Inspiring the Young Writers in Your Home

By Cathy Fleischer

Over the years as I’ve mingled with the other parents on the sidelines of soccer games or in line for school events, I’ve heard all kinds of talk about student writing:  from complaints about the impact of texting and video games to the perceived lack of grammar instruction in schools.  More often, though, I’ve heard parents truly baffled about what they could do to help their children and teens become better writers.

About 10 years ago that sideline talk turned into a specific request.  Knowing that I worked in English education at a local university, a few parents from my sons’ elementary school asked for my help:  Could I help them figure out a way to keep their kids writing over the summer? Enlisting my colleague Kim Pavlock (a former graduate student and a mom who had been hearing the same kinds of talk), we decided to get together in the school library one spring evening to talk with a group of 25 interested parents.  Kim and I shared some activities we had done with our own children and ways we integrated writing into our family life.  We translated what research tells us about writing into parent-friendly language and offered suggestions for how they might encourage and respond to their kids’ scribbles and poems and pictures and lists and letters. As the evening progressed, we learned so much from these parents: their fears and apprehensions about their own writing, as well as their successful moments as writers. . . and we began to imagine how working with parents in this way could make a real difference in helping kids learn to love writing from an early age.

This one magical evening has morphed into a project that has become a labor of love for Kim and me:  the Family Literacy Initiative that we run through the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, our local site of the National Writing Project.  We’ve developed a series of workshops that we offer at schools, libraries, and any other site that’s interested.  And each of the now hundreds of evenings has turned out to be equally magical:  parents (or any adults interested in the child’s life) turn out in groups of 10-25, sharing (sometimes reluctantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm) their own writing, seeking ways to turn writing into a part of their family life, and figuring out how to respond to their kids’ writing in positive and productive ways.

One part of the evening that families seem to particularly appreciate are ways to “Make Your Home Drip with Literacy.”

Here are some of the tips what we share:

1.  Let your child see you write.

You are your child’s first and best teacher!  When a child sees literacy modeled in the home, that becomes the norm for him or her.  So, let your child see you write . . . .

  • Grocery lists

  • Letters to friends

  • Holiday cards

  • Poems

  • Reports for work or school

2. Write to your child.

Children love to receive mail, and letters or notes from you model the value of writing.  Try out these ideas:

  • Drop a note in your child’s lunch box;

  • Tape a message to the refrigerator;

  • Put a letter under the pillow (especially if you will be away at bedtime);

  • Write a note of congratulations when they have achieved something special.

3.  Write with your child.

Children love to write with someone else.  Together you can write stories or poems or lists.  One of the best occasions to write together is to keep a journal with your child.  You might want to try these:

  • a family journal  in which each member of the family writes in the journal one day a week about what is happening at home, school, or work.

  • a vacation journal, in which, again, each family member writes about a different day of vacation.

4.  Provide real opportunities and audiences for your child’s writing.

Writing becomes very meaningful for most children when it’s authentic.  You can create these real situations out of almost anything:

  • Ask your child to write a grocery list for the items he or she wants from the store;

  • Encourage your child to write a letter to a friend who has moved;

  • Ask your child to make a list of the errands you are running that day that he or she can check off as you go;

  • Suggest your child write a schedule of a day at school so that you can imagine him or her there during the day;

  • Encourage your child to write a letter to a teacher or principal or another child if something happens that is distressing. . . or exciting;

  • Write a letter of complaint to a company when a toy breaks or a product doesn’t work the way it should;

  • Respond to an article in the newspaper by writing a letter to the editor;

  • Enter a writing contest;

  • Write holiday letters to friends.

5.  Provide space and tools for your child to write.

Writing is much easier if you have everything you need.  Provide your child with as many choices for writing equipment as possible:

  • paper of different sizes and colors;

  • pencils, pens, and markers;

  • erasers;

  • scissors;

  • stamps.

It’s also easier to write if you have a good writing space:  a desk or a table that is designated as a writing spot.

6.  Respond positively to your child’s writing.

  • For apprentice writers like our children, the name of the game is encourage, encourage, encourage.  Just as you didn’t correct every word that came out of your child’s mouth as he or she was learning to talk, you don’t want to correct every word that emerges on paper–even if it’s spelled wrong!

  • Talk to your child about the writing.  Tell him or her what you enjoyed about it;

  • Delight with your child over specific words, creative ideas, captivating images;

  • Ask questions about content if you have some.

  • Most of all, help your child to feel as if writing is fun!

Many other suggestions for parents can be found via these pages for parents, found at the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Writing Project, and ReadWriteThink.

Cathy Fleischer is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University where she teaches classes in English education and composition,  co-directs the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, and serves as Imprint Editor for NCTE’s Principles in Practice series.  Her most recent research focuses on ways teachers can go public with their work.

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8 thoughts on “Inspiring the Young Writers in Your Home

  1. What a terrific post on such a vital topic! Thank you for sharing these tips and successes. I don’t know what I would’ve done as a teen in high school if I hadn’t had my weekly writers’ critique group — just a small group of interested kids (some home schooled and some not) who enjoyed writing and would meet together at our local library to read and discuss our stories. These are great tips and innovative starting places — love it!

  2. Thanks! I am constantly amazed by the caring and commitment of the parents and families with whom we work. They are so receptive and excited to learn about ways to support their kids. It’s so much fun to work with them!

  3. The suggestions for forms of writing with the kids are fantastic. My son is in kindergarten and loves writing. I have been leaving him notes in his lunch, and now he wants to leave notes in my lunch. Today he told me he loves me and that he wants me “to be helthy.” We recently read about 3 men who died of heart attacks shoveling snow and it really bothered him. I am looking forward to writing a letter of complaint about a toy…and to the note in my lunch tomorrow.

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