Making a plan for writing

For a child to learn to express themselves with written language, they have to master several complex skills to transfer their thoughts and ideas to grammatically correct, cohesive sentences.  Along with synthesizing the motor aspect of writing, expressing language in written form is one of the most complex tasks your child will master. In order to write, and write well, a child must :

  1. Make a plan for what they want to write
  2. Organize their thoughts in a logical manner
  3. Transfer those ideas to connected text
  4. Re-evaluate what they have written
  5. Make any changes
  6. Re-write for a  final product

Whew!  Sounds like a pretty complicated process, right?  And kids begin doing this in kindergarten and first grade?  And by fourth grade are required to have a level of mastery making them capable of interpreting school text and applying their analysis to written form? 

I recently scored some test essays for middle school students from the midwest states.  While there was tremendous variation in quality and sophistication of the essays, it was very easy to pick out a well-written essay.  Why?  Well, for starters, when a student writes well, it sounds like they are sitting in the same room as the reader, carrying on a conversation.  The style and voice come naturally to these writers.  But even more important is the organization of ideas.  An essay that is a jumble of ideas is very difficult to read.

And, guess what?  Parents can help their child with the writing process, and the organization of their written language starting at a very young age.

For starters, a preschool child can begin to use writing to express organized ideas.  What?  My child can't even write his name yet?  He barely recognizes all the letters in the alphabet!  Hold on, let me explain.  We begin by teaching our children the purpose of writing.  We write note cards and grocery lists.  We leave notes for Dad talking about our day.  We write birthday cards and captions for our drawings.  And even though your child may not be able to write the letters themselves, they can help make that list or draw on that notepad.  We show our children that writing is a way of communicating with those around us.

Here are a couple of examples to show you what I mean.  My daughter is not yet two, but she can:

  • Read and write letters to her aunt away at college.

  • Make Valentine notes for Dad

  • Make birthday cards for her friends.

No, my child is not some writing genius.  But she is learning what writing is.  By sitting down with our children and talking about what we are writing and why, we help them begin to develop the understanding that written words convey meaning.  I ask my daughter what we should say on the card, then I ask her to "write" it, too.  Using crayons, she "writes" her thoughts down to go with my words.

Once your child enters kindergarten and above, it is important to help them learn to organize their ideas before beginning to write.  There is a time and place for "free write" where you write whatever pops into your head at that time.  But for most essays and school writing assignments, there has to be a logical flow between ideas.  Whether using brainstorming maps, "brain frames", outlines, or graphic organizers, the planning step to writing is a critical one that we often brush past in the early elementary years.  However, a strong foundation in planning and organizing will serve your child tremendously later on.  There aren't many high school seniors who are able to write a successful thesis paper without brainstorming, planning, and organizing their topics and subtopics.

Many of the children I encounter in my practice are very visual learners.  We draw their ideas out ahead of time, using pictures or words, depending on their ability level.  We use brainstorming maps (there are many programs out there that give logical flow to visual ideas) which then help ground their thinking when it comes time for the complex task of transferring those ideas to sentences.  Too often, a child without a visual map becomes lost in the process, writes tangential sentences, or hits a "writer's block" five words into the assignment.  The brainstorming map gives them something to check in with, to get back on track, when they hit that roadblock.

Go back to the steps in writing:

  1. Make a plan for what to write
  2. Organize thoughts in a logical manner
  3. Transfer those ideas to connected text
  4. Re-evaluate what is written
  5. Make any changes
  6. Re-write for a  final product

How can you help your child work through these steps?  My recommendation is to spend a significant amount of your homework time on the first 2-3 steps, depending on your child's strengths in writing.  And all that time and effort at the homework table for writing is worth it, especially when they sit down to write that senior paper in several years.