BY MICHAEL BENDER
Many parents are reluctant to help their children improve their writing skills out of an abundance of caution. Unlike math, writing can involve a fair amount of subjectivity. Most of us have long forgotten the rules of grammar, and we are hesitant to explain language mechanics that we now take for granted. Yet, it is essential that every parent help their children with school writing; nearly every parent is competent to do so.
Despite headlines such as, “Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad,” school systems are trying to improve curriculum as classes grow larger, and budgets are constrained. Yet, in spite of these efforts, the Department of Education reported in 2012 that only 24 percent of 8th grade and 12th grade students are actually proficient in writing. Last month, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation) reported that the U.S. ranked 15th in literacy skills among adults in 23 advanced economies. Only U.S. workers ages 45 to 65 were above the international average; younger workers, aged 16 to 34, were below the international average.
Today’s most sought-after jobs are highly competitive and demand excellent communication skills. Many employees spend the balance of their time working with people they may never see. In such an environment, excellent writing skills are more critical than ever.
In 1975, Newsweek ran a cover story, “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” warning that writing skills were declining: “Educators agree that it is absolutely essential to make students write. That’s the only way they learn,” said Eunice Sims, “… students still should write as often as possible.”
Parents have the advantage of being able to work with their children on a one-to-one basis, providing an atmosphere of constructive help before their children submit or present their work in class. There is no substitute for the teacher, but parents can and should build and enhance their children’s writing skills.
When writing deficiencies are noted, such as lack of elaboration or insufficient details, do not focus on placing blame. Instead, parents should:
Tip 1: Explain the importance of writing.
Parents should tell their children about how important writing has been to their success and explain the writing challenges parents have faced. If a child has a career in mind, be sure to describe the writing demands he or she will face in that environment. Remind children that writing tells as much about them as their clothes do!
Tip 2: Have children read books and stories aloud and often.
When we hear someone read aloud, we can detect not only words that they do not understand (often based on their pronunciation), but also we can “hear” their use of grammar through appropriate pauses, exclamations and questions. Reading speed is also important: If a child reads too slowly, their brain may be racing ahead; if they are reading too quickly, they may not comprehend what they are reading, and they may be ignoring spelling.
Tip 3: Ask your child to read their essays aloud when they are satisfied they are in final form.
Students frequently catch run-on and fragmented sentences when they read aloud, something that does not always happen when they read to themselves. When they finish, ask them the classic who, what, when, where, why and how questions so they understand that while they may know what they are describing, the reader may not.
Tip 4: Demonstrate the importance of learning punctuation.
A simple example goes a long way. The exact same words, spoken or written, can have different meanings based on punctuation and capitalization as Maity Schrecengost elegantly pointed out in Writing Whizardry: 70 Mini-lessons to Teach Elaborative Writing Skills:
No Fishing Allowed.
No fishing allowed.
No. Fishing Allowed.
Tip 5: A thousand words are worth a picture.
Ask your child to find pictures and write descriptions that will help someone (a peer, relative or friend) draw a picture from their written description.
Tip 6: Encourage your child to take ownership.
Have your children write and sign every essay with the following: “I have carefully proofread and revised this essay to the best of my ability.” After you review their essays two or three times, they will get the message not to be too hasty in submitting their essays in school.
Michael Bender is an author, presenter, consultant and language arts instructor. He has been engaged in international business and cultural activities for more than 30 years in the private and public sectors. He also served as a foreign-service officer in the Middle East and Africa. Michael is the director and co-founder of the Linguizz Center of Excellence and has recently conducted seminars on language, communication skills and culture at the World Bank and Virginia International University.
Why Johnny Can’t Write, and Why Employers Are Mad
OECD Skills Outlook 2013
National Assessment of Educational Progress: The Nation’s Report Card, Writing 2011