How to Help Your Students Write and Think More Clearly
If you dread the idea of helping your child with a school writing assignment, relax. You don’t have to be a Hemingway or a grammar expert to provide guidance and encouragement. You just need to know what to look for and where to go for more help. So here’s a quick refresher on the six traits of good writing, along with a few tips for supporting your young writer at home.
What Is Good Writing?
You recognize a piece of good writing when you read it. The main ideas are clear and interesting. The organization guides readers logically to a satisfying, meaningful conclusion. The sentences flow smoothly with a rhythm that pleases the mind and the ear. The voice and word choice suit the writer’s audience and purpose. Respecting the conventions of punctuation and grammar throughout, good writing avoids distracting errors and possible misinterpretations.
If achieving all of those things sounds like hard work, that’s because it is. As author and historian David McCullough says, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” But that’s also why it’s so important.
Ideas: Where Good Writing Begins
When teachers assign a writing topic, they’re also assigning students an opportunity to think, to develop their own ideas around that topic. However, students get “stuck” at the idea-generation stage.
To help your students “get rolling,” try asking them questions about the purpose of the writing and its intended audience. Is the purpose, for example, to:
- tell a factual story or create a fictional story?
- describe a person, place, thing, or event?
- explain how to do something?
- state an opinion on a topic?
As for the audience, ask your student to consider:
- What do readers already know about my topic?
- Are there one or more facts that would really surprise or interest my readers?
- What do I want my audience to know?
As you try to help your students identify the main idea(s) for the assignment, encourage them to find the concrete details that can make the writing come alive and support their conclusions.
These ideas and details are the foundation of solid writing.
Organization: Framing Ideas Logically and Effectively
A well-organized piece of writing guides the reader through a story or argument with:
- a beginning that sparks the readers’ interest and clearly introduces the main idea(s) or theme;
- ideas arranged in a logical and interesting sequence, with one idea flowing smoothly to the next;
- an ending that neatly wraps up the preceding ideas and encourages the reader to think more deeply about the topic.
When your students ask for your help in reviewing an outline or a draft, look for these qualities. Ask leading questions about any missing steps in the chain of their argument or the order of information in that chain.
Remember: Writing is thinking. When you help students organize their writing more clearly, you’re also demonstrating how to think more clearly.
Voice: Expressing Yourself
Just as we recognize a favorite singer’s voice, we recognize a writer’s voice or tone. It arises naturally from his or her personality and worldview, expressing itself through language use, sentence rhythm, and word choice. It’s the difference between Adele and Jay-Z, between Jane Austen and Mark Twain.
Though voice should be true to the writer, it must also vary according to the writer’s purpose and audience. A joking, informal tone may be right for a student blog but wrong for that English term paper. For the latter, think rap versus opera.
Parents and Learning Coaches can help students find a voice that’s true to them and appropriate to an assignment. When helping your student with an assignment, consider:
- Does the writing “sound like” your student, and does it give the impression that your student truly cares about the topic?
- Can you detect a distinct personality behind the words?
- Is the tone appropriate for the subject, audience, and form (e.g., essay, story, blog post)?
Bear in mind that a writer’s voice develops over time and that it’s normal for students to experiment with different voices, even mimicking writers they admire. So be open and encouraging about this experimentation; it’s part of a writer’s development process.
Word Choice: Striking the Right Notes
Choosing the right word is like hitting the right notes in music. You want to avoid the “clunkers,” putting just the right word in the right place for the right audience.
When reviewing your students’ writing, you can help them spot the clunkers and fine-tune their choices by asking:
- Is this word too hard or too simple for the intended reader? Does it mean what you think it means? Let’s look it up!
- Are you repeating a particular word too many times in the same piece?
- Are your verbs strong and descriptive? (Think run versus sprint.)
- Have you used adverbs and adjectives sparingly and usefully? (Think run quickly versus sprint.)
- Have you introduced and, if necessary, defined unfamiliar words that add interest to the piece?
Writing is your students’ opportunity to learn new words and use common words in new and even playful ways. Encourage them to use the dictionary, paying attention to the origin or etymology of words, as well as the thesaurus. (At Connections Education, we recommend the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus.)
Sentence Fluency: Going for Flow
Sentence fluency refers to the rhythm and flow of words, sentences, and paragraphs. It’s about how writing “lays on the page” and “plays on the ear.”
In fluent writing …
- The beginning, length, and structure of sentences vary to engage the reader and avoid monotony.
- Rhythm, alliteration, and other effects are used to create tension and interest.
- The sentences are structured and properly punctuated to ease understanding.
- Sentences and paragraphs flow smoothly and naturally from one idea to the next.
Asking your students to read an assignment out loud is the easiest way to check for fluency. If they have difficulty “hearing while reading,” read the assignment out loud for them or record them reading it and play it back. Together, you should be able to spot when a sentence or phrase simply doesn’t sound right or when the writing jumps abruptly from one idea to another.
Scanning the pages visually can also tell you if the writing appears too dense, with too many long sentences, too little variation in structure, or too few paragraph breaks to read smoothly.
Conventions: Building Credibility, Avoiding Distractions
Think of the conventions or mechanics of writing as the rules of the road, helping writers and their readers arrive at a destination without unnecessary detours and confusion or misunderstanding. Varying somewhat based upon “road conditions” or the type of writing, conventions are not arbitrary. They serve a purpose:
- Punctuation makes it easy to tell where sentences begin and end with periods, question marks, and exclamation marks. It makes the parts of more complex sentences easy to follow with commas, colons, semicolons, and dashes.
- Capitalization signals the beginning of a sentence or makes proper names, places, and things recognizable to the reader.
- Spelling makes writing easier to understand and enhances the credibility of the writer and his or her point of view.
Keeping the purpose of these conventions in mind, you can help your students recognize when something just isn’t quite right with a sentence. When in doubt, you can always turn to …
Teachers: Your Ultimate Writing Resource
If all this sounds a little overwhelming, again, relax. As a parent and Learning Coach, you’re there to encourage your students and point them in the right direction. Your students’ teachers are their ultimate source for solid writing instruction. At Connections Academy®–supported schools, writing practice and skill development are incorporated into courses across the curriculum—from English to biology.
With solid instruction at school and some informed guidance and encouragement from you at home, your students will become better writers and clearer thinkers. What tips can you offer other parents for supporting good writing practices? Share your ideas in the comments.