By: Haley Garvin, The Village Tutors
When it comes to humanities-based subjects, writing is arguably the most complex process that we expect our students to master. Sometimes we forget that a child’s writing development runs parallel to his/her reading development. To study and practice writing is to also study and practice reading skills. These two cannot be taught or mastered on their own.
So why does this matter?
We’ve all seen student essays that feel incomplete and disjointed. But correcting students’ written work and smoothing out their essays is no easy task. Supporting young writers as they navigate the writing process can feel laborious. Sometimes the more we try to help a child write, the further from the finish line we can become. I’ve heard from many parents that helping their child with essays or written work can be stressful (or in some cases tearful!). But if we take a step back and consider how to combine writing with reading, we may help students grow more confident with their command and understanding of language. With the right instructional approach, writing can be enjoyable and effective. More importantly, a positive experience with writing for young learners can carve out space for students to feel heard. With a few small tweaks, we can support students as they find their own voice on the page.
Most of the time, the gaps in student writing are products of a narrow sense of audience. Simply put, students write for their teachers. They write to complete an assignment, which was set by the teacher. Their audience is way too narrow. It is no wonder then, that oftentimes, student writing reads like it is missing the point. We need to take a step back and introduce young writers to the concept of “reader” - the universal reader.
This means explicitly teaching “writing knowledge.” This term refers to the understanding of genre and discourse. Writing knowledge is the sense a learner gets when they realize that narratives and informational texts have unique and separate structures. But even more important than structure (which curriculum seems to stress) is the understanding of audience. Students need help considering and remembering audience in their own written work. They need to consider their reader.
They need to take care of their reader. Think of how we usually respond when students’ handwriting is illegible. We say, “How will your teacher know what you mean if he/she cannot make out these letters?” Because students learn at such a young age that their writing must make sense to their teacher, they develop a skewed sense of audience. Ideally, we want young writers to learn how to write for a much larger, wider audience. Ideally, a student’s writing will make sense to more than one person.
Helping our learners grow more aware of the connection between reading and writing will support their sense of audience. This awareness will arm students with an effective approach to their language-based assignments in any class.
These tips and tricks are a few ways we (as educators or parents) can help our students develop more sophisticated writing knowledge:
1. Read out-loud! One of the simplest ways to keep the writer’s presence alive and known for young readers is to give a text a voice. Bonus! - extra fluency practice too! Reading should be treated like an active dialogue with the writer. Bring that dialogue to life with a real human voice. Listen to the text. Hear the cadence of its written voice. Reading out-loud is fun and engaging. Plus, students don’t get enough opportunities to do this in school. Read poetry, read stories, read articles, read everything. And take time to appreciate how a text sounds. This will begin to demystify the illusive “writer” who lives behind the text itself.
2. Write letters! Letters have the built-in luxury of a specific and intended “reader” which brings that relationship to the front of students’ minds. When students write letters (maybe to friends, to family, to heroes or celebrities), they are NOT writing directly for their teacher. This is great because it means students are more aware of their audience and how the words on the page are going to be understood (or misunderstood) by a reader. Do your teachers a huge favor and teach your student how to write an effective email! More than ever, students are expected to reach out to their teachers with questions. With remote learning, this means writing an email. But writing emails means writing clearly. Something as simple as a subject line can feel obvious to adults, but students need help unpacking the significance of these tools. Even the most tech-savvy students need help understanding how to make their writing work for them.
3. Practice writing in the third-person. Students feel very comfortable writing in the first person. We speak in the first-person, so writing in the first-person is a natural leap. But writing in the first-person becomes a “crutch” for our students who struggle with argument-based writing (especially the dreaded DBQ). Third-person writing demands greater control and a stronger appreciation for audience. Just switching the point-of-view can immediately push students in the right direction. Try eliminating I, me, my, we, us, etc. and see how students will stretch for new ways to make their point.
4. Replace“teacher as reader” with something more tangible and manageable for students. I use this little trick for all my students, but especially for students who are trying so hard to make their writing “sound smart.” I urge them to write so that a student one year younger could understand their ideas. The “one-year-younger-reader” really works magically! This helps students make adjustments for the sake of clarity. What would they change? Where might they slow down and explain their thinking more? For all subjects, we can use a scale to gage student mastery. Students can choose from these options: 1 = I’m totally lost 2 = I’m starting to get it 3 = I feel I understand most of this 4= I’m able to do this on my own now 5 = I can teach a friend how to do this! We use this to help students realize their own mastery but also to catch gaps in understanding. This tool can be leveraged for writing too. When students write only for their teacher, their writing often makes too many big assumptions. “My teacher will know what I mean here,” leads to unclear language and disjointed writing. If students write for a less educated audience, their writing will have to be extra-clear. Students are often amazed when they realize their work actually sounds smarter when they adjust their audience this way.
5. Creative writing! Students absolutely love creative writing. But a blank page is scary. So give students the freedom to write what they want, but provide a few thought-provoking prompts or questions. Creative writing naturally feels intended for a wider audience. This is also a great space to experiment with voice and humor, which helps students appreciate the reader-writer relationship.