It’s common for teens to be anxious and insecure about their writing ability. The question is, how can parents help without silencing their teen’s voice?
Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing and a K-12 literacy coach in Conway, N.H., says parents often spend too much time correcting their teen’s writing when it’s more helpful to listen to what their child is trying to say. “What we’ve found is that kids are reluctant to receive help at home,” she says. “What they want is encouragement.”
Kittle offers the following strategies for parents in helping their teen develop confidence as a writer:
Put down the red pen. When your child gives you a school paper and says, “Is this OK?” your first response might be to start correcting grammar and spelling errors. “Parents tend to jump on the ‘correcting bandwagon,’” Kittle says. But all that red ink can be discouraging. It also puts the emphasis on whether to use “who” or “whom” when the bigger question is what your child is trying to say.
Ask your child what he needs from you. Say something like “How can I help you with this essay?” If he says, “FIX IT!” respond with, “What do you think is working in this essay?” By letting your child speak first, you avoid criticizing an ending he worked on for hours.
Listen while she reads out loud. Ask your child to read her essay to you, and really listen to the words. Do you understand what she is trying to say? Is she trying to say too much? Too little?
Pour on the praise. When it comes to writing, everyone needs praise. Kittle calls this praise “a celebration of words that are working.” Let your child know when words are resonating with you. Praise her when she chooses a word you never would have thought of. “Mention everything you like, every place where there’s promise,” Kittle says.
Work though the editing process. If your child’s essay lacks a central theme or doesn’t convey the point of view she is seeking, help her address these broad issues first: ideas, thought process, and voice. Then think about flow: the lead, the supporting statements, and the conclusion. Does she have smooth transitions? Spelling and grammar can come later. If her first draft is weak, Kittle says, be gentle. For example, you could say something like “I know you know so much more than you’ve written. Let’s talk.”
Help with a jump-start. If your child is having a hard time getting the first few sentences on paper, start a conversation with him. “Talk is the foundation of writing,” Kittle says. Use the assignment as a jumping-off point and just start talking: “What do you think about this topic?” Make a list of all the points your child makes as he speaks. That list can become an outline.
Help with planning. Serious procrastinators will put off a writing assignment until the night before it’s due, and at that point there is little a parent can do to help. This habit is especially common among reluctant writers. If your child is a procrastinator, it’s time to monitor her school assignments, set her up with an agenda, and get the jump-start going while there’s still time.
Correct each mistake once. When an assignment is in the line-editing phase, it is ready for grammar and spelling corrections. The broader themes have been addressed, and your child is on the home stretch. If it has been a long road, it’s tempting to make the corrections and let her make the final revision. Kittle has a better strategy—she only corrects a problem once. If your child misplaces an apostrophe, for example, correct the error when it first occurs and instruct her to check the document for other misplaced apostrophes. When the parent corrects all the mistakes and sends the child to school with a perfect paper, it gives the child a false sense of accomplishment, Kittle says.
Celebrate the completion of a writing assignment. When your child finishes an essay, it’s a different accomplishment than a good grade on a math test or a successful science lab. An essay represents her thoughts and words. Make a big deal out of the accomplishment before she gets her grade.
Lead by example. If you want your kids to be confident writers, they need to see you writing, Kittle says. It helps if you can show them your struggles as well as your triumphs. “Talk about how hard it is to make words line up the way you want and say what you want to say,” Kittle says. Keep your rough drafts and show them how many revisions you go through in preparing a document for work. Show them all the ways you use writing in your life.
Encourage social media balance. It’s easy to bemoan the state of youth writing by pointing to text messages void of capital letters and punctuation. Most kids know the difference between casual and serious writing, Kittle says. Just because your son fires off nonsensical text messages, it doesn’t mean he can’t write a winning persuasive essay. He may need to be reminded to review his schoolwork for capitalization, however. His smart phone will correct some of his mistakes for him, but he’ll need to capitalize his own letters when writing school assignments.
On the issue of whether parents should get actively involved in their child’s writing, Kittle is unabashedly in favor. Many teachers just don’t have time to give students the feedback they need to improve. And even if they are getting support from their teacher, a parent’s perspective is still valuable. “The parent can be the child’s partner in writing,” she says.