Writing is a major part of the middle school curriculum, and rightly so; after all, to write well is to communicate well. By developing strong writing skills early, young students will become more comfortable expressing themselves clearly and effectively. This will benefit them not only during their schooling, but also throughout their adult careers.
Great Writing Begins With Talking
Parents who want to support their children as they hone their writing skills may find that they are toeing the line between providing gentle guidance and supplying the actual words their children put down on paper. Eileen McLaughlin, Head of School at Mount Alvernia High School, an all-girls, Franciscan school for grades 7–12 in Newton, Massachusetts, understands this predicament. But she also feels that the real support from parents should come well before the writing even begins.
“I feel like it’s based in conversation, not in writing,” says McLaughlin, who previously served as chair of Mount Alvernia’s English department. She believes that parents can be most helpful to student-writers during the prewriting phase — talking to them about the subject matter to get the juices flowing." Just have a great conversation with your kids about using rich language and asking probing questions and help them get into their own [writing].”
Building the Writing Muscles
For many students, writing doesn’t always come easily. That’s to be expected, according to McLaughlin, who equates the intellectual process of writing to a physical one. “Struggle is necessary in order to build muscle,” she says, adding that tension is critical for improvement. Of course, there comes a point for some students where the struggle becomes overwhelming, and it’s then that McLaughlin will suggest a writing tutor who can provide additional support.
Understanding How Skills Develop
Gina LaGuardia is the mother of two school-aged children and the owner of an editorial and social media marketing consulting firm in New York City. Her eldest daughter is about to enter seventh grade, so LaGuardia has a heavy stake in her writing skills.
“Ever since [my daughter] started writing, I’ve found myself seeking out any ‘gifts’ she may have,” LaGuardia says. She is supportive of her daughter’s growth as a writer, but admits, “I still catch myself being overly critical at times. It’s probably the editor in me, but if I’m having a bad day, I take common writing errors she may make personally — ‘How in the world did you not realize that was the wrong “there”!’”
The Foundations of Writing
Julie Clark of Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, is a freelance writer and editor with a focus on literature and language arts curriculum development. She has done extensive work creating textbooks and testing materials for publishing companies.
“I think the most important thing that students need to learn is how to have an idea and how to convey that idea to someone else in a clear and concise way,” Clark says. She notes that topic sentences and main ideas are a primary focus in the learning materials she helps to create. Prewriting and planning are still important steps, but the days of the traditional, Roman numeral-studded outline are all but gone. Now teachers tend to favor graphic organizers like Venn diagrams for compare-and-contrast assignments.
Reading Is at the Base
Clark has three young children, the eldest of whom is entering fourth grade. While she’s not exactly making her children sit down and write essays for her (although she admits the idea did cross her mind!), she believes that reading is a more practical approach to helping them become strong writers.
“I do require that my children read something every day,” Clark says. “I think that, as a parent, the best thing you can do to help your children become better writers is to make them become better readers, and to provide them with examples that are well written.” She helps her children focus on books that are of good quality, but for parents of reluctant readers, she says, “Try to get them to read anything, even if it’s as simple as the cereal box in front of them [at breakfast].”
Great Writing Is Always Evolving
LaGuardia agrees with Clark. She is “convinced” that reading helped her learn “to hone the craft and continue to improve.” LaGuardia is, moreover, careful to remind her daughter that in writing, there is always room for improvement.
“I also show her ... through my editing work, that there’s no such thing as ‘being done’ when you write,” LaGuardia explains. “There is always room for enhancement; different people will have different viewpoints and approaches to what’s considered ‘good.’” She also says that writing can go far beyond a class assignment. “Developing one’s own voice, over time, is a gift for those who enjoy expressing themselves through the written word,” says LaGuardia.
- Clark, J. ( July 6, 2015). Telephone interview.
- LaGuardia, Gina. (July 6, 2015). E-mail interview.
- McLaughlin, E. (July 6, 2015). Telephone interview.