Writing Skills: Putting Language Down on Paper
I’m not an expert on writing skills, but I often find myself working with children who have difficulty getting ideas on paper. I start by reviewing the variety of skills and processes involved in writing. First, a writer must gather ideas, take notes from readings, and make choices about which ideas are important enough to include in the writing. Then they need to organize these ideas into a hierarchy of main ideas and details. Next, each main idea must be formulated into a topic sentence. The details also need to be written as sentences within the same paragraph to support the topic sentence. In order to make choices on how to formulate sentences, the writer needs to be aware of who their audience is and how best to communicate to that audience.
An essay should include an introduction, a body of supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. So the writer needs to understand what these elements are and what is expected to be included for each of them. How much to explain to the reader (not too much or too little), is also important to consider. And then they need to connect one idea to another idea, or one paragraph to another paragraph, so that the ideas flow. After all that, there’s editing for punctuation, spelling, and clarity of ideas. It’s easy to see that writing is an exercise in multi-tasking. And, of course, many of us are not very good at multi-tasking!
If a child is having trouble getting ideas on paper, it could be because of a breakdown in any of these steps and processes. Often several processes are a problem. I first try to see what is easy for them and what is hard. To figure this out, I always try to help them separate these tasks into discrete steps. In this way, I can discover where the writing process breaks down. For some students, this helps immediately. If students attend to one process at a time, it really simplifies things! Lots of students try to edit while they write, and may get so lost thinking about spelling, that they lose their ideas. I try to discourage multi-tasking. I use checklists, visual organizers, and programs and apps that encourage brainstorming their ideas. This is the creative part of writing!
One program I’ve used for years (now an iPad app) is Inspiration Maps by Inspiration Software, Inc. It helps kids brainstorm ideas first as a visual map, then lets them organize their ideas into a hierarchy of main-idea bubbles and supporting-idea bubbles (by the connection arrows). I always check if they have an introduction bubble and a conclusion bubble. After the map is complete, with a press of a button, it changes into an outline. From the outline, it is easy to see the topics for paragraphs and the supporting details for each topic. You can tweak the order of the outline if you need to. Now to expand the outline into sentences! And voilà! An essay!
Most kids just want to get the assignment done. They need to be taught that writing involves drafts and revisions; it’s usually not a one shot deal. The sooner they understand this, the better. I tell them that the authors never get their book published after only one draft. Good writers need editors to suggest improvements. Eventually, a writer internalizes good editing skills and can read their work aloud to edit it, but it never hurts to find another pair of eyes after they’ve done their own revisions. I often ask students to read their work aloud so they get used to editing their own work. Then they can ask someone to edit.
Some kids can get lost in the minutiae of the editing. That’s why I don’t let them derail into editing till the bitter end. For these kids, it’s essential to separate each process. If they get lost, I ask them general questions such as, “Would a reader understand the writing?”‘ If so, then they are probably done with the draft. If the child repeatedly erases their writing, I may limit the number of times they can erase in order to move the process forward.
I recently found two great apps that teach kids all of this as sequential pre-writing lessons. They teach writing vocabulary and include many quizzes, word puzzles, flash cards, and graphic organizers. Most of all, they show that writing is complex, and that we need all the help we can get to become good writers. Check them out!
I think they are set up to be used as lessons in the classroom. So let your kid’s teachers know about these apps and those Hilltown Families’ events you’ve gone to, in case they want to use this for teaching writing!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at kathypuckett.com
[Photo credit: (ccl) woodleywonderworks]