February 25, 2010
Teaching writing can be daunting for homeschooling parents, especially if your own background in writing is a bit shaky. How do you know what to focus on to help your child improve their writing skills?
Clear feedback is critical. Teaching them how to review their own work is even more helpful. Luckily, both activities use the same basic skillset. How do you develop this skillset?
Well, you could try to master the endless minutiae of writing. But, if that idea gives you a migrane, I recommend concentrating on getting your arms around a digestible set of guidelines that have high impact on any writing project.
Master the following 5 steps for effectively revising written work, and both you and your students can be on your way to writing success.
Check for flow
Each paragraph should have a piece of the overall message, working in harmony to form a cohesive whole. When you review written work, spelling and grammar are the errors most likely to jump off the page. Some of the most meaningful critiques, however, will revolve around the flow of your document. Remember that the goal of all writing is to communicate a message. If paragraphs don't lead the reader from one point to the next, the message will become disjointed. A good tip is to have your budding writer read through their entire paper out loud. Ideas which may not lead logically from one to another will become more readily apparent to the ear than to the eye.
Keep it active
Verb choices should convey action. The passive verbs (look for forms of 'to be' – is, was, are) are best used when other options aren't useful. Look at the following two sentences:
"The best thing about writing is that I can help people."
"I love the fact that my writing helps others."
Which sentence pulls you into the student's message more? Which is more interesting? State of being verbs have their place, but first make sure you don't have another, more active option available. Have students practice reading through their writing to find passive usage, and then brainstorm for a more active verb choice.
Can you make it shorter?
Always analyze written work for thorough brevity. Say what you have to say in the least number of words that maintain the integrity of your message. For example, here are two sentences:
"The president was trying to decide whether or not to create a new department."
"The president pondered whether to create a new department."
Neither of these sentences is wrong. The second sentence, though, is less cluttered and more to the point. Brevity and (thorough) simplicity are key to both effective factual writing and engaging creative writing. Train students to analyze their work for opportunities to reduce an idea for clarity.
Simplify the language
Written communication is all about conveying a message, not about communicating the size of the author's vocabulary. We all enjoy choices, and language offers us many. The trick is to make good ones. Avoid being verbose, or trying to sound smart by using big words. Choosing the right word is more important than choosing a large word. Vocabulary studies come in handy for this point. Similar to a toolbox, having a strong vocabulary gives your child the ability to use word meanings and nuances to the benefit of their message.
It's all in the details! Now, it's time to address grammar, spelling, noun/verb agreements, etc. While these may seem like fussy details, remind your student that these pieces put the polish on their work. Errors in writing serve as distractions to the reader. They also erode credibility and incline the audience to dismiss the message. Your son or daughter has worked hard to craft a message. Encourage them not to let their message get lost because of an inattentiveness to details. Like cleaning old silver, the finishing work is what makes the message shine!
While not an exhaustive treatise on writing, this list covers the big rocks of the revision process. If you tackle these 5 pieces and master them, you are well on your way toward helping your children become more capable writers.