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Learning to Write

Writing is one of the crucial skills that every child needs to develop. Here's how you can help your child succeed.

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Why is it so important that kids learn to write?

Two words: John Grisham. But even those not destined to churn out best-sellers will need to write in almost any occupation they choose.

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As the information age whisks us into the next century, an increasing number of jobs, no matter whether you're delivering pizza or the keynote address, will require good communication skills.

And, as computers get smarter, more and more standardized tests will increase the number of questions requiring a written response. The SAT now includes a writing segment and promises to add more as technology improves, according to Nancy Cole, president of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that administers the SAT and other tests.

But writing isn't just for taking tests and doing a job.

"It's a thinking mode," says Claudia Gentile, writing assessment coordinator of the NAEP. "Writing helps you learn how to think clearly and thoroughly."

Many schools have been working to improve students' writing. In fact, the one bright spot in the NAEP report was the indication that eighth graders, who have benefited from a few years of renewed commitment to writing in schools, are improving slightly. But it's hard to wedge writing instruction between everything else teachers are required to do. "Teachers don't have enough time to teach writing. Writing is not a subject," says Cole. "It's time-consuming to correct papers. Giving good feedback on writing is a lot different than correcting math problems," she says.

In other words, it may be up to parents to help kids become better writers.

Here are some tips from experts including Cole, Gentile, and Richard Sterling, director of the National Writing Project, a grassroots writing teachers' movement.

  • Since writing is so directly tied to reading, start by finding out what kinds of books your kids like to read, Sterling suggests. Jot down the books your child has read in the past three months and look for patterns. Talk about the books. Then talk about your child's writing, "not the grammar, but the ideas," he says.
  • Claudia Gentile believes that parents should ask their children about their writing every day. "Make a habit of saying, 'tell me what you wrote today.' "
  • Write to them. Leave a note that says, "I noticed that you did this and this and this." Kids are much more likely to write if their parents do.
  • Let them watch you compose all kinds of texts, from grocery lists to loving letters. Show letters to kids, those you're writing and those you've received. Also, keep a collection of letters the kids send and receive. It's a good way to see how they've grown.
  • Buy a computer and urge them to use it. Cole, at ETS, says the computer is doing for writing what the calculator did for math. "Keyboarding is really easier than handwriting. Mechanical aspects are becoming less important because those things are automated. The ideas are what will become important."
  • When your child is writing a book report, have her select a character from the book and rewrite the story from that character's point of view. Or, predict the character's situation 20 years from now and write about that.
  • For factual reports, Sterling believes that kids should look for information from a variety of sources -- not just encyclopedias. "Have your child make a list of everything he knows about the subject. Some facts might be wrong but that's okay. As you research, you find those things out and learn more."
  • Have plenty of paper and writing tools available.
  • Have your child interview older relatives at family reunions or parties. Write the information as an interview, then write it as a first-person story from the grandparent's point of view, says Gentile.
  • Encourage your kids to keep journals, and then honor their privacy. The whole family can participate in writing travel journals on trips.
  • And, finally, here's one that will help kids develop skills for writing persuasive papers: Ask your middle school and high school students to put their arguments with you in writing. As their skills improve, maybe they'll win one now and then.
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