Everyone knows that professional writers find someone else to read their words before they share their work. I believe that student writers should have the same opportunity before they submit their papers to the teacher. As a parent, you can help your son or daughter with writing assignments in a way that is productive, respects your child’s ownership of his or her work, and avoids some common pitfalls that can occur when your child asks you for help.
Think like a coach, not an editor
A writing coach is not an editor. Editors correct and replace text. Coaches guide writers and offer suggestions from the sidelines. A writing coach can create an ideal environment that that will help move a writer forward with resolve, fluency and confidence. You can be an effective writing coach by guiding your writer through the thinking and writing process, and then offering suggestions.
The four R’s: Remember, Respect, Resist, Realize
Remember that this is your child’s writing assignment, not yours. Respect your child’s ability to complete the assignment. Resist the temptation to change too many words or rewrite sentences. Finally, realize that most teachers can tell when adults have stepped in and rewritten paragraphs of a student’s work. With those ideas in mind, I offer my most important tip first.
1. Less is more.
In my work as a writing tutor, I know that inundating a student with more than three major suggestions is a bad practice. Even if you notice 20 things that are “wrong” with what you see (or don’t see) do not address all of them. Limit yourself to three pieces of constructive criticism. If you offer more than three, it is likely that your child will become overwhelmed and conclude that the task is too daunting to continue, which is the last thing a writing coach wants. When I work with students, first I ask them what they want me to address. Even if I don’t have an immediate answer to their question, this approach shows them that I am interested in their thoughts and self-evaluation. Next, I tell them what I will also be looking for as I read their work.
2. Discuss the assignment together.
If your child has not thought much about the assignment when you sit down to help, read and discuss it together. This practice is a great way for students to understand what is being asked of them and requires them to explain it to another person. First ask your child to identify the key words and requirements of the assignment. Talk about what those words mean in general, and what they mean within the context of the assignment. Then ask your child to write down or tell you his or her ideas.
3. Use the key words as a starting point.
Once your writer has identified the key words of the assignment, it is usually a small step from there to writing a thesis statement. Fluency is key. Ask your child to write, draw, speak or move: whatever it takes to get your child to eventually put the words in a sentence. For talkative students, it can be helpful for them to narrate their ideas before writing. If your child comes up with a great word, sentence or phrase during your conversation, say “Great! Write that down” or write it down yourself. For more reserved students, it may be helpful to ask your child to write first, then read aloud.
4. Ask your child to create a writing plan.
For some students, creating a formal or brief outline can be helpful. Others may like graphic organizers that look like the spokes of a wheel, a hamburger, etc. Ask which format works best for your writer. Consider first jotting down outline ideas as your child describes them to you, then ask your writer to construct a more formal plan if that is helpful to them.
5. Guide your writer through roadblocks.
If your child brings you a partial draft or complains of being “stuck,” help your writer find a solution. First ask: “why (or where) did you get stuck?” Then ask your child what can be done to regain momentum. Remember, this is what successful writers do: they figure out a way to move past their writing challenges. You are helping them solve the problem by beginning a dialogue and asking them to think more deeply and with greater precision. Finally, look at the partial draft and read it together, keeping the writer’s concerns in mind. After you both have read the draft, ask your writer questions like:
- Does everything still make sense?
- Should parts be revised?
- Is there another example that you could add to support your thesis?
- What else could you add/subtract to make your ideas more clear to the reader?
6. Use your pen or pencil sparingly.
If your child shows you a draft, first ask permission to write on it. Choose any color except red. Do not cross out text: underline only. Write sparingly in the margins, asking questions about sections that confuse you. Even if your child tells you that what you are about to read is not his or her best effort, the last thing writers want to see is a volcano of ink or lead on their draft. Making too many marks on a page may derail your writer’s flow and determination to work through any problems. Your job as coach is to keep the writer moving forward with resolve, whether that means abandoning ideas or developing them more fully.
I like to write comments or questions in the margins of a draft that require students to articulate their ideas more clearly. Comments and questions provide an important opportunity for the writer to think more deeply and write with greater precision. Think of yourself as the first reader who may not understand the writer’s ideas, but who wants to help find the right words to express them.
7. First offer true praise, then provide three suggestions.
In my two decades as a writing tutor, I have read strong drafts, poor drafts and everything in between. Sometimes I have trouble understanding the writer’s ideas. Nonetheless, I always begin my conversation with something specifically praiseworthy, even if it is: “I enjoyed reading your paper about your topic” or: “you have some interesting ideas” or, for longer papers: “I can tell you spent some time working on this.”
When providing feedback, limit yourself to only three suggestions. Here’s what I look for:
- a specific main argument/thesis
- how well the supporting evidence is developed
- how well I can follow the logic of the writer’s arguments throughout the paper
- patterns of grammatical error
8. Prize content over mechanics.
I mentioned above that you should limit what issues you will be addressing in the draft. Professional writing tutors like me talk about prioritizing “higher order concerns” over “lower order concerns.”
Higher order concerns address:
- meaning and word choice
- the paper’s overall organization and coherence
- proper citation (if applicable)
- how well the ideas are developed and argued.
Lower order concerns address:
- sentence and paragraph structure
Both are concerns are important, and you can address issues from both categories, just remember to prioritize which three are most important.
9. Regarding grammar: think patterns of error.
Here are my thoughts about grammar as it relates to writing assignments: as loving parents, you may think you are helping your child by pointing out every grammatical error you see on the draft. There is a good chance that your writer knows the rule; your child may simply have forgotten to apply it. The best way to address grammar in helpful way is to identify patterns of error. Say this: “I noticed this grammatical issue in several places in your paper. Do you know the rule?” If your child doesn’t, then provide assistance. Remember, this is a lower order concern. It is ultimately more important that you help your writer clarify and develop ideas than to go after every grammatical error.
10. If the system breaks down, hire a professional writing tutor.
I hope that the above tips are helpful. However, even if you offer these tips gently and lovingly, they can be difficult for your child to hear because they are coming from you. Ironic as it is true, sometimes children can only follow good advice when someone outside the family offers it. In that case, your best option may be to enlist the help of a professional writing tutor who has the expertise and experience to move your child forward in the writing process. Even after two decades, I still love working with young writers, and I delight in the opportunity to help them bring their words and ideas into