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How to Help Kids Improve Writing Skills for Better Grades
Better Writing in Three Simple Steps
Whether a kid loves to write or not, there is no doubt that writing plays a large role in our lives, adults’ and children’s alike. We are always writing, perhaps, with the advent of e-mails, social media and text messaging, now more than ever. While it’s true that many of our children struggle in math and science, it is equally true that many also do not read or write well. This article outlines three steps for honing your child’s writing skills in order to improve their outcomes, either in course grades or on standardized tests.
About the Author
Everymom is a state-certified educator who has taught English Language Arts and Spanish in urban K-12 systems for 10 years, at various levels. Her last position with Boston Public Schools was as a bilingual English and Spanish Assessment Specialist, assessing native language and English development for newcomers to the school district (specializing particularly in assessment of preschool children entering Kindergarten).
1. Craft a Thesis Statement (Focus)
Many kids have wonderful ideas and great vocabularies but fail to get them across in writing because they lack focus. In short answers, essays or free-writes, the best way to focus an answer is to read the directions or the question(s) asked carefully and craft specific answers.
In one homework assignment, my daughter was given the question, "What's the point of homework?” The directions were given orally, at the end of class. (If you can, you should e-mail your child’s teacher and ask – repeatedly, if need be – that s/he make sure your student has written instructions for writing homework; this makes for easier reference so you can actually help at home without winding up in a shouting match with your kid). The only part of those directions that my daughter really heard was “you can give your opinion, if you want.” So, she did. It was not a terrible paragraph as far as upper elementary writing goes, but, the first thing I noticed (after the fact, as I did not check before she handed it in) was that, while she had written about the topic of homework, she did not answer the question! She had focus, all right, but it had shifted away from the assigned task.
Her paragraph was all about whether or not there is such a thing as too much homework; it’s definitely an opinion piece, but not once does she address the importance or the role of homework – the realtopic of the assignment. To make matters worse, until I actually read the piece and went over it with her, she had no idea that she had received a bad grade for it. Her teacher marked it with a 2+ (what does that “+” mean, anyway?), but as my daughter has never seen the rubric her teacher used, much less had that rubric explained to her, she figured her work was “acceptable.” Mind you, on a 4-point scale, a 2+ is, at best, a 55 out of 100…still failing. The look on my daughter’s face when I explained that to her spoke volumes; she’d had no idea it was a failing grade. I went on to explain that her teacher, in my not so humble opinion, had been nice to her; I would have graded it a 0…and that’s also what she would have received on any standardized test. (Lest you, dear reader, think I’m heartless, had I been the teacher, I would have graded it a 0, re-taught the idea of focus, re-assigned the homework, and dropped that 0 from the final grade!)
So, what’s the fix? In this instance, the fix is easy. If your child is unsure of what the question means, re-phrase it for him. You could break the question down into two parts: “Do you think homework is important?” Have your child write down her answer (yes or no or maybe) in a complete sentence. This will be the thesis statement or the focus (what is sometimes still referred to as the main idea)of your child’s essay/short answer/paragraph. For example:
“Homework is very important.”
“Homework is the least important part of schoolwork.”
“Homework can be useful sometimes but not always.”
2. Add Supporting Sentences
Even an opinion must have support. Human beings always have a reason for doing or thinking things. So, have your child explain his opinion to you. You can model the brainstorming process by writing down notes as she speaks:
“…because it helps me figure out what I know or what I need help with.”
“…because it is part of my grade; my teacher said so.”
“…because sometimes it helps me think but other times it just seems like “busy work.””
Don’t judge the answers; just let them flow. Help your child review what he said by looking at your notes. How many reasons could she give to support her thesis statement? Ask her to add other reasons for her initial answer. Keep writing them down. For a one-paragraph answer, three reasons are usually enough.
Again, have your child review his answers. Help her eliminate anything that is not relevant to her main thesis (I refer you back to my daughter’s shift in focus to the quantity of homework versus the purpose of homework). Then, have him create one complete sentence for each of his reasons.
3. Add Details and a Conclusion
Help your child make his writing come alive by adding specific details from his real life. Review each of the reasons he gave for why he thinks homework is/is not important. Can she give you any examples of (even just one of) those reasons from her own life? Or from a friend’s experience? Test the example: does it support your child’s original thesis statement about the significance of homework? If not, ask for other examples. As always, write them down and review them with your child.
The conclusion should be a summing up of the thesis statement but using other words. Rather than simply saying “This is why homework is/is not important,” lead your child to draw a lesson or a moral (in short, a conclusion) from the real-life detail. How does the example show the significance of homework?
This gives specificity and immediacy to your child’s writing. It reinforces critical thinking and making connections between academics and real life. It also helps crystallize your child’s learning, leading to that “ah-ha” moment.
What would the writing look like? Using one of the supporting reasons I gave in Step 2 above, “because it helps me figure out what I know or what I need help with,” my daughter might be able to use her experience to craft a better piece by supplying an authentic example:
Once, my teacher assigned a paragraph about the importance of homework. I wrote my opinion about how there can sometimes be too much homework. After my mother read it, we talked about the question and about my answer. I got all mad and refused to say my mother was right. I handed in my own opinion paragraph without writing it over. I didn’t get a good grade. But, later on in the school year, I had a test and I really focused on figuring out what the questions were really asking. I got a great grade! I guess homework can really help you focus!
Here, there is a description of a real-life homework experience (including the grade received) to flesh out both the thesis statement (“Homework is very important.”) and the supporting sentence (“it helps me find out what I need help with”). But, telling (or writing, in this case) her experience leads my daughter to her personal “ah-ha” moment (“I focused on a test, answered the question(s) specifically, got a great grade”) which in turns leads her to the conclusion (“I guess homework can really help you focus!”).
Improve Your Child’s Writing for Better Critical Thinking
The quintessential critical thinking question is “why?” and this is the question that leads to great supporting sentences. Great supporting sentences lead to reflection on one’s personal experience, which, as shown above, usually leads straight to the heart of a conclusion. This is critical thinking: learning how to do something (sometimes this comes from straight memorization – it’s not always a bad thing!), applying what you learned to a new situation (in the case of writing, a new theme or question), personalizing it (for most of us, what we learn externally has no real use until we see it in action in our own lives), and arriving at a conclusion (usually on a bigger-than-ourselves scale; this is where we see our place in, our connections to the larger world around us). Nothing helps us reach the critical thinking stage better than writing, having to tell something to someone else in a cogent manner!
What do you think? Do you have any strategies to share? Please feel free to comment below!