Writing Skills: Start with the Basics to Improve Your Child’s Skills
Of the many things we want our kids to do well, writing clearly may be the most important. No matter our profession or place in life, being able to put sentences together in a way that makes sense is a critical ability. It’s also one of the hardest things to teach. Any middle school educator can speak to the hours spent reading, editing, and correcting the exact same mistakes, over and over again.
With any luck, you have solid partners in your child’s teachers, but as a parent you can play an important role in supporting and strengthening teachers’ efforts – if your kids will let you. Below you’ll find a list of common writing mistakes that kids make. For some of these, learning is accomplished through constant correction or memorization of rules. For many others, there’s a simple trick you can teach your child that will help them in school and all the way through adulthood — you may even find it beneficial in your own correspondence and content.
Common Writing Errors and Solutions
Spelling – Homophones are the biggest issue here. Students are increasingly relying upon spellchecking programs which will not catch correctly spelled words that are used incorrectly. The best way to teach your kids is through memorization and hacks. For example, when teaching the difference between “two’” and “too,” point to “two” referring to the number 2 and having the same starting letter as the word “twins.”
Capitalization – Not only do students tend to forget to capitalize the first word of a sentence, but they struggle with distinguishing proper nouns and capitalizing the beginning of dialogue. Many capitalize every letter in a word for emphasis. Learning proper use of capitalization is a matter of remembering rules, especially when it comes to proper nouns. If your child is struggling with this, ask them to try putting “the” or “a” in front of a word. If that sounds right, then the word is probably not a proper noun and shouldn’t be capitalized, though there are exceptions to this rule.
Punctuation marks – Students tend to learn punctuation quickly, but their proper usage can be a struggle. A period at the end of a sentence completes a thought but is often overlooked or skipped entirely. Ellipses are used appropriately to indicate a pause in thought, but students type them incorrectly: they should be entered as a space, three periods, and then another space. Children should be taught that question marks and exclamation points are used differently in writing assignments than in text messages and emails. They should only use one, and if they’re asking a particularly exciting question, they should use a question mark rather than combining a question mark and an exclamation point.
Apostrophes require a lesson unto themselves. Students need to be taught that when using an apostrophe in a contraction it is used to replace the missing letter. It is also essential that they understand the correct use of an apostrophe in the word “its.” If the word is being used as a contraction of “it is,” an apostrophe is required in place of the second “i.” If the word is being used as a possessive, no apostrophe is needed.
Some of the most common errors can be corrected with a simple trick that makes an enormous difference in writing quality. Run-on sentences with no comma before a coordinating conjunction; sentence fragments; no comma after an introductory phrase; and wordiness are all examples. So too are comma splicing, comma misuse in general, misplaced modifiers, and errors of agreement.
What’s the trick?
Tell your kids to read what they’ve written out loud, or out loud to themselves “in their heads.”
Before we learn to read, we learn to listen and speak. We learn correct word usage organically by how things sound, including where to pause when we’re telling a story and the correct verb tense to use. It isn’t until we try to put our thoughts down on paper that we start over-complicating. Kids get carried away on a stream of consciousness, excited by their ideas, or just anxious to put an assignment behind them. Just as you teach your kids to go back and check their math equations for careless errors, stress the importance of reading their own writing out loud, whether it’s a single sentence or a four-page book report.
There’s a good chance your kids will balk at this advice. They may accuse you of treating them like a baby, but you can tell them in all honesty that this particular exercise is practiced by journalists, authors, editors, and proofreaders all over the world. The ear will catch what the eye won’t, and spending a few minutes giving voice to writing has improved content of ‘real’ writers all over the world.
Of course, their objection to this advice highlights what is often the bigger challenge of helping your kids, whether it’s about becoming better writers or anything else. Once your child hits the terrible tweens, they are less likely to accept your help, or more accurately, to want anybody to think that they need help. That can be tremendously frustrating to a well-intentioned parent. If your child is resisting homework help, not even letting you read their assignments or book reports, then it may be time to let them know you’re there and ready if they want you, and then let them make their own mistakes.
Whoever said parenting is the hardest job in the world wasn’t kidding. Just keep reminding your kids that help is available and that you care. They’ll come to you soon enough.