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The Trickiest "R" Of All

Cathy Earle shares research-based strategies for helping children become better writers. In the Big 3 of education – readin', writin', and 'rithmetic – writing is seen by many as the most difficult to teach. In some ways, this is surprising. Writing, after all, is a lot like talking – and almost all children learn to talk easily and early, with little or no formal instruction.

Also, isn't writing just the inverse of reading? Shouldn't they be about equal in difficulty?

Actually, the relationships between writing and talking, and between writing and reading, are complex. It's actually quite painful to read exact transcriptions of what people say – with all the “um's” and “okay's” – and when we talk, our facial expressions, gestures, and physical context often provide a lot of information to the listener that needs to otherwise be provided in written communications. As to comparing writing and reading, consider how much easier it is to read a great novel than to write a great novel. Even for professional writers, it's just not all that easy to write well!

There are at least four major types of writing challenges: Having something to say Writing clearly, Holding a reader's attention, and Mechanics of writing.

According to Amy Gillespie and Steve Graham, in Evidence-Based Practices for Teaching Writing, research has shown that some practices are effective in helping children, ages 9 or so and up, become better writers. I have grouped some of their research-based recommendations by the writing challenges they address.

Having Something to Say...

In a classroom or formal homeschool setting, this is the biggest of the biggies – kids are asked to write _____ (a poem, an essay, etc.), but they actually don't have anything they really want to say!

In unschooling and real-world situations, writing doesn't happen until someone DOES have something to say; there is a purpose for the writing, and an audience. Classroom and formal homeschoolers should look for opportunities for this sort of writing as much as possible, too. Remember to be flexible; “writing” isn't just one schoolish kind of thing. People write to build relationships with others (ranging from thank you notes to Grandma to text messages to friends), to help others get things done (from recipes to DIY articles), to express personal thoughts and remember personal experiences (from diaries to trip journals), to engage with the larger society (from posts and tweets on social media to letters to politicians), to communicate with other workers or students and teachers (from memos to reports), and to participate in the arts (from poetry and song lyrics to short stories and essays and novels).

Whenever opportunities come up for writing, offer to help your child express himself well. Even more important, acknowledge the importance of these writing experiences; a child writing for her own purpose, no matter how small a writing project, no matter how informal the product, can be worth way more than a child writing for an arbitrary assignment.

If you want your child to learn how to write on assigned topics, or to write specific kinds of things, here are some research-backed ways to help inspire him to have something to say: Encourage your child to read good quality examples of the type of writing that will be attempted. For example, if your son is going to write haiku, urge him to read several great haiku. If your daughter is about to write directions for a game, have her study several sets of game directions.

Show your child brainstorming techniques. Remember that one idea can lead to another, and another – and tell your child not to allow negative talk (“I couldn't do that” - “that won't work”) in a brainstorming session.

Demonstrate free-writing, in which you just dive in: start writing and don't stop for five minutes (or so), even if you run out of things to say. If you can't get started or peter out, write “I'm not sure what to say – I'm not sure what to say” until you think of something else to write. Free-writing can spur some good ideas!

Creative writing prompts can help inspire kids; however, in general, events and experiences tend to inspire more passionate writing than pictures do, and pictures tend to inspire writing better than words.

Writing Clearly...

Writing clear sentences, paragraphs, and essays seems like the challenging part – but, in actual fact, writing is itself a tool for thinking, and it is thinking clearly that is the most challenging part of writing clearly.

Most people think of writing as getting an idea and then writing it down. Of course, this can happen! However, during most writing projects of any length, writers think of things that they didn't have in mind when they first set fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper). Because of this, writing non-fiction can be a process of discovering what one thinks about a topic, and writing fiction can be as exciting for the author – I wonder what happens! – as it hopefully is for the reader.

Furthermore, writing is a process that almost always includes (or at least almost always should include) reading what has been written, rewriting, rereading, and further rewriting, tweaking, and polishing. Good writers read their pieces aloud, if possible, so that they can hear mistakes and ambiguities that they did not see. Good writers also have others read their pieces, if possible, so that they can get feedback on which parts work and which don't. As she reworks the confusing bits, a writer's thinking about a topic actually becomes more and more clear.

Great ways to support thinking and writing clearly:


Teach your child to reread what he has written, and to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Obviously, this is a lot easier if you urge your child to use a computer and word processing software. As a matter of fact, word processing software may be the Number 1 tool to helping people write better, because it makes editing, reorganizing, and rewriting so much easier.


Offer, not just your proofing services to spot typos, but also feedback several times during the writing process. Point out where a piece gets unclear, or repetitive, or meandering.

Critique Groups.

Many professional writers use critique groups to hone their writing, and kids often respond very well to their work being read aloud within a small group, with everyone giving suggestions and feedback. This works best if an adult participates in the “crit group” by also writing, reading aloud, and getting feedback on his or her own writing. Remind kids that EVERY writer can improve – and the idea behind a crit group is not to compare writers to others in the group (let alone to published authors), but rather to help each member improve the piece being critiqued.

A homeschool support group might be a perfect group in which to run a kids' crit group, since kids of different ages are less likely to compare themselves to others.

Hint: When I run a kids' crit group, I read aloud all the pieces, rather than having each writer read his own piece, and I don't mention the writers' names. Although the writer of each piece is usually glad to claim his writing during the feedback discussion, this allows for anonymity if the writer wishes it.

A Change of Scenery.

When a kid cannot express an idea clearly in writing, have her try to express it orally. Taking a break from writing can help the writing process, and doing something physical often helps to clear the cobwebs. Doing all three at once (a chance to clarify a point orally, a break from writing, AND physical exercise) might be best accomplished by taking a walk with the stymied writer and asking her to explain the idea orally. Be ready to ask clarifying questions, point out weak arguments, and identify confusing statements. There may come a point five or ten minutes into the walk when your kid fully realizes what she was trying to say.

Holding a Reader's Attention...

School kids often do not even consider the need to attract and hold a reader's attention when writing essays, reports, stories, or poems for a teacher; ditto formally homeschooled kids writing for their parents. I suppose that the assumption is that the teacher or parent is a sort of captive audience who HAS to read whatever is written (just as much as the child “has” to write it).

However, even for the most formulaic or academic writing tasks – and certainly for real-world writing – capturing and holding the reader's attention should be a huge goal for every writer.

For example, even many unschoolers will eventually take standardized tests such as the SAT. And we know that the readers who grade SAT essays spend very little time on each one. Ask your child to imagine reading dozens of essays that start in one of these two ways: (1) “I think that listening is more important, even, than speaking when you are trying to persuade others, because...” or

(2) “I think that speaking is more important than listening when you are trying to persuade others, because...” If you'd read, say, 32 essays that started almost exactly one of these two ways and then come across a more interesting essay opening – something, perhaps, like “My family's dinner table is a bit like a Fight Club of the Mental Kind. We debate important issues almost every night, and we can be pretty hard-hitting...” Well, I think you would wake up, take notice, and feel much more positive about the rest of the essay in sheer gratitude for a more original beginning!

Research shows that teaching kids explicit steps to catching and holding a reader's attention can pay off, big-time.The beginning of an essay or story needs a “hook” – a statement or question that will grab a reader's attention and make him wonder about the topic or story. To find the hook, sometimes it's necessary to write a paragraph or two – or even a page or two – before discovering the anecdote, statement, or question that should begin the piece.

Good writers consider “voice” – their own personality coming through the writing. Even textbooks are better when an author's voice can be “heard” in the writing!

Tell your child that “voice” comes from revealing his viewpoint. Of course, he will have to tailor his vocabulary and writing style to the needs of the piece he is writing, but he should still try to be true to his own authentic self.

Point out examples of effective writers breaking “rules” in order to produce a strong voice or to evoke emotions. For example, beginning writers are often told to avoid repetition, but Martin Luther King, Jr., used repetition in a powerful way in his I Have a Dream speech.

Students are told over and over again that sentences should be complete, having at the very least a subject (featuring one or more nouns or pronouns) and a predicate (featuring one or more verbs). However, sentence fragments can be effective in both creative and informal writing. Here is an example of sentence fragments (AND repetition) from A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle:“IT was a brain. A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT.”

Mechanics of Writing...

All the stuff that people usually concentrate on when teaching writing is really just the bottom level of challenges for a reader. How do I spell the word _____? Should there be a comma here? Which words of the title ________ should be capitalized?

The reason that most teachers and parents concentrate on this part of writing is that it is easier to explain, check, test, and evaluate spelling and simple grammar than it is to explain how to write a funny essay, a suspenseful story, or a clearly organized paper. The research Gillespie and Graham describe did not deal with this particular writing challenge, but of course it is important to help kids learn these conventions – they are very helpful to the reader and therefore also to the writer!

In conclusion, writing is challenging. For everybody!

Even for “good” writers, even for professional writers, writing well is difficult. Teaching writing is therefore challenging as well. But we can help our kids climb onto the ever-spiraling staircase of more and more effective writing.

Cathy Earle is an education writer who homeschooled her three daughters up to college. You can read what one of her daughters now writes about those experiences at The No-School Kids: A Homeschool Retrospec­tive, and you can find Cathy's free resource for kids at Every Day is Special. 

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