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How to Encourage Your Kids to Write

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #54, 2003.

How to encourage your homeschooler to express himself in print.
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David Marks

When I was teaching senior writing in a public high school, I wanted my students to do well so much that I marked everything I could find that needed improvement in every one of their papers. I even did this in red ink. Then I talked to each student and explained all the things they needed to learn for the next paper. When I think of those years I have to cringe with shame. What an awful thing I did to all those kids! It's surprising that any of them continued to do the papers I assigned.

This article asks you to look at how you're evaluating your children's writing and ask yourself the question, "What am I doing to my kids?"

Most homeschooling parents give their young children grammar drills and spelling work and then ask them to write reports. Of course the children don't know how to write reports - because no one has shown them how. It's not untypical for parents of ten-year-olds to say to them, "Write a report about anything you want. Get the information from the Internet or the library or your texts. Make it about six pages long. Use quotes and footnotes and have an introduction and conclusion."

For us this sounds simple. We had to write lots of papers just like this when we were in school. But look at this job from your children's point of view.

  1. They don't have a model to follow.
  2. There is no reasonable time-frame set up.
  3. There are no day-by-day directions.
  4. There are no explanations about writing the introduction or the conclusion.
  5. There has been no practice in writing with continuity.

What an impossible position for a young person to be in! And yet, when the paper is finally done, their reward is that every error will be marked, and that there will be lots of them.

This kind of evaluation has to produce negative feelings about writing. None of us want to do something and know that when it's finished we'll be beat up for our efforts. If adults need positive reinforcement, encouragement, and patience, it stands to reason that your children would need the same.

Your kids need two things when they hand you their writing. One, they need to be told that they're good at what they tried to do. A good way for you to express this to your children is, when they hand you their paper, find something absolutely wonderful about some part of it. If it's just one sentence, that's fine. But they must be congratulated for something. It might go this way:

Mom: Bob, I read your paper last night after you went to bed and I found what I think is a perfectly wonderful sentence. I want you to read it to me so I can hear how you feel about it. Here, I've underlined it.

Bob: (Reads sentence) You really liked that, huh?

Mom: I sure did, and I want you to read it to your father, too.

(Dad has to be told what you're doing so he too can give positive reinforcement when Bob reads to him.)

Dad: That's a great sentence, Bob. Did you copy it?

Bob: No.

Dad: Did you get help from somewhere?

Bob: No.

Dad: Boy, am I proud of you. You've written an almost perfect sentence. You're really doing a good job with your writing, Bob. I want to see more of your work the next time you write.

No matter how bad the rest of the paper is, Bob has to be told that his parents are proud of him. This is important. Do it even if you have to really search for the least awful sentence in the whole paper. Bob has to feel good about his efforts.

I can hear you thinking, "What about all the mistakes?" You have to decide what one thing you want each child to learn this week. That's right, one. The sentence you pick that is wonderful should have that error in it.

Now, let's continue with our conversation with Bob and his parents.

Mom: You know, Bob, this wonderful sentence could be a perfect sentence if you had the first letter of the proper name of the character capitalized. Let me show you that rule in our grammar reference. (Mom shows Bob the rule and how the rule should be used.) Now what I want you to do is to apply this rule to that wonderful sentence and then show it to me.

Bob: Here it is, Mom.

Mom: Yes! You have a perfect sentence here. Let's call Dad and have him read it, too.

The next time Bob writes, his parents should go through the same song and dance but with a different rule. Will Bob be eager to write again and show his paper to his parents? Sure, he will. He'll want to hear how wonderful his parents think he is at writing. Your children should be able to look with pride at what they've written and not be afraid that they'll be criticized for how poorly they've done.

Your children can't learn 23 things this week about writing. No one should be expected to learn that much between writings. Kids can learn one and maybe two things a week about the rules of writing. Any more than that and the job of learning becomes overwhelming. Why show your child 15 errors on a paper when all that can do is beat the child up and maybe destroy the joy of learning to write?

Your children will be with you for years. You don't need to try to make them perfect writers this week, this month or even this year. Patience and positive reinforcement will make them very good writers before they graduate from home.

Think of the process this way. Suppose you made an apple pie for dinner and your husband ate his piece and left the table without saying anything. You might follow him and ask him if he didn't like the pie. What if he said: "You promised us pie last week, so this pie is about four days late. I counted the thumb dents on the rim of the crust and there was an uneven number of them. The cuts in the crust that let out steam were not even symmetrically placed. You know I'm on a diet and the top of that pie just glistened with sugar, and the piece I had was a little gummy right at the center point. I don't think you baked it long enough."

You might not be so eager to bake a pie for him again ever. If you need positive reinforcement for the things you're asked to do, shouldn't you expect your children to need it, too?

Look at how differently you would feel if, after your husband ate his piece of pie, he said: "I was telling the guys at work about your wonderful apple pie and they made me promise that I would ask you to write down your recipe for pie and they would get one of the girls in the office to duplicate it so they could take copies home and have their wives follow it and they all could eat pie as good as the pie I get. Would you do that?" You'd make sure your husband ate really good pie every chance you had to make one!

Kids don't need to be told how poorly they've done. They need to be told how well they've done. Then they need to be told one way that they can improve. All the mistakes they make don't have to be called errors and be pointed out to them. They can be told that there might be one way to improve what they wrote by following some rule. One rule a week will do it if you check that the previous week's suggestion is still being followed. Remember, patience and reinforcement are good for all of us.

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