by Colleen Doogan
Well, it’s the new year. A time to make goals, resolutions, and promises to try harder. Usually, the New Year’s goals I set are all about how to make a better version of who I am. This year, one of my goals is not just about me but also about the students I teach and their families.
Due to the unprecedented times we are in and the hours of virtual teaching that I am not only doing but also watching my children entwined in, I want to do more to help parents find ways to motivate their children to write.
Sounds easy, right? It’s not, and I know this because even though I teach writing, my own kids aren’t always motivated to write. It takes some doing.
So here is my “Secret Basic Six” that I believe parents can do at home to encourage their children not only to put pen to paper but also have fun while doing it. None of these are hard, but they do take some will power and commitment. But don’t all New Year’s resolutions?
1. Let your child see you write.
Modeling a writing life is the single most important thing we can do if we want our kids to write. We often say, “Kids are like sponges! They take everything in!” Well, it’s true. People learn by watching others. How can we expect our children to do such an important life skill like writing if we aren’t doing it ourselves? We don’t need to publish novels, write dissertations, or even pen lengthy journal entries. But we do have to show our children we are adults who write for authentic reasons. Making grocery lists, journaling in a notebook, jotting notes about a vacation, writing thank you letters. The list goes on, but the idea is it doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you are writing something and modeling for your children behaviors of a writer.
2. Be a storytelling fanatic.
Tell lots and lots of stories. In the car, at the dinner table, while on a walk, while making a meal, or even before bed. Use storytelling language that makes your stories more exciting. When we hear good stories, it is easier to imagine how these stories would sound on paper. I make it a point to say to my children, “Wait, hold on, let me get paper and get this story down. This is a great story for my notebook or one that I can make a book out of later.” This makes our kids understand the connection between oral storytelling and writing stories on paper. We might even add words when we tell our stories like, “Do you want to hear what happened next?” or “You are never going to believe what happened after that.” This storytelling language leads to craft moves in writing such as tension and plot thickening.
3. Help your child find their writing space and tools.
I’ve been struggling with finding time for writing lately. We were in the midst of transferring my 100-year-old hard drive over to my new one-piece desktop and so in the meantime, my workspace wasn’t important. In fact, it was a mess! I got used to using a laptop and just finding any old spot in the house. I had NO space, so writing was not fun and very sporadic. Recently, my new desktop is up and running and I cleaned off my desk and added a candle, my colored pens, my new datebook, and my fun photos that inspire me to write. It’s my space and I love it! Writing is easier now. Finding a special, comfy writing spot is so important because everything you need will be at your fingertips. I also recommend getting some cool writing tools. You don’t have to spend a lot of money (any dollar store has super fun tools for writing), and plain, boring notebooks can be decorated with paint, stickers, photos, and memorabilia. I can tell you from my 25 plus years of teaching that writing tools make a difference! Get some glitter gel pens, cute erasers, colored sticky notes, stickers, and small notepads, and see for yourself.
4. Make lists … lots of lists.
It is much easier to make lists than to just sit and write a story off the top of my head. Lists are a great way to gather material. The more lists in your writer’s notebook, the more ideas you have for stories or poems, or even nonfiction all-about books. Lists can be as basic as “things I love and things I don’t love.” They can be about the seasons: things I like to do in the fall, why I love summer, best memories from snow days, or what spring means to me. Lists can be as simple as listing everything you see in the room you are sitting in; your top 10 movies, books, and shows; qualities you think are important in a friend; or what you would like to change about the world. Lists are starting points. They provide a lot of “seed” ideas for future writing. I was recently working with a second grader who listed what he did over the holiday break. He had about 10 ideas on his list. As soon as he got to the one that said, “I stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve,” I knew by the look in his eyes, he had more to say about that bullet point. When he finished, I simply asked, “Which idea on this list can you tell me more about?” Next came his two-page story about sipping kid champagne in real glasses with his parents, grandparents, and little brother and watching the ball drop at midnight!
5. Read, read, and read some more.
The authors of the books we read are our best writing teachers. They show us how it’s done. If we didn’t read, how would we even know what a sentence looked or sounded like? The more we read to our children, the more they understand how words go together to make sentences and how sentences go together to make stories. When I teach first graders about periods and capital letters, I have them go on a scavenger hunt and just find all the periods and capital letters they can in the books they are reading. I make copies of those pages and then we highlight the periods and capital letters. We talk about why they are used and try to read the sentences without them. We laugh at how silly the sentences sound if the periods and capital letters were not there. When I write with them, I remind them to be like the authors of the books they read and to not forget periods and capital letters. It makes more sense to them because they are reading books in which authors are doing what they are trying to do in their own writing.
6. Provide your child with authentic writing experiences.
Like anything we do, writing needs to have a purpose. I recently saw posters that first graders wrote in their virtual writing workshop that were about trying to make change. The teacher took advantage of the fact that her students have been home since March and realized they would probably change a few things after being home 24/7 for the past nine months. Wouldn’t we all? So, talk about authentic writing. You want to see change, then make a poster or a sign and hang it up. A student in her class wanted her brother to “stop peing on the twoolet sete!” This is just one example of authentic writing, but the idea is to make writing purposeful. Making grocery lists, writing thank you notes, crafting invitations, asking for help to jot ideas down for a vacation, or getting the family involved in a family vacation journal where you all take turns writing in it are just a few ideas for authentic writing at home.
There’s one catch to this “Secret Basic Six” though. While you are trying these ideas to motivate your child to write and have fun with writing, try super hard NOT to correct every single spelling mistake or fix every punctuation error. Now, of course, helping them spell words they are ready to learn or reminding them of some on-grade level punctuation rules is totally appropriate and should be discussed, but no matter what, keep it light and joyful.
The most important thing to remember is by engaging in fun, creative, real-life writing, you are helping make writing fun! If parents (myself included) make a valid effort this year to try this “Secret Basic Six” at home, we will all be off to a great writing start in 2021.
Let’s do it together! Happy New Year and happy writing!