Entries Tagged 'High school' ↓
April 7th, 2011 — Brainstorming, College Prep, Essays & Research Papers, High school
I recently overheard someone claim that teaching students to brainstorm is a futile exercise. “In the real world, no one actually brainstorms,” she said. “We just write.”
This statement surprised me, for it reminded me of taking a trip with little more than a vague notion of a plan (“I want to see the USA”). You can set off on your trek, but without a map, timetable, or sightseeing strategy, you’ll end up rabbit-trailing your way to your journey’s end.
While this may be fine for a bohemian, it can frustrate the traveler who really wants to visit a particular landmark but can’t find the turnoff; annoy her for missing some must-see points of interest because she lingered too long in a mediocre little town; and aggravate her when she finds herself going in circles. Worse, she could end up seeing nothing at all because she has absolutely no idea which way to go.
It’s fun to be spontaneous, but to get the most from a road trip, there’s nothing like an itinerary.
The Value of Brainstorming
Like a free-spirited traveler, a writer may have a general idea of where he wants to go. He may even know a point or two he wants to make along the way. But without a sense of direction, he too will miss important details, spend unnecessary time on a trivial side note, or spin his wheels in one rut or another.
One of the most valuable pre-writing tools for launching the writing process and avoiding other pitfalls is brainstorming.
Students often struggle with knowing how to move from a general topic to a written essay because that paralyzing blank page stands in the way. Brainstorming is a problem-solving process that helps you:
- Think freely and openly about your topic.
- Put pen to paper as you write whatever ideas come to mind.
- Explore possibilities and connections between ideas.
- Let new ideas form and shape old ones.
- Start to bring order and organization to your scattered thoughts.
Most importantly, brainstorming has no wrong answers. It allows you to think through your topic without fear of criticism or perfection.
3 Steps of the Brainstorming Process
- Free-listing: Free-listing helps you develop an initial page of ideas about the topic by writing absolutely anything—key words, phrases, examples, main points, subpoints, details, illustrations—that come to mind to jog your thoughts about your subject. Free-listing uses the heuristic inquiry, more commonly known as the 5 Ws (and an H)—who, what, when, where, why, how. Once this primary list is “complete,” note which of your ideas would qualify as main points or categories and which would be better suited as supporting details or examples.
- Mind-mapping: Next, filter your free-listing ideas through a semantic mind-map. A semantic mind-map is used to represent ideas, words, or thoughts that are connected to and organized around a central key word or concept. Mind-maps are designed to help create, visualize, classify, and structure ideas.
- Re-listing: Finally, organize your ideas according to the groups or clusters created by the semantic mind-map. Identify the central idea (main point) of the various clusters and list supporting details beneath and prioritize these clusters/main points into a logical order. Re-listing results in a rudimentary outline of your initial thoughts and ideas.
The brainstorming process reminds me of a coin-sorting machine. You start off with a jumbled, disorganized pile of coins (ideas). Nickels, dimes, quarters, pennies—there’s no rhyme or reason to their scattered placement on the kitchen table. This is your initial attempt at free-listing.
To start putting the coins in their appropriate place, you gather them up and put them into a coin-sorting machine (semantic mind-map). The machine divides the coins (ideas) by kind, just like the bubbles of a mind-map divide your ideas by category.
Finally, watch as your coins come out of the sorting machine in rows of quarters, dimes, and nickels neatly arranged (re-list). In this way, putting your ideas through a mind-map will help you rearrange them into newly organized lists that set the priorities for your paper.
Taking the Trip
You think about the gazillion places you want to visit; explore websites and sort through piles of travel brochures; plot out a route; and plan the details. Along the way you may take a detour or explore a new place, but you’ll never stray far from your original plan. Because you took time to brainstorm, your readers will enjoy the journey with you—and will thank you for being such an excellent guide!
Copyright 2011 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.
February 3rd, 2011 — College Prep, High school
Alisa Gilbert joins me today as a guest blogger here at In Our Write Minds. Alisa blogs for bachelorsdegree.org. Today she’s sharing some great tips for parents of college-bound high schoolers.
Everyone under the sun will tell you how important it is for children to develop solid writing skills. It’s a key job skill, after all.
More and more universities are incorporating writing across the curriculum, meaning your college-bound child—no matter her major—will invariably encounter courses in which she is asked to write research papers and essays throughout the semester.
The Price of Unpreparedness
Even though we tout the importance of writing in high school, I believe many parents and educators simply pay it lip service. Writing standards in high school are so far below college standards that many freshmen are shocked to discover how little they’ve learned and practiced to prepare them.
Personally, I was home-schooled throughout elementary school, after which I attended public high school. My high school writing assignments, even ones in advanced English courses, were graded on a completion basis. Aside from correcting a few of the more egregious spelling and grammar errors, teachers paid scant attention to anything beyond very basic writing no-no’s.
When I started college, confident enough in my writing ability to consider majoring in English, I was absolutely stunned when I received Bs and Cs on my papers, all dripping in red ink. Although I eventually endured the rigorous process of unlearning all the bad writing habits that went unnoticed in high school, I’m convinced I could have learned how to write well years before.
What Can You Do?
I was lucky enough to have taken courses with a few professors who really cared, who took the time to teach me what good writing meant. For students who are still in high school, I suggest developing college-level writing skills as soon as possible.
One thing to keep in mind is that writing isn’t like math, where you either understand it or you don’t. It’s an ever-evolving process; it never reaches a stage of “perfection.” Also, learning to revise rigorously, reading over every sentence to ensure stylistic clarity and logical soundness, is just as important as checking for grammar and spelling errors.
Unfortunately, schools generally don’t stress developing strong writing on an institutional level simply because it’s expensive. It takes time to teach one of the most difficult skills anyone can learn. And many teachers are simply not up to the task of working with every single one of their students to improve their writing. It’s logistically impossible. This is where homeschooling comes in.
For starters, if you want your kids to learn to write well, they should read as much as they can. Encourage them to read books that interest them, as well as books that force them to expand their vocabulary and ways of thinking. Have them practice writing beyond school assignments, and read books on writing, too.
Most importantly, before parents or students dismiss the importance of writing skills, thinking that writing well is only within the purview of English majors, consider this: One of the key skills employers cite as deficient among recent graduates is written communication.
. . . . .
This guest post is contributed by Alisa Gilbert, who writes on the topics of bachelor’s degrees. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: email@example.com.
January 6th, 2011 — Brainstorming, College Prep, Editing & Revising, High school, Reluctant Writers
Quick! Take this survey:
- Do your students complain about having to edit and revise their compositions and essays?
- Do they hate having to spend several days on the same writing topic (brainstorming, writing a draft, self-editing, and revising)?
- Do they become apathetic and lose steam by the time they get to the final draft?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I have good news: Your kids are completely normal! But short of dragging them across broken glass or hot coals, how can you teach them to embrace the steps of the process as a natural, expected part of writing?
Writing Is Hard Work
If you’ve not used a formal writing program before, it’s possible that the writing process is new to your children. Regardless, they’re not alone. I wish there were a magic wand I could wave over them to help them like it better, but in truth, writing is hard work, and it takes time and discipline.
Unless they’re making lists, journaling, or emailing a friend, most writing does require planning, drafting, editing, and revising. This would be true whether you use WriteShop, some other writing program, or simply create your own writing assignments.
Typically, students want to write a paper once and be done with it. They don’t want to brainstorm, and they certainly don’t want to rewrite it. But whether or not these steps of the writing process are built into the curriculum (as they are with WriteShop), it’s really important for children to come to terms with the reality that this is how writers—from students to professional authors—write.
A Look at the Writing Process
There are three main parts of the writing process: brainstorming, writing, and editing and revising.
The student who just sits down to write without having first brainstormed will either stare at the page with a blank look, unable to think of anything, or she’ll write in a fairly disorganized fashion, repeat herself, include unnecessary detail, or omit key ideas. Even in timed-writing sessions, students are encouraged to dash out a quick outline to help them focus on what the question is asking and to keep them from drifting off-topic as they write. Simply, brainstorming focuses a writer. It helps her choose details, plan and organize her story or report, stay on track, and avoid tangents.
Writing is done in stages. The first draft serves to get those rough, new ideas onto the paper. By its very design, the first draft is meant to be revised later.
Editing and revising
Whether or not your child agrees, every paper benefits from revision, and editing gives her a chance to make some modifications. Even this blog article was edited and revised many times before I posted it. I don’t just try to catch typos; I also want to make sure my answers are complete and clear, my thoughts are organized, and my tone is professional yet conversational. This self-editing process tends to be subjective for most of us because we feel an emotional attachment to each and every word. That’s exactly why your child needs to turn her work in to you for objective feedback: She needs an outside opinion in order to write a more polished final draft
Helping Your Student “Get It”
OK. You and I agree that the writing process is important. Yet the $20,000 question remains: How do we get our kids on board? Again, there are no magic answers, but I can offer a few ideas:
Show your teen she’s not alone.
Your student may feel as though she’s the only one who has to plan, write, and revise her compositions. Discovering that the writing process is universal may help her back down a bit. For fun, you might ask her to do a Google search for the term “writing process.” I bet she’ll be surprised to find over 21 million results!
Give freedom to a creative child.
It’s natural to expect a negative response from a reluctant, resistant writer. But if a student who normally loves writing fits this profile too, maybe she feels her creativity is being stifled when she is asked to brainstorm or make changes to her text.
First and foremost, give such a student the freedom to write for the sheer joy of writing—plays, stories, poems, whatever she loves! Separate these experiences from her writing lesson by not requiring her to plan or revise these stories. For her, use the writing process to teach skills in the same way that math drills, piano lessons, or other repetitive activities teach, reinforce, and offer practice. Let her write to her heart’s delight in her free time, but also require her to learn discipline through the structure of the writing process.
As a parent, I’m sure all this makes sense to you. The hard part is communicating it to your student. I find that analogies can help explain things so that she can get it too. Here are some past blog articles that deal with the writing process. Several offer different analogies that compare the writing process with things like gardening, cooking, scrapbooking, and spelunking (caving). See if one or two of these analogies spark understanding in your reluctant student.
Point to the future.
Students who choose to go to college quickly discover that the writing process is taught there as well. And as much as they may grumble and complain, it’s to their benefit to plan, draft, and improve each piece of writing.
Among curriculum sites, public schools, universities, and professional writers’ blogs and websites, the writing process is regarded as key to success. To help your teen see how vital these repetitive skills are, even at the college and professional level, here are a couple of outside sources that further explain the purpose and various stages of the writing process.
In the end, there’s no shortcut to bypass the writing process. Planning and revising are as important to a composition or essay’s success as the actual writing. The best way to avoid arguments, head-butting, and apathy is to train your children while they’re young, perhaps using a program like WriteShop Primary (or the upcoming WriteShop Junior). If they grow up with the writing process, they’ll be more likely to accept and value it, even if they never learn to love it.
Copyright 2011 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.
October 28th, 2010 — College Prep, High school
I’ve been giving you an overview of the basic writing stages and writing needs of children at various grade levels. Today I’m wrapping up the series with a look at high school.
Writing is the most important academic skill students need to develop in their secondary education.
Why? Because it’s “the most visible expression not only of what [they] know but also of how well they have learned it” (Carl Nagin, Because Writing Matters).
Use these important high school years to teach, train, guide, and direct. Provide opportunities for your child to work more independently, letting the rope out bit by bit so she has a chance to prove herself. Your goal is to produce a strong, independent writer who is equipped and confident to enter college or the workplace.
Where Should You Focus?
Secondary students need to:
- Write clearly, concisely, and correctly for both academic and personal purposes.
- Develop research skills.
- Vary their sentence structure beyond the subject-verb sentence.
- Use correct conventions (spelling, grammar and usage). Incorrect or sloppy grammar distracts the audience from the content, so continue working on grammar and punctuation throughout these secondary years until you know their skills are solid.
There are no shortcuts to improving student writing achievement in your home. Teens need:
- Skill development that builds incrementally.
- Short, relevant, high-interest assignments.
- Tools to help them refine word choice and sentence fluency.
- An involved parent!
How Much and How Often?
- Have your high schooler write regularly—4-5 days a week—for a variety of subjects.
- 2-3 short writing projects per month makes a good goal. Your child should take these compositions completely through the stages of the writing process, from brainstorming to final copy.
- In addition, assign 1-2 longer research papers, each of which can be spread out over an entire quarter. These can range from 4-15 pages, depending on age and skill level. Requirements for a 9th grader should not be as stringent as those for a senior.
- Tuck in shorter essays, journal writing, book summaries, or responses to current events along the way—assignments that only take a day or so and that don’t require much in terms of editing or revising.
- To prepare your student for college entrance exams and other timed writing situations, make sure to assign timed essays at least every other week.
- Keeping in mind her maturity and attention span, spend about 1 hour per day on writing.
Promote Independence but Remain Involved
When our children become teens, it’s easy to think: “They’re getting older. I’ll back off and let them take responsibility.” There will come a time to step back. But that time comes when your child has proven herself trustworthy and reliable.
Even with such a dependable child, you’ll still need to monitor her work. As part of your involvement:
- Break assignments into manageable chunks.
- Train your student to stick to deadlines.
- Give detailed, consistent feedback.
You need to help your teen develop self-discipline and independence, but you also need to hold her accountable. In doing so, you’re preparing her for the demands of college-level writing.
Helping your K-2nd grader with writing
Helping your 3rd-5th grader with writing
Helping your 5th-8th grader with writing
Copyright 2010 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.
WriteShop I and II are great programs for teaching and reinforcing the steps of the writing process to your junior high and high schoolers.
September 10th, 2010 — College Prep, Essays & Research Papers, High school
You sit down to grade a stack of essays. As you read through one particular paper, it occurs to you that the information seems familiar—so familiar, in fact, that you recognize it as the text from an Internet article you yourself printed out in preparation for another writing class. When you look up the article and compare it with this student’s paper, you’re shocked to discover they are identical.
The term plagiarism might be relatively new to your students, but cheating is not. When it comes to writing, especially in a formal setting, these two words mean the same thing. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines plagiarizing as:
- Stealing and passing off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.
- Using (another’s production) without crediting the source.
- Committing literary theft.
- Presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
Establishing a Policy
Whether you homeschool one student, tutor several, or teach creative writing or English classes, it’s wise to establish and distribute a policy on plagiarism. Here’s an example:
Plagiarism is the illegitimate use of another person’s words and/or ideas without giving appropriate credit to the original source. Such attempts to copy someone else’s work and call it your own is a very serious offense that will not be tolerated and will have significant consequences. All work done for this class must be your own original composition. When writing, you are required to properly cite any source you use—published or unpublished, from a book or from the Internet. Failure to do so will result in a zero grade for the assignment.
Reinforcing the Rules
Stand firm regarding plagiarism. In any other class setting—whether in a public or private high school, college, or even the workplace—plagiarizing an essay to the extent that our hypothetical student has done will result in an instant F on the assignment, disenrollment from the class, and/or institutional disciplinary measures.
Because most educational institutions have a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism, submitting a plagiarized essay like this could, at best, result in a lower grade, or at worst, cost the student a scholarship or expulsion over something he may have thought was “no big deal.”
It’s so important to drill into your students that trying to save a few hours’ worth of work by cutting and pasting a two-page essay from the Internet is just not worth the consequences.
Copyright 2010 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.
July 12th, 2010 — College Prep, Encouragement, High school
A Success Story
I love hearing from students who have found success in school and life. Recently, I received an announcement in the mail from one of my former WriteShop I students (also a homeschool grad), who graduated summa cum laude from Gordon College.
Along with the announcement, Kaeli included a copy of an essay she had written for a grad school application—an essay limited to just 300 words. The irony of this little requirement didn’t escape either of us, for brevity was never her forte, and was in fact the very fly in her WriteShop ointment.
Back in our WriteShop days, restricting this enthusiastic writer to a single five- to seven-sentence paragraph was practically the same as torture. More than once she pleaded for eight sentences. More than once she made a passionate case for those extra adjectives. Much to her dismay, I always stood my ground.
Not that it’s a crime to write a ten-sentence paragraph or use a string of four perfect adjectives. Rather, it was all about a skill we were trying to develop in our young writers: conciseness.
Teaching conciseness is a foreign concept for many of you—you’re just happy to see a complete sentence materialize on your child’s paper! But we discovered that the same limits on paragraph length allowed parents to teach one simple WriteShop lesson to both struggling and eager writers.
The result? The reluctant child sees a doable goal (“I only have to write five sentences”), and the enthusiastic student learns to hone her writing and avoid rabbit trails and unnecessary verbiage.
Kaeli fit the latter profile. Bursting with ideas, she wanted to say it all. But her year in WriteShop taught her instead how to say it best.
Where Are They Now?
It was good to hear from Kaeli. From time to time I think of my former students and wonder, “Where are they now?” Deb and I haven’t taught a class in several years, but it’s really rewarding to see how successful many of these homeschoolers have become:
- Pastors and missionaries
- Military men and women
- College graduates in a wide variety of majors including journalism, English, sociology, criminal justice, Middle Eastern studies, photography, communications, art, music, and theater
- MA and PhD candidates in English, economics, political science, philosophy, psychology, and theology
In most cases, it’s been eight or more years since I’ve edited their fledgling writing attempts. But I’ve also read some of their recent writing. And what I see now reflects what I saw in my own son as the post-WriteShop years passed: maturity, knowledge, wisdom, growth. They express themselves in different ways, but they have all moved well beyond those WriteShop days.
Laying a Foundation
Some of you are just beginning your journey. You can’t even begin to imagine that one day your child will write an articulate, coherent thought. Others of you have taught WriteShop to several children who are now young adults succeeding in college and the workplace.
We “veterans” have learned that WriteShop served as a launching place, a training ground for instilling the basics of writing, including concreteness, conciseness, clarity, and sentence variety—skills that many incoming college freshmen lack.
Take heart. You’re teaching your children that writing is more than random thoughts tossed onto paper. You’re helping them learn to use important tools that lay a foundation for future writing—writing that will take shape and mature as their knowledge, life experiences, vocabulary, and thinking skills develop.
My girls were intuitive writers, easy to guide and easy to teach. But I didn’t have much faith that my reluctant 12-year-old son (the WriteShop guinea pig) would be able to write. Our journey was hard, and we experienced more than our share of frustration. But diligence paid off. He’s now a 25-year-old PhD candidate whose writing has actually become his work.
Your child may not become a scholar . . . and that’s okay. But good writing skills will take him far in the workplace and in life. So stay the course, and be encouraged that a great deal can—and will—happen between now and adulthood.
June 17th, 2010 — College Prep, High school, Teaching Writing
Strong writing skills will help your student earn higher test scores, write quality college application essays, and become a better communicator. That’s the good news.
But as I shared recently, there’s bad news too: many college students possess dismal writing skills and are not adequately prepared for rigorous coursework.
I know this is pretty disheartening. It can be easy to give in to gloom and discouragement. Instead, let’s look at positive, practical ways to equip our teens for college-level writing.
Cover the Basics
The requirements are pretty simple, really: focus on basic but key writing skills throughout junior high and high school to adequately prepare your student.
Make sure he regularly writes quality compositions and papers. Specifically, he should know how to write a:
- Professional email.
- Business letter.
- Clear, well-organized essay (both persuasive and expository)
- Research paper.
Minimally, by the time your teen graduates from high school, he should at least know how to:
- Write clearly.
- Use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
- Use proper sentence structure.
- Proofread and self-edit.
- Take notes.
- Cite sources.
If you teach these foundational writing skills early, you’ll still have time to introduce advanced writing and longer, more specific essays in 11th and 12th grade, including:
- Literary analysis.
- Different types of essays (cause/effect, compare/contrast, reflection, argument, definition, etc.).
- Research papers of various lengths.
So make a plan. Keep working on your teen’s grammar and writing skills, and give purposeful writing assignments on a regular basis. Otherwise, writing will keep dropping to the bottom of the stack—and your teen will be in for a rude awakening when his college years begin.
April 27th, 2010 — College Prep, Grammar & Spelling, High school
A while back, I talked about the importance of strong writing skills in the workplace. Today I want to take a look at the grim statistics regarding poor writing skills on college campuses and help you explore things you can do now to ensure that your children do not join those ranks.
The Problem on College Campuses
First-time college students face their new post-high school careers with excitement, fear, and any number of challenges. But good writing, for many freshmen, may pose the biggest challenge of all.
Professors want to see concise, coherent and well-reasoned writing assignments. And regardless of the discipline—whether English, history, biology, or art—they expect students to write at a higher level than they did in high school.
We hear again and again that many freshmen lack the most basic skills to write clearly, effectively, and coherently because their working knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and paragraph structure is so poor. According to a recent article by the California State University:
About 60 percent of first-time freshmen enrolling at the CSU each year do not show entry-level proficiency in [college-level English] assessments, even though they have earned at least a B average in the required college preparatory curriculum. As a result, many students must attend remedial classes, which do not count for college credit and add cost and time to earning a degree.
When High Schools Fail to Prepare Their Graduates
Tufts Daily, the independent student newspaper of Tufts University, reports that it’s becoming more and more apparent that the nation’s high schools are not devoting enough time to writing skills and may not be providing students with a strong enough writing-based curriculum.
The Tufts article notes that according to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 44 percent of university faculty members say their students are simply not ready for the rigors of college-level writing.
When College Writing Courses Don’t Teach Writing
Arriving on campus is no assurance of success for incoming freshmen who need basic writing courses but aren’t necessarily getting them.
Professor Stanley Fish says universities should rethink the political and ideological emphasis of most composition classes. He rightly suggests that “unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.”
Fish relates that a few years ago, he became alarmed and curious about the poor writing skills his English graduate students demonstrated in their research papers. Graduate students should write well, Fish believed; especially since they were responsible for teaching undergraduate students how to write in introductory composition classes. Fish asked to see lesson plans for the 104 sections in which English graduate students taught composition to undergrads. He found that in 100 of the sections, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.” Only four sections emphasized grammar, rhetoric, and the craft of writing well. (Eagle Forum Education Reporter)
A Sad but True Example
Several months ago, a friend came into possession of a freshman English paper and shared it with me. Sadly, it serves to reinforce the statistics and testimonials that only too frequently cross my desk. From start to finish, this student’s essay on William Blake’s “The Tyger” is riddled with errors:
- Uncapitalized proper nouns such as jesus and greek
- Missing punctuation, including periods
- Casual language (“…it is actually about more than just a tiger and stuff.”)
- Slang (“Allusion is all over the freekin place.”)
- Misplaced apostrophes and more slang (“Tyger’s have four feet. Cool, huh?“)
- Use of second person (“If you look at Blake’s history…”)
- Run-on sentences and sentence fragments
- Absence of transitions
- Lack of organization
- Use of numerals instead of words (“…5 years ago…”)
- Use of Wikipedia as a “credible” source
This student represents a mere drop in a very full bucket. Thousands of similarly skilled young men and women are accepted into major universities every year—high school graduates whose writing abilities just aren’t up to par.
You Can Make a Difference!
I could continue filling your brain with testimonials and data and examples. But why rehash when the bottom line remains the same? Students are emerging from their high-school cocoons as undernourished butterflies whose wings are inadequately developed for flying through college writing.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You’re in a privileged position to help your homeschooled students. In future articles, I’ll get into more detail, but for now, rest assured that you can:
- Learn to identify your child’s unique grammar, spelling, and writing issues.
- Tailor curricula and writing lessons to address those needs.
- Make sure you’re covering the basics.
- Expand instruction to include more college prep work.
- Offer your child what a classroom teacher of 150 cannot: one-on-one instruction, frequent writing assignments, and detailed, consistent feedback.
Copyright © 2010 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.
April 16th, 2010 — Essays & Research Papers, High school, Teaching Writing
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
~William Strunk, Elements of Style
Conciseness boils down to this: expressing as much as possible without using unnecessary words or details. Concise writing is brief and precise, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull and dry. Help your children apply some of these tips for more concise writing.
1. Stay on track
Staying on topic is a surefire way to encourage writing concisely. When your student takes tangents and rabbit trails, he loses his focus and ends up with cumbersome, awkward, or disjointed writing. Help him create an outline before he begins writing so that he’s less likely to wander off the path.
2. Be precise
The more concrete the word choice, the clearer the writing. Your child can be wordy and say “the shaggy gray dog with the long hair hanging in his eyes,” or he can simply say “the gray sheepdog.”
3. Use plain English
Many students mistakenly think that big words impress. In truth, effective writing uses simple, straightforward language. While a handful of mature, well-placed vocabulary words can raise the level of a story or essay, using too many can make a piece of writing seem verbose, over the top, and just plain hard to read. Unless you’re writing for a scholarly audience, don’t overdo the vocabulary.
4. Avoid super-long sentences
To train children to be concise, attach a word limit or try restricting the number of paragraphs and sentences they can use. This will help them say what they need to say in the space allotted.
When kids are first learning to write descriptively and use a thesaurus, the pendulum can swing wildly from three-word sentences to 20 or 30-word sentences. It’s okay to give them the freedom to play with words; they’ll find their center over time. Just know that you may need to gently correct if their zeal begins creating log jams in their writing.
5. Don’t be redundant
Redundancy refers to extra words or phrases that should be cut out. Your student’s ability to write concisely will always trump filling a page with unnecessary text.
It’s not uncommon for beginning writers to repeat themselves. But such repetition bogs down the writing and makes the reader work too hard. Here are two ways to eliminate redundancy:
- Adding concrete details, facts, or examples instead of rehashing the same point.
- Slashing unnecessary words and phrases. Remember: when two words will do the trick, why use a dozen? Encourage your student to read each sentence and paragraph to see if he can cut out any words. His point will be clearer, stronger, and easier to identify.
March 2nd, 2010 — College Prep, Grammar & Spelling, High school, Teaching Writing
Words Matter Week: Day 2
Words matter. And not just the words themselves, but also the grammar, spelling, and punctuation that make those words easier and more pleasant to read and understand.
In truth, no one particularly notices when a piece of writing is structurally sound and fairly free of errors. When the reader isn’t distracted by gross misspellings or misplaced apostrophes, he’s able to take in the words and thoughts in a simple, straightforward manner. That’s one reason it’s so important that we write with care—and teach our kiddos to do the same.
Does Casual Writing Have Its Place?
This isn’t to say that everything we write needs to be pressed through the “grammar sieve” to strain out every wayward punctuation mark or imprecise word. I’m all for casual writing in the appropriate context, such as a quick note left on the kitchen table or a slapdash email to a friend. And I truly understand typing errors we all make when our flying fingers transpose a couple of letters or we miss the “shift” key.
But when a piece of writing–even a casual email or comment on a discussion board–contains pervasive errors, keyboard accidents can no longer be blamed. As an example, here’s a simple snippet from a blog comment I came across some time ago:
now i know its been WAY to long!! the only one I can reckonsie is Alvin and thats because hes a boy! I so need to come a visit ya’ll this summer and see the family, its been to meny years
Judging a Book by Its Cover
Our writing can reveal certain things about us. For example, what conclusions do you draw about this particular writer based on her one little writing sample? Is she kind? Friendly? Most likely. Educated? Careful? Attentive to detail? Probably not.
Granted, careless grammar doesn’t bother everyone. People who don’t use proper grammar and spelling themselves won’t know (or for that matter, care) whether you or your children use proper grammar and spelling.
But many people are pretty picky about such things—college admissions folks and employers among them. Your student’s writing may be judged and perhaps even rejected simply for failing to stick to conventions. Why?
- Valid arguments lose their credibility and impact when the text is riddled with typos and grammatical errors.
- Spelling errors and poor grammar can suggest that a job or college applicant is sloppy at best and ignorant or uneducated at worst.
- If an employee is not attentive to detail in emails, reports, or memos, the promotion may go to someone who is.
Conventions? What Conventions?
OK, I admit it. It’s hard for me to write anything—even an e-mail—without editing and revising it a dozen times. I’m sure part of that comes from being a writer and an author of a writing curriculum. I feel like my writing is always under the microscope, even when it’s not.
This doesn’t mean everyone has to be that way. A quickie email to a good friend can have a bunch of sentence fragments and a misspelled word—and in that context, who really cares? But when writing is up for public scrutiny—even on a discussion board—and you hope to be taken seriously, you’ll want to give as much attention to convention as to content.
Find the Errors
Just for kicks, scroll back up to the writing sample and see how many errors you can find before you read my list below. There are a lot! Even better, ask your children to edit it. It would make a great lesson.
Here are the mistakes I found.
- now – should be Now (as in: Now, children, a sentence always begins with a capital.)
- i – should be I
- its – missing apostrophe (it’s)
- to – should be too
- !! – never use more than one exclamation point
- the – see #1
- reckonsie – should be recognize (as in: I almost didn’t recognize that word.)
- thats – missing apostrophe (see #2)
- hes – missing apostrophe (notice a pattern here?)
- a visit – and visit? for a visit?
- y’all – I’ll give her this one since it’s a casual note.
- comma splice – …see the family; it’s been too many years. Or …see the family. It’s been too many years. Or …see the family because it’s been too many years.
- its, to – see #2 and #3
- meny = should be spelled many (as in: Goodness! I’ve found so many mistakes.)
So . . . how’d you do? Did I miss anything?
The “Final Draft”
Here’s the gussied-up version—with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation:
Now I know it’s been WAY too long! The only one I can recognize is Alvin, and that’s because he’s a boy! I so need to come visit y’all this summer and see the family; it’s been too many years.
The friendly sentiments shine through, don’t they? It’s like cleaning soot from a window. Instead of zeroing in on the grimy, dirty pane, we can focus on the cheerful scene beyond the glass.
Just as cleaning up grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors greatly enhanced the message above, editing and polishing our own writing can clear the way for our message too. So make it a point to teach your children proper writing conventions, because words—and the way we write them—matter.
. . . . .
Don’t forget to enter our Words Matter Week haiku contest. Deadline is Sunday, March 7, 2010.