Parents: How to "Coach" English Composition?

By middle school, English class gets tough! I remember being in 7th grade in tears! Now, I am at that point with my daughter. So, how does a parent teach good writing…without writing it for the kid?!? I can’t seem to find a middle ground.

Specifically, how to write strong introductions, a strong thesis statement, a strong topic sentence, and strong conclusions?

I’m not a parent, but I am an English professor who teaches a lot of freshman comp. Honestly, I don’t think you need to teach writing. That’s the school’s job, and besides, it’s pretty damn close to unteachable. People learn to write by reading – a hell of a lot – and writing and writing and writing a lot of very bad prose, and getting feedback on their writing, and writing some more, and finally writing something halfway decent. There are NO shortcuts, and students have to get a lot of bad essays out of their system before they can write a good one. Pretty much the only think you can do is a) stand aside and let your kid make her own mistakes; and b) have a house full of books, and read them often, in front of the kid, and with apparent enjoyment. (I wish to God more than one in a hundred of my students had a parent who could model the second part.)

It is so hard to stay out of it though. My kids even have the luxury of 16 kids to a class and I still think the teachers don’t spend enough time with the individual student to work out the kinks in their writing.

One thing the school does which I think is great, is they allow the student to hand in a draft a few days before the due date. The teachers don’t offer as much constructive criticism as I think they should but it is helpful. My husband keeps trying to get them to give their assignments to me to proofread but they get pretty testy with my input!

I learned the hard way not to interfere too much. In grade 6 my daughter got a “well done” certificate for an essay that I had pretty much rewritten because it was so appalling. So yeah, they need to make their own mistakes. I’ve learned to help them just with the spelling and grammar because it is not taught so those failings aren’t really their fault and let the teacher deal with style and composition.

It’s also difficult to know what the standard should be at a certain age. We might think the writing is pretty bad but at their age level it might actually be pretty good.

I’m trying to get my 8 year old to practise by writing letters. (and I’m looking for penpals for her if anyone is interested)

I will also ask her to tell me about stories and her day…and I tell her to tell me first and then write it.

My personal belief is that practise is what makes the difference, and its all about not being scared to get your thoughts on paper.

I will only correct grammar and spelling, try not to touch sentence structure or anything else.

I teach junior English in a writing intensive course, and my best advice would be to keep your standards low, work on just a few things at a time, and focus on what they do well. Writing is hard, and since there is always room for improvement, it’s really easy to have a kid leave every tutoring session feeling like they just suck at this and everything they do is a disaster. There’s also only so many times you can usefully revise things before you are so sick of them they make you want to throw up.

I guess what I am saying is that what you are seeing as “not enough feedback” may be more “targeted focus on specific skills”, which I think is a much better way to work.

I have learned two surprising things in the thousands of essay conferences I have done:

  1. Kids have no ability to detect when they are writing well, or to distinguish their good writing from the bad. They need the good pointed out.

  2. Kids don’t generally reread their own writing: at most, they very lightly skim it. They don’t understand how poor the passages sound: like a shower singer, what’s happening in their head is really different than what is actually being produced.

So, the things I would suggest:

  1. Read their drafts aloud to them, and have them read the drafts back to you. Resist the urge to edit/correct. Let them hear what’s there, which will teach them to hear it for themselves.

  2. Make sure you compliment what is done well.

  3. Tell them which lines have grammar errors and let them do the actual correction. Discuss the rule that applies only after they have found the spot, and correct the correction as needed. If you don’t know the rules, you just know what’s needed, you either need to learn them or butt out: you can’t teach them the principles if you don’t know.

You need motivated kids. You can’t just shove grammar down their throats if they don’t want to swallow grammar.

If they’re motivated, they will read. Voraciously. And want to replicate what they read. If they do, you can have them do modeling exercises–I was lucky, my oldest girl read Shakespeare when she was in grade school, and decided to write an imititation of Hamlet for fun. When she did, I complimented her profusely (and stifled my laughter at a 7-year-old’s comical attempts to imitate Shakespeare) and pointed out a few things Shakespeare had done that she hadn’t quite gotten. She re-wrote her play, and got those elements a little closer.

So figure out what your kid enjoys reading and see if he/she wants to try a hand at imitating that model. I’ve adapted Ben Franklin’s method of teaching himself to write, which employs the modeling I’m describing briefly here, and you can too.

Sentence modeling is a really good idea: Don Killgallon has written a bunch of books/workbooks for all levels on this. You might find the elementary ones a decent place to start if your kids are struggling.

Absolutely agree ! Practice writing is what will make the difference. I tutor jr. high and high school kids, and most of the writing is pretty bad. But the ones who blog, write a lot of e-mails, etc. are clearly ahead of the game.
When I was in 7th grade, I remember having to write in a journal every day. I never saw the point, and thought it was a waste of time. But now I see the value.

By 7th grade kids can express themselves verbally pretty well. But there is a “hurdle” to overcome when putting one’s thoughts down on paper. Practice writing is the BEST way to get kids comfortable expressing themselves in words, IMHO. Reading will help with expanding their vocabulary, but I think just simply writing is the best way to improve writing.

Writing rubrics can be a big help, if they’re good. They give specific things to aim for and check, and parse them into grading categories that most readers can consistently assign once they know the system. From there, you can look at which parts need the most work - grammar, word use, structure, audience, formality, et cetera. At seventh grade, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ding them on logic or rhetoric unless it’s clear that they’re just pulling stuff out of their hat.

It’s also important to find something the student has some amount of interest in. It’s hard enough writing a five paragraph persuasive essay on a topic you enjoy. By the time you’ve done all your research and arranged your information and revised your thesis, you end up hating the stuff. If you already hate it, you’ll never get to the end of the process.

The trick is, though, that you need to point out at least twice as many good things as you do bad things.

The other thing I’ve found helpful is to find examples of real world writing - editorials, columns, blogs, letters to the editor, even message board posts - and have the student read and critique it. Mediocre examples are better than good examples, because it gives the student a chance to find things to fix.

It depends on what you want to help them with.

Grammar: Hard to do. That’s the school’s job. You need worksheets.

Style: Hard to do. They have to read, and read diversely in order to pick up on the nuances of style.

Format: Easy. Stress an outline. Thesis. 3 supporting statements. Conclusion. You can practice this by googling essay prompts. Then running through a few with your kid - writing only an outline. Just really roughly ask “Where do you stand on this topic? Why? Put that into a sentence and you’ve got your thesis. Can you come up with 3 examples that support what you just said? Can you come up with a sentence that summarizes what you’re trying to say?” and BOOM. Outline done. Move on to the next topic. You can easily go through 3-5 of these in a relatively short period of time.

Even though this applies mostly to the essay, thinking logically and in chunks lends itself to more organized writing in other forms.

I had a 9th grade teacher who really whipped us into shape. He had us write a standard five paragraph essay, every day, for a month.

He had a list of rules…thesis underlined, no use of “I”, no spelling mistakes, no use of “thing”, not even as “everything” or “something,” etc. If you broke a rule, your paper was publicly wadded up and thrown out. If you wrote what looks like an essay and didn’t break the rules you got full points. We did this day after day for a month.

At the end of the month, we were broken of our bad habits, and could write a standard structure essay in our sleep.

Later on, of course, we learned about style and exceptions to the rules. But first, you have to be able to bang out a reasonable five paragraph essay without thinking about it.