What makes a great writer? Over the years, we've used a number of different activities and texts. What helped the most? I polled my students--who range from college age to teens--to see what they thought. The results were interesting.
While the early activities we shared and the texts we used probably had at least some role to play, our students credited other things for their success: developing strong reading skills, getting to write on topics that were important to them, having a writing buddy for advice and encouragement, analyzing others' papers, and studying a foreign language.
Children need strong reading skills before they can develop into confident writers. A few of our students had difficulty with reading in their early years because of long-term vision problems. Even with corrective lenses, some difficulties take time to fix. Once their vision improved in their later elementary years, they responded well to more in-depth phonics and spelling instruction. As they took off with reading, each developed a stronger vocabulary and a sense of how sentences work. These were important foundational materials on which to build their writing.
One of my students mentioned that he first felt successful as a writer when he was able to write on topics that strongly interested him. "Write what you know" has long been sound advice for aspiring adult writers, and we would do well to remember it for our students. Students who struggle to get off the ground academically need opportunities to stay on familiar turf. The projects can be wide-ranging even though the topic is narrow; a student engrossed in football can write a guide for how the game works, a poem about a particular game, a sales flyer for football equipment, and so on. He might even have fun making up an imaginative story with a football theme.
Modeling and mentoring are another area to consider. In our family, older siblings have acted as mentors to younger ones, encouraging them and celebrating progress. The younger student loves the attention, but this relationship also serves to help the older student to review and reinforce what he has learned. We also share good examples of writing that we see in books or in news articles, and discuss what it is that makes a piece of writing powerful or satisfying to read. Students benefit from opportunities to judge a piece of someone else's writing because it allows them to recall and apply the rules for writing that they have already mastered.
Finally, there's nothing like studying a foreign language to cement the idea that grammar matters! While English grammar has sometimes puzzled our elementary students, once they begin figuring out a second language, they realize how helpful grammar terminology and rules can be to putting together sentences that make sense. As students compare the new language to their own, they are constantly bumping into similarities and differences that help them to see how language works.
Developing writing skills takes time and lots of practice. When they were younger, all of our children have complained occasionally about having to write or revise, but now that they have gained more skill, they see how valuable these experiences have been. Writing is work, but for those who have mastered its skills, it is rewarding work.
Laura Belknap holds a BS in elementary education, and has home schooled her children for 16 years in Simpsonville. You may reach her at home_school