4 Tips on How Parents Can Help Their Middle School Writers

Happy New Year, everyone!  No, I know it’s not a new calendar year.  But it is a new school year, and that’s exciting!  With this exhilarating turning of the clock, however, often comes nervous anticipation and cautious optimism . . . what will THIS year be like?

For parents of middle school students, the fall can often invoke a sense of uneasiness as it relates to your role in helping your kids with academics.  Specifically in regards to writing, how much help is enough?  Too much?  And what kind of support will best serve your student’s writerly identity and skills?

Parents may wish to consider the following tips when it comes to helping kids at home with their writing:

  1.  Be a cheerleader for stamina-– Part of becoming a strong writer is developing stamina.  Just like many middle schoolers in a cross country race draw encouragement from a parent’s animated cheers from the sidelines, so too can writers be encouraged when we praise their efforts.  Like cross country and playing the piano, writing is a skill learned in use— meaning we get better at writing by doing it– a lot.  So the more parents are able to encourage and praise effort and time spent developing writing stamina, the better.  It may also help to convey to young writers the importance of strengthening their writing muscles, as I am attempting to do here.  Remember, we get better at what we do!
  2. Help them rehearse and give knowledgeable feedback— Writers often benefit from rehearsing their writing with a trusted mentor or partner.  Talking through the structure of how a piece of writing will go before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboards can pay huge dividends.  In her article, “Parents as Writing Partners,” (Educational Leadership, 2014), Dr. Mary Ehrenworth discusses the importance of doing this, as well as providing knowledgeable feedback.  Ehrenworth notes (2014), “[Parents] can make an immense difference by being a ‘first reader’ for [their] child.” (p. 24)  She suggests employing such prompts as,
    • “How will you (story/essay/article) go?”
    • “Tell me about the parts.”
    • “Then what will come next?”
    • “How do you think you want it to end?”
    • “What will be the most important moment/part of the piece?”

In regards to feedback, it is often helpful to point out parts of a piece that work well, as well as parts the young writer may wish to revisit, either by reading it aloud, rewriting it, providing more elaboration, etc.  Incidentally, feedback has been shown to have one of the highest effect sizes in education (Hattie, 2008).

3.   Actively advocate for the time and space to write— As Ehrenworth points out in her article, when asked, students often admit to struggling to find time and space to write.  A lot of kids have jam-packed schedules, busy households, and nearly omnipresent digital distraction around them.  It is no wonder then, that sometimes they may need help managing those schedules and securing a productive space in which to do some writing (p. 24).

4.  Focus on the positive before suggesting the correction— It is important to remember that our middle school students are in a long period of approximation when it comes to artfully crafting language in writing.  This includes grammar and convention use.  So when it comes to providing some help with revising and editing, parents might remember to lead with a compliment.  What is the student doing well that you might compliment or draw positive attention to on the page?  What might you acknowledge that the student is demonstrating successful command (or near command) over at this point?  Leading with a compliment often opens ears and metaphorical doors to follow-up suggestions.  And it has the added benefit of sending a critical implicit message: “You’re doing something right, good for you!”

As those of us who enjoy some intimate connection with academia proceed with the new school year, let us remember that where attention goes, energy flows.  Have a wonderful fall, everyone!