beset by niggling worries about whether the spelling is correct and the full stops and commas are the right places.

Parents' own writing skills are not generally challenged on a regular basis in the same way, and they can overlook the many aspects of writing that their children are struggling with. It is only too easy to find fault with a piece of writing, out of anxiety that your child may not be trying hard enough. A child's work, too, may seem to go backwards at times - when, in fact, the child is probably coming to grips with something new and is therefore unable to concentrate on every skill at once.

Because of the way that parents (and teachers) tend to react, children view their writing as good if it is neat, correctly spelt, and long; and they are very aware of their own shortcomings in these areas. But writing is about having something to say: like a jigsaw composed of many pieces, it is the big picture that counts in the end.

So when your child shows you a piece of their writing, attend first of all to the content. Talk about it with them, praise it, and show you value it by displaying it at home. A young child beginning to write may feel overwhelmed if immediately asked to correct work of which she is very proud, so tread sensitively here. Older children can be encouraged to redraft their writing, reading it aloud to check for mistakes.

Writing stories and poems is, of course, a wonderful way for children to experience the power of creating, and the more they read, and you read to them, the more they will have to draw on. But not all children will want to write stories, and not all the time.

Writing is also about informing, persuading, comparing, and presenting things in different ways to different audiences. Show them the many purposes of writing (lists, messages, letters, etcetera) and encourage them to have a go. Whatever a child is writing, respect that he is the author and leave final decisions to him. But be on hand to help as much as the child needs.

If you can offer as much help as he asks for, but no more, you can avoid encouragement tipping over into negative pressure.

Primary school children

Interesting pens and pencils and attractive, assorted paper, can make the task of writing into more of a game. Find your child a special place to write, like a desk or small table, where they can enjoy collecting and organising their own materials.

Encourage writing on the computer (although not as a substitute for pencil and paper). By removing the physical difficulties of writing, computers can help children experience a greater flow in their compositions.

Find opportunities for a whole variety of writing tasks: shopping lists, messages to family members, special recipes, holiday diaries, postcards etcetera. Some children will be happy to devise stories or plays as a group (based on favourite books or videos perhaps). Making books for younger children or siblings can be a good confidence booster, too.

Help them with their own pieces of writing by talking through a sequence of events such as noting down key ideas and words before they start. Get them to read it to you when finished. And don't forget to show them any writing you do yourself, for work or for pleasure.

Secondary school children

Secondary children are writing a good deal in school, in virtually every subject, so they should not be unduly pressured into additional writing at home. But it can be useful to maintain the practice, often begun in primary school, of short reviews of the books they read including such details as author, title, a simple plot summary and favourable or unfavourable comments.

Encourage writing for different purposes: for instance older children often enjoy sending opinionated letters to newspapers or politicians, complaints to manufacturers or inquiries about holiday destinations.

Support written homework by discussing the content and the appropriate style of writing for different tasks. Help to redraft the work, not just to check for spelling or grammatical mistakes, but to make sentences stronger.