by Ken Lindblom
You want to make sure your child is getting an excellent education in writing. But if you’re not an expert, how do you really know? Here are four simple questions to ask your children about the writing that they are doing in their classes to determine if they are receiving an education in writing that is based on research and that reflects best practices for authentic writing.
Question 1: How many different genres are you writing in school?
The more genres your child is writing, the better.
Academic writing definitely matters. You want your child to be learning to write academic essays, literary analyses, and writing that will work for exams. But academic writing is just one color in the vast writing rainbow!
You want your child to be comfortable writing in many genres, and you want this for at least two reasons:
- Each genre of writing has different expectations for tone, style, format and conventions. The ability to write in more than one genre is not unlike learning to speak in more than one language. The more genres a writer is comfortable writing (and reading), the more varied his composing and thinking abilities and experiences are.
- When writers write in many genres, they develop a very keen and sophisticated understanding of writing. They learn that writing always has a specific purpose with a specific audience. Writers who can command many genres develop a meta-consciousness about writing that serves them well as they go further in their education and in their careers.
There are many genres in the world. Here are just a few to consider:
- Business Plans
- Short Plays
- Opening Statements (courtroom)
- Letters to the Editor
- Goodreads Book Reviews
- Comic Strips (Check out ReadWriteThink’s comic generator!)
- Song Lyrics
- A “4-Things Blog Post” (such as the one you are currently reading)
- Tweets (Yes, Tweets—and here’s why)
- Jokes, Humor Writing (See Bruce A. Goebel)
- Letters of Application
- Sports Articles
- PowerPoint or Prezi Presentations
Question 2: How often do you get to choose your own topic to write about?
Your child should frequently have the opportunity to choose his or her own topics.
Research shows that students are more engaged in their work when they have a choice about what they’re working on. Alfie Kohn has been extolling the virtues of student choice for decades. Too much unstructured choice (“Write about anything you want!”) can be overwhelming, of course, but selecting from a range of choices both motivates and guides.
Ultimately, you want your child to have a choice about the writing s/he does in his or her classes, so that s/he develops excitement and confidence as a writer. Choice about content and genre is often a part of writing workshop in schools, which entail student ownership and engagement in authentic writing with the guidance of their teachers. Developing writing abilities is tremendously important, and writing well across genres is a virtual superpower.
Question 3: What audiences are you writing to other than the teacher?
The more audiences your child mentions, the better. Many of us wrote only for teachers when we were in school, but most people in the world outside school don’t read like teachers. Students need many opportunities for write for different kinds of real-world audiences, so they have broad experiences in a variety of writing situations.
Your child won’t learn enough about writing if s/he is writing only for the teacher. Even very smart, well-experienced teachers can only respond to writing as themselves. To truly learn to be clear, engaging, and persuasive, writers must experience writing to many, many different people. Considering and tailoring writing to a specific audience is one way to engage in authentic writing. Listen to blogger Elena Aguilar: “[W]hat really motivated my students to write volumes of quantity prose was when they [wrote to] an audience with whom they genuinely wanted to connect.”
Here are just a few audiences your child could be writing to in addition to his or her teacher:
- Owners of a local business
- The principal or other school leaders
- Their Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Instagram followers and other social networks
- Readers of the school or local newspaper
- Readers of a blog
- Goodreads participants
- A local politician or celebrity
- You (your child’s parents or other relatives)
- Online game chat rooms
- A former teacher
Question 4: What kind of feedback are you getting on your writing?
There’s an important range of feedback that your child should be getting in response to his writing.
What’s the point of writing for many real audiences if you’re not getting any sense of how those audiences are responding to your writing? You want to make sure that your child is getting a lot of substantial feedback on his writing from a variety of sources, at least some of whom should be members of the very audience he’s intending to write for.
The best kind of authentic writing will result in something tangible that shows the writing was successful, such as a letter written in response, a change of a policy, a series of good questions (from an in-person audience), and so on. Of course, most school assignments receive grades, too, and those grades should be truly influenced by how well the piece of writing achieved its real purpose with its real audience. If your child’s teacher uses rubrics, look to see if the rubrics include criteria about audience reaction to the writing.
You also want to make sure that your child is not getting feedback only at the end of a writing assignment, feedback that essentially justifies the grade. This kind of feedback—called summative feedback—is important. But you also want to make sure that your child gets a good deal of feedback as s/he is composing and revising drafts. This kind of response, which occurs throughout your child’s writing process is called formative feedback, and it can come from a variety of sources—even other students. Getting formative feedback from a variety of people allows your child to learn to use others as resources for advice, and it also helps writers to learn to choose which advice to follow and which to reject. Just like writers in the world beyond school, your child will have to put up with the consequences, positive or negative, of his or her writing choices. That’s good!
Raising Discussion about Writing Instruction
I welcome parents—and students—to use these questions to explore the value they are deriving from their teachers’ efforts. If you are happy with the answers, terrific! If not, then perhaps you’ll want to use them to start a discussion at your school. After all, the best improvements in education often come from collaborations between educators and parents.
Editors’ Note: Check out our talking points on writing workshop for more ideas for conversations with your child’s teacher or administrator.
Ken Lindblom is Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean in the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University. From 2008-2013, he was editor of NCTE’s English Journal, and he is co-author with Patricia A. Dunn of Grammar Rants (Heinemann 2011). He’s active on Twitter @Klind2013, and blogs here.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.