Note: The article refers to male students, but all activities and suggestions apply to boys and girls alike.
By the time American students graduate from high school, they are expected to have learned how to write effectively for a variety of purposes, from writing letters and stories to essays and research reports. Many middle and high school students dislike writing, however, and students who are learning English as a second language may have particular difficulty with writing. In this article we will discuss some of the reasons that older students may want to avoid writing, as well as some ways that you can help your teen become a better writer.
- They have a hard time getting started and feel overwhelmed by the task.
- They need to concentrate to form letters: it is not an automatic process.
- They struggle to organize and use mechanics of writing.
- They are slow and inefficient in retrieving the right word(s) to express an idea.
- They struggle to develop their ideas fluently.
- They struggle to keep track of their thoughts while also getting them down on paper.
- They feel that the process of writing on paper is slow and tedious.
- They feel that the paper never turns out the way they want.
- They realize that the paper is still sloppy even though substantial time and effort were spent.
- They are dysgraphic, which means that they have extreme difficulty writing legibly as a result of processing problems at the basic cognitive level.
- They are dyslexic, which causes very poor spelling and interferes with automatic use of writing mechanics.
Tips for Parents
What are some things that you as a parent can do to support your struggling and/or reluctant teenage writer? Here are a number of suggestions adapted from parent writing guides created by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Great Schools, and Colorín Colorado to help you get started.
On a day-to-day basis
- Practice, practice, practice
Writing takes practice! Let your teen see you write often and encourage him to write often, too. At-home writing might include e-mails, instant messaging, thank-you notes, scrapbook descriptions, diaries, and what's-for-dinner notes. (NCTE)
- Try writing for different audiences
Encourage your teen to expand his range and abilities by writing for many different audiences. He could try a letter to the editor or to a legislator, a silly story for his younger sister, or a "top ten" list to cheer up a sick friend. (NCTE)
- Make language fun
Have fun with language yourself and share that sense of play with your teen. Point out new words and phrases you come across in the newspaper or on the radio; share favorite song lyrics; get creative in naming a new pet or in writing gift cards. (NCTE)
- Offer your teen many opportunities to read
Offer your teen a wide variety of opportunities to read, both educational and entertaining, and pass on your own favorite authors, novels, and magazines to show him you're a reader, too. Discuss the things those things you've both read. (NCTE)
- Encourage your teen to examine different styles of (and reasons for) writing
Encourage your teen to compare the styles of different authors, and to compare how a newspaper editorial may be different than a website or an instruction manual.
- Encourage your teen to pursue forms of writing that interest him
If your teen has found a form of writing that he enjoys, encourage him to pursue it whether it's poetry, journal and letter writing, or writing on the internet. If your teen is learning English, you may wish to encourage him to practice writing informally in his first language as a way to become familiar with basic writing skills. However, when writing assignments in English, students should write directly in English, rather than writing in their native language first and then translating the assignment into English as their vocabulary will probably be much larger in their native language and they may not be able to translate everything they write.
- Encourage your teen to write about personal thoughts and interests
Encourage your teen to use writing to think more deeply about things in his life questions, problems, difficult assignments, hobbies, and topics he wants to learn more about. Writing regularly in a journal may provide a valuable outlet and space for him. (NCTE)
- Make sure your teen has what he needs to write
Support your teen by making sure he has adequate materials for writing (sufficient paper, pens, pencils, etc.), as well as a quiet place to work. If your teen must write an assignment on a computer and you don't have a computer at home, check with the school's computer lab to see if he can complete assignments in the lab, or check computer availability at your public library. In addition, make sure he has a good Spanish/English dictionary in order to translate new vocabulary, and help him learn how to use it.
- Take your teen to the library
Help your teen obtain the resources needed to complete any writing assignments by taking him to the library, especially if he is working on a research report. While some resources may be available online, many will only be available at the library.
- Communicate with your teen's teacher
If your teen is struggling with his writing, talk with his teachers to find out ways that you can help his efforts at home.
- Support your teen's efforts to learn English
If your teen's writing problems are related to a limited English-language proficiency, ask his teachers what you and your child can do to improve his English reading and writing skills.
Before starting a writing assignment
- Ask your teen how you can help
Start by asking your teen, "How can I help you?" As a coach, your role is to listen and help your teen figure out what he is trying to say.(GreatSchools)
- Help your teen brainstorm
If your teen has trouble getting started writing, suggest he try brainstorming, jotting lists of ideas, or talking through his thoughts with you or a friend. Sometimes just spending 15 minutes writing anything and everything (including "I don't know what to write.") loosens up the very ideas needed for the piece. It may also be helpful to preview specific vocabulary that they will need in order to write about the assigned topic. (NCTE)
- Help your teen learn to draw from his own experiences
Encourage your teen to draw from his experiences and to make an assigned topic his own. If a student can connect with a topic, he may feel more motivated about the writing assignment. (NCTE)
- Help your teen clarify the assignment
Make sure your teen understands what they are supposed to write about. Ask your child to explain the assignment to you. If he can't, ask him if he has a written assignment sheet from the teacher. If not, have him get the assignment from a friend. (GreatSchools)
- Help your teen clarify the content that he will write
Some students struggle with writing because they haven't thought about what they want to say or don't know how to organize their ideas effectively. Ask your teen to tell you the main point he wants to make. If he can explain her ideas verbally first, the writing will be easier. Ask him to tell you examples or anecdotes that support that main point. That will help her think through how she'll support her main point, or thesis. If your teen is reacting negatively to an assignment, ask him to tell you why. If you help him think her ideas through, he may be able to write an effective paper based on his objections to the assignment. (GreatSchools)
After completing a writing assignment
- Point out the strengths of your teen's writing
Find three strengths in your teen's writing and point them out. Always start with strengths. Look for concrete details, sentences that are clear, words that are vivid, and praise them when you find them. Point to the phrase, sentence or paragraph and read it aloud. Tell him why it's effective: "I really like the way you understand the main character of the book," or "I love the colorful details in that sentence." You'll be showing him that writing isn't a mystical process but one that requires skills that he can master. (GreatSchools)
- Help your teen understand the value of the process of writing
Help your teen see the value of clarifying his ideas, drafting, and revising before he attends to the mechanics. Writing is a process of developing and drafting ideas, then revising, and, finally, editing for correct grammar and spelling. (NCTE)
- Help your teen evaluate the accuracy and relevance of his main idea
Check the evidence. Do the examples or anecdotes support the main idea? Are they accurate? Are they lively? Did your teen use reliable resources? If your teen is having trouble here, ask him to take a minute and tell you about the scene or event he's describing as if he were a reporter, using the 5 W's and H: who, what, when, where, why and how. (GreatSchools)
- Help your teen check the organization of the assignment
Review your teen's work to see if the writing is well-organized. If the assignment is an essay, see if the teacher has given specific instructions about the introduction, body paragraphs or conclusion. Go over the sequence of ideas in each paragraph your teen has written. Can you follow the thinking or are there missing steps that you need to understand his logic? Are transitions needed to link the paragraphs together? Talk about paragraphs that work well, identifying why they are effective. Discuss how the introduction and conclusion relate to the topic. Does the writer draw in the reader with the introduction? Does the conclusion include the thesis and sum up the main ideas? (GreatSchools)
- Encourage your teen to read his assignment out loud
Listen to your teen read the piece of writing aloud without interrupting. Writing is hard work that requires concentration. If you interrupt, you risk interfering in your child's thinking process. (GreatSchools)
- Ask your teen to explain sections that you don't understand
If something is unclear ask for more information. Ask questions about what your teen is trying to communicate. Tell him if there's something you'd like to know more about, an idea that's not fully expressed. Don't criticize or give the answer, but help him find his own answers. If you respond to his writing as a reader, you'll be showing him that writing is a way to communicate ideas to an audience. (GreatSchools)
- Give your teen lots of positive feedback
Support your budding writer. If your teen chooses to share his writing with you, point out specifically what you like best about the piece. Rejoice in effort, delight in ideas, and resist the temptation to be critical. Make it clear that you are always interested in reading any writings that he wants to share with you. (NCTE)
- Don't focus on the mistakes on a rough draft
Don't correct grammar or mechanics on a rough draft. Your child may correct his own rough-draft errors as he revises her writing, particularly if you encourage him to read him work aloud to you or to himself/herself. If your child makes a consistent mistake in mechanics at this stage, though, see if he knows how to correct it. If he doesn't, give him the correct form. On the final draft, encourage your teen to edit his own work. Resist the temptation to make the paper "perfect" from your point of view. (GreatSchools)
- Give your teen a special place to keep his writing
Provide a special writing folder or notebook for your teen and encourage him/him to save writings in it. Nothing can replace the good feeling of reading something we wrote months ago and rediscovering how good it is. (NCTE)
- Respect your teen's writing
Respect your teen as a writer. What and how to revise is his choice, not yours. The "voice" he uses should be hiss, not yours. Offer a suggestion, and remember that he must learn to do the thinking and writing. (GreatSchools)
Writing does not come easily to many students, but with patience and your support, you may find that it comes a little more easily to your child than it used to!