The write stuff, Part 1


Tools for transforming reluctant writers into avid authors By Hilary Masell Oswald

Illustration by Jana Christy

You’re rummaging through your child’s backpack and find a note from the teacher saying your child’s first book report—tantamount to her first word but far less exhilarating—is due in a week. You stare at the note with dismay. "A week!" you think. "How will I ever convince Sarah to write a book report in just one week?" When you approach your child about the impending doom, which you introduce with the bravest of grins, she shrugs indifferently. "I’ll do it later. I have a week!" You finally wrestle her to the table the night before the assignment is due and she writes sentences so short you wonder if she’s ever heard of an adjective. If you recognize yourself and your child in this sketch, you are far from alone. Parents ask me daily how they can help their children become not only better writers, but also more eager writers. Instilling a love of writing in a child is not as hard as it seems. But it is, without a doubt, as important as it seems.  Writing allows a child to find his own voice, express himself and his ideas freely, figure out what he thinks and why, and interact with stories, characters and people. A child ought to believe his voice is important and that his thoughts and ideas are worth investigating and reporting. "Writing allows the child to place himself within the discourse of a community as a full-fledged member of the literate world," notes Sheryl Honig, a reading specialist in Lombard. "He can speak, as well as listen to others, as an author."  I can guess what you’re thinking: "My child? Speak and listen as an author? I’d be happy if he just wrote his short story assignment without so much prodding from me." The purpose of this article, however, is not just to get you through the current Battle of the Blank Page, but also—and perhaps more importantly—to change your child’s perception of writing and her willingness to engage in the act of creating literature. Ultimately, I want you and your child to believe that writing is fun. A starting point Start by helping your child discover the purpose of his writing and an audience for his writing. Honig explains, "[A child] must feel like he is someone with something to say to someone who needs to know." • Help your child figure out why the assignment is important, and try to guide him to reasons beyond the typical "I want to get a good grade" or "My teacher is making me do it." Ask questions such as "What do you get to do for this assignment?" "What is one really cool part of this assignment?" and "Why do you think your teacher wants you to write this book report?"  If you can come up with a purposeful reason for writing, the assignment will seem more valuable to your student and his work will reflect his respect for its purpose. • Ask your child for whom he is writing: "Who will read your paper?" In the case of a book report, the answer almost always will be "my teacher." But you might help her understand that other students might read her work when they look for a good book to read. If your child is writing a fictional story, help her imagine an audience: other kids her age, the president of the United States, a beloved relative or a pen pal. If she is writing a factual piece, ask her to pretend she is a top reporter for a successful newspaper. • "But Dad, I don’t know how to start!" your child hollers from the other room. You start to tremble. The room spins. Your palms sweat. You think, "Please, just make a mark on that paper.  Just one, tiny, little hieroglyphic. ANYTHING!" You say, "Do your best. I’ll be there in a minute!"  And then you go get the tape recorder. Your child began speaking much sooner than she began to write, so use those well-developed skills to bolster her writing skills. Ask her to tell you about the book she read or the story she wants to write and record what she says. Play the tape back to her, and help her identify the best information. She can probably write some of her speech verbatim, which will get the ink—and your breath—flowing. • Avoid paying your child to write. A well-intentioned, worn-out father I know offered to pay his son five cents a word for completing a book report on time. The offer motivated the child, all right. He wrote passionately for an hour, head bent over the paper, tongue peeking out the side of his mouth in rapt concentration. The child then marched up to his father and said, "That will be $6.25. Please pay before you read it." The curious father glanced at his son’s work, which included the word "very" 63 times in two paragraphs. Learn from this father and find other ways to motivate your young writer. • Finally, resist the Temptation of the Red Pen. Do not let your child hand you his paper and head out to play. Self-editing is as much a part of writing as putting the words on paper, and you will deny your child a great learning opportunity if you brandish your red pen and start inserting commas. Sit down with your child and ask him to read the finished paper out loud; what sounds good and what needs more explanation? Rely on his ear—which has been hearing language for far longer than his eye has been reading it. Ask your child to write the corrections himself; he will remember them more clearly if he does, and you will not have crossed the line between helping with homework and doing the homework. • Now, some lucky parents have children who have not expressed distaste for writing. Hooray! Put down this issue of Chicago Parent and dance for joy. Go on. Dance. Then pick it up again and peruse the following list, designed to get all families in the write spirit: • Create a family mailbox out of a shoe box, cardboard, basket or anything else that will work. Once a week, your child should receive a letter from a special "member" of the family: the family pet, a favorite stuffed animal or even a beloved indoor plant. Unless you have especially gifted goldfish, you will have to write the letters. Your child then will respond to the letter. The next month, perhaps your child could initiate the communication and Fido could offer a reply. You’ll be surprised how many "characters" you can find in your home. Many parents I know have admitted they had fun with this exercise. • Help your child write a letter to his favorite fictional character. The next week, ask him to pretend to be that character and respond to the first letter. • Go to a local restaurant you’ve never visited, preferably one that serves at least one dish that will be new for your child. After the meal, ask your child to pretend to be a food critic; help her write down as many descriptions of the food and the atmosphere as she can bring to mind. She doesn’t have to write complete sentences; this exercise is designed to draw out a child’s descriptive language. • Encourage your child to keep a dream diary. Children love to talk about their dreams and a dream diary helps them transfer images in their minds to the pages of their diaries. It strongly resembles storytelling. Because the sequences of dreams are often unusual, children who write down their dreams pay attention to the sequence of events.  • Tell your child he can choose what the family will eat for dinner on one condition: He must write the menu, complete with descriptions of the dishes. My favorite example comes from a candid 9-year-old: "Broccoli with Cheese Sauce: The creamy sauce keeps you from tasting that disgusting broccoli. A delicious way to make your mom happy!" • Ask your family to play the "Character Game." Everyone gets a piece of paper and a pencil. Each player then spends two minutes writing a description of a famous person, character or family member, without giving the name of the person (or his exact title). Then, someone reads each description out loud and the family members guess who it is. You will giggle at each other’s perceptions and your child might even use an adjective or two in her next assignment. • Arrange for your child to interview a family member about a remarkable experience that family member had. Then, help your child turn that interview into a special essay or letter for that family member. I guarantee your child will understand the impact of writing when she watches that family member read her work.  • Let your child see you writing—and paying bills doesn’t count. Modeling a behavior is often the best way to teach that behavior. Weren’t you planning to write to your dear Aunt Mildred?  • Play language games with your child. Try to list as many rhyming words as you can together: "Stop-pop-flop-mop." Create alliterations with your kids’ names: "Susan sat softly sipping soda." The more fun you have with language, the more fun your child will have, even in his writing. As an educator and a writer, I find few activities as valuable as instilling a love of language in a child.  I hope you will find at least one tool that helps your child discover the joy of writing.  Here’s to finished book reports, the occasional adjective and all the stories we have yet to hear.


Hilary Masell Oswald is a freelance writer living in Naperville


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