Model writing through conversation

WHEN apprentices work with a master craftsman or artist, they copy their master’s work. Consider the famous painters whose pieces we admire in museums and books. Most of them began as apprentices, but they became famous in their own right for their unique styles and methods.

Think about how we all learned cursive: we followed the model that we were taught in school. Yet, do you know anyone who still writes the same way we were taught? Probably not! Most people have pretty different penmanship styles, even though the original model was similar.

So when you get to the editing part of a writing project, don’t be concerned that you’re helping too much or offering too many stylistic suggestions. Your editing tips, whether broad or specific, serve as a model to the student. In time, he’ll gain his own style and voice.

Modeling Through Conversation

Start with the first draft.

Since this is the sloppy copy, your student should be responsible to self-edit his own paper. It’s his job to take care of some of these problems before he ever turns the paper in to you. You can work on it with him, if necessary, but see if he can do it alone first.

You’ll have the opportunity to give suggestions after he’s gone through his paper by himself and revised it. Over time, students learn that the more time they invest in self-editing, the less “red-penciling” they’ll see from Mom.

Among the things he must look for:

  • Overly repeated words. This is a new concept for most students. It helps to use word banks or a thesaurus to think of different ways to avoid repetition.
  • Sentence limit. He will need to combine sentences, remove sentences, or blend information from two or three sentences into one in order to stay within the confines of a short paragraph of, say, 5-7 sentences.

Help him identify problems that might not be apparent to him.

I found it helpful when working with my own son to ask questions that allowed him to answer without making him feel like the ideas were all mine. Give options and choices. Here’s an example of a dialogue that helps a student hone a paragraph about a favorite stuffed animal.

You:  You used lots of great description in your paragraph, but now I’d like you to tell me some things about Rocket that don’t have anything to do with his appearance. Where did you get him? What is he?

Son:  I got Rocket for my birthday. He’s a stuffed blue jay.

You:  How could you combine some of that information into a topic sentence that doesn’t describe Rocket yet?

Son: (probably with help from you) I got a stuffed blue jay for my birthday.

……….

You:  What do his eyes do?

Son:  Well, they’re shiny. They sort of sparkle.

You:  Those are good words to describe his eyes. What color are they?

Son:  Black.

You:  OK, so…His shiny black eyes (do what?)

Son: His shiny black eyes sparkle.

You:  Where are his eyes located?

Son:  On each side of his beak.

You:  If you combine all that information, you’ll have a great sentence!

Son:  His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his beak.

You:  Great! Now that you have the basic sentence, it’s easy to make simple improvements. For example, tell me about his beak.

Son: It’s black and it’s made of vinyl.

You:  How can you incorporate that information into your sentence?

Son: His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak.

You:  See how much clearer this is? Each time you add a description, it helps your reader picture Rocket even better! Now, do you notice a repeated word?

Son:  Black.

You:  Yup! You have some options. You can use your thesaurus and replace one “black” with a synonym; you can remove one use of the word “black” altogether; or you can use a different descriptive word that isn’t a color word at all.

Son: His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his ebony vinyl beak.  (Or, His shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak. Or, His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his vinyl beak.)

You:  One last thing. Since you’ve used the word “his” several times in your paragraph, it might be good to use a synonym here and there. You can use his name or a different synonym for your bird.

Son:  Rocket’s shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak. (Or, My bird’s shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak. Or, Shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of my blue jay’s black vinyl beak.)

Modeling writing through conversation can take place anywhere along the way, whether it’s during your teaching time or while helping your child revise his story. Even if you don’t always feel secure about your own writing abilities, it’s amazing how much confidence these conversational times can instill in your young writer.

Give it a try!

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