We know a good piece of writing when we read it. But what makes the writing “good” and how can we teach all our kids the skills that seem to come naturally to a few.
Here are six principles teachers and parents can follow to improve their children’s writing.
1. Good writing takes time
Of all the many criticisms of national standardised testing regimes, the least discussed, and least educationally defensible, is the time limit we place on writing tasks. Unless you are a journalist, why would writing a story in under an hour be a criterion for successful writing?
Writing takes time. You need to think a lot. Who is in your story, what will happen and why? Where will it begin and how will it end?
Give students time. Don’t tap on the desk asking “Is that all you have written? Look at Emma - she has written two pages”. This simply tells kids that writing is about filling a quota - not carefully and artfully communicating ideas and knowledge.
If your kids haven’t written much, they are either thinking, or you have set them a task with no purpose or plan, or they have literacy struggles which won’t be solved by being told to get on with it.
2. Learn to love grammar
Grammar isn’t the thing you correct at the end of the writing process. Grammar is what you teach during the writing process. Our kids need teachers not copy editors.
Here are three levels of grammatical understanding that can help frame the way you think about grammar and its use in writing.
You can name parts of speech. But, in and of itself, this is “so what” knowledge. So what if your child can circle the adjective or underline the noun in the sentence. How will that make them a better writer?
You can describe the grammatical function of parts of speech e.g. “Adjectives describe”. This is more useful knowledge because at least you know why you might want to use them in your writing.
However, just using lots of “describing words” doesn’t make good writing. If in doubt, read the story of any amazing, awesome, wicked, super clever, deadly laser beam shooting 10 year old.
It is not the size of your adjectives that counts - it’s what you do with them.
The third level of grammatical knowledge is the most useful - intention. This means choosing your words and organising your sentences with your story’s purpose and audience in mind.
Which is the right word to help tell your story, describe your character or evoke your setting? It might be “gargantuan,” but it could be “big”. It could be “verdant,” but it might be “green”. The right word isn’t always long, exotic or only found by searching a thesaurus - the right word is the one your story needs.
My observation of grammar teaching in schools - when it happens - is that it sits resolutely at the “so what” level of naming, occasionally reaches the “meh” level of function and very rarely hits the “wow, that makes a difference” level of intention.
3. Teach language in context
Take down your wall charts of interesting adjectives, unusual nouns and exciting verbs. These lists are misleading and pointless.
Words on a list are just words. The labels “adjective”, “verb”, “noun” describe the function of a word when it is in a sentence. For example, “deep” can be an adverb, adjective or noun depending upon its function in a sentence - deep in the bush, a deep dark well, or down in the deep.
Great authors choose their words with intention - and not because their editor wants them to use “interesting adjectives”.
4. Write for a reason and make research a part of writing
It’s hard to choose your words with intention when your writing has no purpose. Don’t tell kids to “write a story”. Have a reason for writing, and an audience who will read it.
It’s also hard to write about things you don’t know anything about.
Last year, my son did the national standardised NAPLAN test. The writing task was to write about a hero, and he wrote about me. I was flattered until he explained I wasn’t his first choice - he didn’t have enough information about other potential heroes stored inside his head to write a convincing persuasive piece. I was just someone he had quite a deal of biographical information about, so he wrote about me.
I was a little deflated but I saw his point.
5. Ditch the drafts
To write with purpose and intention you need a plan.
But kids won’t write drafts - as much as you you might like them to. Authors write drafts - because they are professionals with ambition and time on their hands.
Let kids plan in other ways - act out their story, draw their story, and tell their story to other people. Each time they “tell” their story in these ways they will refine it. When the listener is confused about where the dragon suddenly appeared from, they will think through the explanation. When they act out the plot, they will be inspired to refine it. When they draw their story they will be prompted to add more relevant detail.
6. Read great books
The very best way to write well is to look at good models of writing. Teach kids how language works by looking at it doing its work in its natural habitat - exemplary writing.
If you want your children to write well - read great books to them, and give them great books to read.