Your Kid Canít Write
by Ellen Finnigan
by Ellen Finnigan: The
Lesser of Two Evils
For years American
employers have been complaining about the poor writing skills of
college graduates. Teaching assistants in English departments across
the country are shocked after their first week teaching Freshman
Comp: "We canít be expected to make up for twelve years of
lost grammar in one semester!" they cry, while sipping their
green tea, and pushing up the sleeves of their oversized cardigans.
The SAT grader cringes, knowing these essays are sure to be the
downfall of many ambitious young students, relegating them to their
"safety schools." Meanwhile a homeschooling mother sits
at the kitchen table tearing out her hair, because her eighth grader
has just stormed out of the room Ė again! Ė all because she was
trying to give him "a little bit of help" with his writing.
Let me be forthcoming:
I do not have a degree in Education. I have never studied Composition
Pedagogy. When I was in graduate school, I did not have a teaching
assistantship, despite my impressive collection of cardigans. But
I am a writer, myself, and I have been working with families as
writing coach for over four years. Thatís right: I have street
cred. So I will share a few insights and theories, based on my personal
observations and experiences, as to why "the kids these days"
canít write. Parents, listen up! I also have tips.
donít write frequently enough.
a skill. Like any skill, it requires practice to master.
If your child
has been enrolled in a traditional school, he is probably not
getting enough practice. One mother told me that her daughter
had written only one paper during her entire seventh grade year.
to Betsy!" I cried, and fainted.
This is appalling,
but not hard to understand: To grade twenty tests might take thirty
minutes, twenty papers three to four hours. A teacher canít "bill"
anyone for the time she spends grading papers on a beautiful Saturday
afternoon, so you can see why she would assign dioramas instead.
traditional schools do not offer a class dedicated solely to composition
and rhetoric. Hence there are is no writing grade. Hence there
is no writing instruction. Teachers are responsible for their
"content." What incentive do they have to help your
child develop a "soft skill" that, though critical,
wonít show up on any test? For reasons that are beyond the scope
of this article (and certainly not the teachersí fault), they
teach to the test! Itís all about the test.
are guilty of neglect, too, but for different reasons. Many parents
dislike writing or consider themselves to be bad writers. "Itís
just not my thing," they say, "so I tend to avoid it."
Or they tell me that writing provokes too many meltdowns: "My
kids are fine with me teaching them anything else, but when it
comes to writing, they donít want to hear anything I have to say.
They get so defensive!"
If you wanted
your child to learn how to play tennis, you would sign him up
for tennis lessons. He would go every week, and an experienced
coach would teach him about the game and design drills and exercises
that would help him practice the skills he needs to become
a better tennis player. If your child were struggling with math,
you wouldnít sign him up for a math class. You would hire a tutor.
Why not approach writing in the same way? Especially if writing
is not your specialty, you should consider outsourcing it! Find
coach to help your child.
Not to mention,
there is something to be said for an "objective," third
party opinion. Even if you consider yourself a decent writer,
your own children may not be your best pupils. Because writing
is a craft, an art really, it is more subjective and personal
than other subjects. Yes, there are rules that must be followed,
but writing is also about creative expression and personal taste,
and a teenager is likely to appeal to this latter truth when differences
of opinion arise. (Does your teenager like it when you pick out
his clothes? Yeah, itís kind of the same thing when you try to
rearrange his sentences.) I can assure you that most students
are perfectly open and receptive to criticism of their writingÖas
long as it doesnít come from their parents. Itís just, like, you
know, a kid thing.
rarely, if ever, get quality feedback on their work.
On the rare
occasion that your child is expected to write a paper, a regular
schoolteacher will usually grade it, not critique it. Feedback
will be critical instead of constructive and it
will come in the form of "mark ups": red ink pointing
out grammar and spelling errors, a few Xís (maybe in purple if
the teacher is one of those hippie types concerned with self-esteem).
A few cursory remarks like "awkward" or "So?"
might appear in the margins. A thoughtful, detailed response about
strengths and weaknesses, along with specific suggestions for
improvement, are what a student needs to improve, but donít hold
your breath. Providing that kind of feedback is time-consuming
and labor intensive. Teachers have lives too, you know. Easier
to just mark that bad boy up and move on.
Hire a writing
coach! When it comes to the written word: writing coach
is to English teacher as driving instructor is to
traffic cop. A traffic cop might pull you over every time
you run a red light, and maybe if he does it enough, youíll stop
running that red light, but thatís a slow way to learn how to
drive. And what if you have to parallel park one day, on a hill,
while driving a stick, and holding a cup of coffee, and sending
a text? (Weíve all been there!) Of what use will those tickets
be then? Hire a cool writing
coach and she will not only teach your kids the rules of the
road, sheíll teach them how to do donuts in the school parking
get way too much feedback on their papers all at once. It buries
them, immobilizes them, and suffocates them, like an avalanche.
simile was a bit dramatic, but homeschoolers in particular seem
to have a problem with this one. They seem to forget that their
childís brain can only process so much information. They bombard
their children with feedback on every single facet of their papers
(content, structure, spelling, diction, grammar, usage, mechanics,
style, etc.). This will only dampen the childís enthusiasm for
writing. He wonít want to do it anymore. Instead of excitedly
pouring forth his thoughts and ideas, he will clam up and get
"writerís block," because he knows from experience that
putting words on a blank page only opens him up to a torrent of
criticism. He knows his writing will never be good enough, so
why even try? Where to even start?
praise. Always. Praise, praise, praise! Tell him what he did well.
Tell him the strengths of the paper and his strengths as a writer.
Find something to make him feel good about.
is no reason to point out every weakness that you spot right away:
every single spelling mistake, every convoluted sentence, every
structural problem, etc. Language is a complex thing. Obviously
you will have a million thoughts as to how the paper can be improved,
but by shredding their work you will only be trampling their fragile
egos and stirring up the gods of war. Show some restraint.
every paper as a triage situation. You have to divide the problems
into categories, decide what the priorities are, and tackle them
in stages (more about this in number four). Priorities will be
different for every student, depending on age, ability, and proclivity.
Ask yourself: What is the most important thing for him to learn
and master, right now? What little lesson will make the biggest
difference for this paper? For example, there is no reason to
point out the fact that your child used the word "great"
eighteen times if the paper is riddled with run-on sentences.
Run-on sentences confuse the reader. While the word "great"
is general and boring, it is at least clear. Aim for clarity first.
Next year you can worry about diction.
Itís not about making the paper perfect. Itís about using the
paper as an opportunity to teach the student something about writing.
would be pointing out ineffective transitions when your child
is still struggling to write clear, identifiable topic sentences.
First, your child has to understand each topic and to be able
to articulate that topic in one, summative sentence. Next semester,
after he has grasped the idea of topics, you can encourage him
to start thinking about the relationships between topics
and how best to link them. First thingís first!
can see the problems in your childís paper, but you donít know
what the priorities should be, or maybe you can identify the problems
but you donít know how to fix them. Consider hiring a writing
coach. (You knew I was going to say that, didnít you?) You see,
writing coach is to regular teacher as rescue
worker is to rescue dog. The rescue dog may
be able to find the kid stuck under the avalanche, but only the
rescue worker can dig him out, administer CPR, and help him revise
his persuasive essay. (And that is called a mixed metaphor, folks!
Make sure your children donít write those.)
there is never any expectation to revise, students fail to learn
the writing processÖand they fail to learn that writing is
Letís say that
the teacher who makes $30K a year did spend a Saturday afternoon
reading and critiquing twenty student papers out of the goodness
of her heart. Is she likely to ask for revisions and spend the next
Saturday afternoon reading the second drafts and noting the improvements?
Um, interesting as your childís thoughts on Atticus Finch may be,
she would rather spend time with her own kids, or get a root canal,
than read that paper again. Students get into the habit of writing
one draft, turning it in, and never thinking about it again. Whereís
the lesson in that?
heard it said that writing is rewriting. Absolutely. Writing is
a process. Students learn far more from revising than they do from
writing a first draft. But often we teach writing as a two-step
process: write, proofread. No, no, no, no, no! The writing
process is: brainstorm, outline, write, rÖeÖvÖiÖsÖe, proofread.
Revision should take the longest and be the most intense. Thatís
where the magic happens, people! But every step is important.
A writing coach
can walk your child through the writing process with each
writing projectÖor not. For some students, it may be helpful
to crank out three or four outlines in a row without ever writing
a first draft, just to master those outlining skills. More advanced
students who need less handholding may prefer to do their prewriting
work independently and present the coach with a draft, which the
coach will then critique. As opposed to a writing class with a predetermined
curriculum, the good writing coach runs a writing workshop that
is flexible and fluid and entirely tailored to the studentís needs.
As for that
revision process, like I said in number three above, donít communicate
all of the problems at once. The process of revision works best
in stages, with a lot of back and forth. As a general rule, I find
it best to address weaknesses in the following order:
and structure: In the first round of feedback, focus on the
big picture. Explain where underdeveloped ideas could be fleshed
out. Make sure multiple subtopics are not being crammed into the
same paragraph. Make recommendations if subtopics could be presented
in a better order. Point out irrelevant or tangential information.
All of this applies to outlines as well as first drafts. At this
stage, help the student to generate more thoughts and ideas, challenge
him to think in more depth about the ideas he already has, and
make sure his ideas are organized in a way that will create good
When he comes back with the next draft, focus on clarity at the
sentence and paragraph level. Point out things like run-on sentences
and sentence fragments. Point out where things are confusing,
repetitive, or unclear. Explain why they are confusing. (Stop!
Let the student figure out how to fix it. Donít fix it for him.)
Remember: You are not yet talking about "mistakes" or
making "corrections." You are giving feedback as a reader
about where you got lost or tripped up.
In the final round of revision, I get out my purple pen. (Rather
I use purple font. Yes, Iím hippie-ish.) At this point
you can deal with those "little" things like misspelled
words and grammatical errors. Try to ignore these things until
the last possible minute. (I know itís hard.) This should feel
like the final "clean up" after the real work
has been done, like sweeping up the sawdust after the bookshelf
has been built.
concerns: If your child is writing papers that are clear and
well organized, and if your child is writing sentences that are
grammatically correct, and if your child is doing these things
consistently, then you can start working seriously on things like
sentence variety, diction, transitional words, rhetorical devices,
figurative language, purpose, audience, and tone. Writing should
be made clear before it is made pretty. That being said, if your
student writes something pretty, do say, "That sentence was
lovely. Nice work!"
word here is: work. Yes, writing is a lot of work! But in my experience,
when you break things down into steps, and give feedback in little
bits, students quickly overcome their anxiety about writing and
even begin to experience joy in it. And that is the best thing
about being a writing
coach. (Just had to get that in there one more in time!)
is usually assigned for the purpose of demonstrating knowledge,
rarely for the purpose of practicing a writing skill or engaging
in personal expression.
or history teacher might assign a paper for the purposes of assessing
how well the student understands the material covered in the course.
In this case, the emphasis will be on the content, and if the content
is new, not something the student confidently grasps, then the effort
to deal with that content will consume the studentsí attention.
Itís kind of like expecting someone to practice juggling while he
is walking on a tightrope. Why not let him stand on solid ground
and just juggle for a while? This way he can focus on his juggling
technique, and forget about remembering everything you taught him
about the causes of World War I.
papers strictly for the purpose of practicing writing, and let the
student pick his or her own topic. Encourage the student to write
about something he loves or understands well, whether video games,
dogs, or baking. This takes the pressure off the "content"
side, and allows the student to focus on the writing. I have found
it especially effective to have the students write "real world"
essays or letters for a specific purpose and with a specific audience
One of my favorite
students was a girl named Melinda. Her mother warned me: She had
officially entered her teenage years. Her mother had to sit at the
computer with her, place her hands on the keyboard, and make her
send me an email. I only heard from her maybe twice a week, and
her work was haphazard and slapdash. I could tell that she wasnít
really trying. So I tried to find something that would get her fired
up. Melinda and I emailed casually for a few days, with no work
assigned, until I discovered one reason for her malaise: She hated
being homeschooled and desperately wanted to go to a "regular"
school. A-ha! We had found our topic! I suggested that she write
a persuasive essay, with her parents as the audience, convincing
them why they should let her enroll in a "regular" school.
From that point on, there was not a day that went by that I did
not hear from Melinda. The girl became a writing machine.
I spent the
next six weeks working with her on this essay: helping her to write
a claim, outline an argument, develop her points, and, yes, modify
her tone. ("Now, Melinda, think about your audience and how
they might react to something that sounds like an accusation.")
Because Melinda had been begging her parents to send her to a "regular"
school for years, she knew all of their opinions and positions,
so we worked those into the paper as well, addressing every one.
At some point she decided that the essay was still not good enough.
Something was missing. I said it could use more concrete support.
It morphed into a research paper! With some guidance and instruction,
off she went to research her topic, and I helped her incorporate
any research she found. She asked her parents to extend the course
for another month, and to my surprise, they did. She ended up writing
something akin to a dissertation!
At some point
I wrote to her mother: "Iím sorry that I have turned into an
agent of subversion in your home."
She wrote back:
"I donít care! I have never seen her so excited about writing.
She cannot wait to get your emails every day. I have never seen
her work so hard at anything."
In the end,
Melinda did not succeed at convincing her parents to send her to
a "regular" school. But she did convince them to start
looking into hybrid schools. Her mother reported that the writing
workshop had been good for their whole family: Melinda, noticeably
less "whiny" and "sulky," had seemed to mature
overnight, and this no doubt had something to do with the fact that
she was given the tools to be able to express herself well and engage
in a productive and satisfying dialogue with her parents, during
which they treated her with the same level of seriousness with which
she had undertaken the project.
My work there
was done! I have to admit, I felt a little bit like this.
not just another useful skill in a technocratic world, like knowing
Photoshop. In the end, being a good writer is not about getting
into a good college or getting a good job (though that might result).
Writing is thinking. Better writing skills make for better thinking
skills, and as you help your child to become a better thinker, you
help him to become a more critical and independent human being,
less easily influenced by others, more reliant on his own judgment,
and better able to express himself and engage in valuable dialogue
with others. Writing is not just a skill; it is a power, one you
donít want your child to live without.
If you choose
to be your childís writing coach, I leave you with this parting
thought: Do resist the temptation to become your childís editor.
You may think that he will learn a lot by watching you make
corrections, by noticing the way you move a few things around, by
seeing you reword a few things, by showing him the difference between
the version he wrote and the version you "fixed," but
all you are teaching your child is that writing does not require
hard work because at some point, someone else will come along and
do the hard work for you.
One of the
oft repeated writing maxims is: "Show, Donít Tell." Well,
when it comes to teaching writing, it is best to "Tell, Donít
Show." There are times when you have no other choice but to
show the student what you mean by just getting in there and writing
something or changing something, but it is best, whenever possible,
to try to explain the problem and let the student do the work of
figuring out how to fix it. If explanation isnít getting you anywhere
and you need something to "show" what you mean, go find
a published work that you can use an example and let your child
try to mimic or replicate that. Yes, the hands-off approach requires
some restraint, but it will allow the student to feel a greater
sense of accomplishment when he sees the final draft, knowing the
work was his own.
Finnigan [send her mail]
from the University of Montana with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing.
She currently runs an online writing workshop and teaches Literature
and Rhetoric at a Catholic hybrid school in Atlanta. Visit her at
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