By Dr. Raymond J. Huntington
Many students who have heard about the new writing section on the 2005 editions of the SAT and ACT might feel as if they’re approaching some kind of academic “doomsday” that will be triggered by jumbled thoughts, a blank page and a ticking clock. While this is certainly a frightening scenario for struggling writers with college in their sights, every student should take the initiative to learn more about what will be expected – and how they can best prepare. This means talking with guidance counselors about the exams, and about any test preparation help that might be available. It means having candid conversations with English teachers to discuss any academic deficiencies that might negatively impact scores. And for many, it could mean taking on extra work to strengthen the basic composition and grammar skills that are required for top performance on both exams.
But high school students aren’t the only people who should be concerned with writing skills. In fact, the best way to improve these skills is to concentrate on them beginning in the early grades and strengthen them through schoolwork and daily activities throughout the K-12 years. Developed with support from the U.S. Department of Education, the following tips could be useful for parents and family members who want to help students build these skills.
For elementary school children:
- Encourage a love of storytelling, which can enhance your child’s desire to “get it down on paper.” Spark your child’s imagination by making up stories together. Start off with a colorful or even crazy idea, as in “once upon a time there was a black dog with white spots who lived in a tree house . . .” Ask your child to make up the next sentence, which will be followed by a sentence you create. Continue taking turns until the story reaches a conclusion.
- Have fun and read together. Reading skills can have a direct impact on writing skills, and children who truly enjoy reading tend to build their skills by reading more often. Reading stories with enthusiasm, making facial expressions and mimicking characters’ voices, can make reading more fun.
- Make practice a priority. Find ways for your children to write about things that impact their lives. Hang a family message board where children can write down special requests. Require your child to acknowledge gifts with thank-you notes. Tell your child to write down the details of dreams, descriptions of family vacations, and reasons why they have selected certain teachers as their favorites. Activities such as these can build skills in a non-stressful way, and spark the urge for self-expression through writing.
For middle and high schoolers:
- Encourage writing to express feelings. Keeping a diary or journal can be a very effective way to encourage self-expression and strengthen writing skills. Writing about personal feelings, successes and disappointments can also help students resolve conflicts. When people write about things that concern them, they’re more apt to strive for “just the right words” to describe how they’re feeling.
- Encourage writing to make a case. The next time your child expresses a point of view or petitions you for a special favor or privilege, pull out a pen and see how well the case can be made on paper. A five-paragraph essay can be a good model, with the first paragraph stating the child’s desire or point of view, the next three paragraphs (or sentences) providing supporting evidence for that point of view, and the last paragraph summarizing the key point and supporting evidence. Many teachers find the five-paragraph essay to be a good tool for helping students organize their thoughts, so these skills can have a direct impact on writing proficiency and performance.
- Reinforce the role of writing and learning. As students reach middle and secondary school, homework assignments tend to require more reading and analyzing. After reading a chapter or an important section of an assignment, students should create a “notes page” summarizing the key facts and restating, in their own words, the most important points to remember. This process enhances retention and strengthens writing skills as well.
Students who really want to improve their writing skills should keep in mind that this is one task where you really will “learn by doing.” They should also remember there are significant rewards for young people and adults who write well. From letters to prospective employers, to office correspondence, to communications with friends and family, the ability to use written language effectively has a remarkable impact on our professional and personal success.
Dr. Raymond J. Huntington and Eileen Huntington are co-founders of Huntington Learning Center, which has been helping children succeed in school for more than 26 years. For more information about Huntington, call 1 800 CAN LEARN.