BY MEREDITH FLORY
When coming up with possible ideas for this column, I wanted to make sure that I covered topics other educators and parents wanted more information or encouragement on. One person I was able to brainstorm with was a former colleague, Dr. Morgan Menefee. An educator in Kansas with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, Morgan has taught students from middle school through college, currently teaching English to grades 8-12 at a rural school.
Last year, I asked Morgan, if there was something she wanted her students’ parents to know, what would it be? And with little hesitation, she responded that parents who had strong readers were surprised or frustrated when their child struggled with a writing assignment, but that writing was a set of skills that also needed to be developed. I recently followed up with her to discuss how parents can more actively encourage our children to become strong writers.
Morgan shares, “we—yes, teachers are guilty, too—have a tendency to believe that, if a student can read and therefore see examples of good writing, they can mimic that same writing for themselves. However, a student who is reading lots of novels is not really observing the skills needed for an informative report.” Morgan advises parents to remember that they need to be exposed to various kinds of writing and that writing requires practice outside of the classroom in the same way that other skills do.
Make Writing Fun
Jenna Brack, a college writing instructor with two small children, who also blogs for Kansas City Moms Blog, points out that the need to practice writing starts sooner than we might think, and can be incorporated into fun and daily tasks for children. She shared with me, “while students can grow as a writer at any age, it is certainly easier to master the complicated rhetorical moves required of academic and professional writing after a strong foundation in the early years.” Jenna points out that many tasks that do not even require putting a pen to paper build the sort of thinking that will help develop good writing habits. She explains, “writing is an incredibly complex task—it combines elements of speaking, reading, thinking and fine-motor coordination, all at once…as a parent, you can engage your kids in a wide variety of activities to build these muscles.”
Morgan adds, “for both reading and writing, research has shown that the most important thing parents and other important adults in a student’s life can do is to model it. If you make time for reading and/or writing consistently, your student will begin to view it as an important thing.” So, if you write for your job, tell your children about how you use writing at work, or even show older children examples of writing from your professional career. If you are at home, talk about ways you are using word skills—writing to-do lists, emails or creatively through hobbies.
Many parents and grandparents are concerned that technology is affecting students ability to write well, but Morgan and Jenna agree that it can also be a tool. Morgan admits that many students frequently make grammar mistakes that they should have learned at one point, and many people are quick to blame autocorrect, texting and other technology. However, she argues that lack of paying attention to detail is a much larger culprit, and exclaims “teaching your children to know that when something matters, as school does, it deserves your full attention would be this teacher’s dream!”
When I taught, I often shared with my students that learning to finish a paper ahead of time, so that I could put it down and come back to it to edit with fresh eyes, improved my writing dramatically. Jenna echoes the sentiment that we should not be afraid of informal writing and that learning to organize and explain complex ideas is as difficult and important part of writing, even more than simply learning grammar. She says, “the trick is teaching students how to translate the skills they are already using into their formal writing attempts, and helping them understand that we must adapt our language for different purposes.”
Emphasize the Importance of Writing
Just like other subjects, half of the battle is showing that writing is important and can be fun. Morgan advises parents to have students practice writing with activities that interest them, because, “there is no sense in forcing them to approach writing in a manner they hate, because then you will teach them to hate writing.”
Jenna adds that as children mature and begin to think more abstractly, they need to practice putting more complex thoughts to paper. She points out that, “anything you can do to facilitate good thinking will help, such as family discussions where you practice seeing multiple points of view or explaining your opinion in a respectful way.”
Activities To Encourage Writing Skills:
Toddler/ Preschool Aged Children: Jenna and I have both encouraged our toddlers to “draw” or “doodle” on paper that can be included with letters. Putting their paper in an envelope with a thank you note, holiday card or other letter that you have written allows them to participate in writing and mailing letters. She also encourages “manipulating objects, holding a crayon, understanding that writing utensils can make marks on paper, starting to trace, etc…” to start developing fine motor skills. Magnetic boards, coloring books and dry erase activities are all fun ways to start learning to use a writing utensil. Jenna also suggests writing letters and words in different ways, such as with a finger on frosted windows.
Elementary School: Morgan encourages having students write letters or emails to relatives that live far away, which gives students a specific audience to write to—learning to speak to a specific audience is an important part of competent professional writing. Also, family board game nights with word games encourage vocabulary development and usage. Taboo, Boggle, Pictionary, Scattergories and Scrabble are a few popular games.
Middle and High School Students: For students interested in gaming and technology, Morgan suggest Twine, a computer program available online, in which students create a storyline for a role-playing game (available at twinery.org). She also suggests gifting a journal, or even allowing a parent-monitored blog. To practice editing, “working together to find all of the errors in the local newspaper” can be an engaging parent-child activity.
Meredith Flory is an Augusta-area freelance writer, military spouse and mother of two. She has a masters degree in children’s literature from Kansas State University and has taught high school and college English.
This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
Did you like what you read here?