Improving your child’s writing can seem like a daunting task. As adults, we know good writing when we see it, and we definitely know bad writing when we see it, but helping someone improve their writing isn’t always so easy. One of the reasons that children’s writing can seem ‘bad’ is that, when writing, there are a huge number of different things that the child needs to think about, and when we read their writing, we automatically focus on the things they haven’t done as well.
Below are just some of the things creative writers need to consider:
• Punctuation, which contains a huge number of individual things to think about.
(Commas, capital letters, full stops, question marks, dashes, colons, semi-colons, speech marks and more)
• Grammar, again with many elements inside it.
(Organisation of sentences, connecting main and subordinate clauses, organising related actions into paragraphs, understanding word types and more)
• Character’s personalities and actions.
• The plot.
• Is the writing enjoyable to read? Using devices like metaphor/simile for description.
• How is the story narrated? 1st person? 3rd person?
One thing that can affect children’s writing negatively is a lack of vocabulary. Often, children will tend to use the same simple words or phrases in a sentence, so in a scenario where children need to write a story about a character in a haunted house, they might write the same descriptive words repeatedly, such “scary” and “dark”.
This occurs because children simply do not encounter new words if they do not read the words in books; it is well documented that the more a child reads, the bigger their vocabulary is. If children read frequently, they absorb the vocabulary from the books and it enters into their common usage. The best way to create good writers is to be a good reader!
In fact, we can divide all vocabulary into three different kinds of words, according to Beck, McKeown and Kucan.
Simple, common words that all children will understand and use without thinking about the meaning.
Examples: window, party, happy, walk, drop
These are uncommon words with specific definitions that need to be looked up before understanding.
Examples: ingratiate, elongate, streamline, pacify, obnoxious
These are subject specific words that are related to individual topics, and would be used rarely outside of that.
Examples: carbonate, nucleus, metatarsal
Beck, McKeown and Kucan say that the most useful words for children to learn are those in type 2, as children can use them more easily in writing, and they will have the effect of improving their vocabulary in a tangible way.
Learning New Words
Make sure that there is a dictionary and thesaurus available whenever your child is reading. They should be comfortable with using this, and will be taught it in school over time, but extra practice is very important in creating independent readers and strong writers.
One fun idea is to keep a diary where the child writes down all the new words they read that they don’t understand. Next to the word, they can look it up in a dictionary and write what it means. This can then be used to test the child from time to time, and you can ask them if they remember the definition, or if they can use the word in a sentence.
Another idea is to make a vocabulary dartboard, like the one below. The goal of this is to help children improve their word choices. This activity only works for adjectives, verbs and adverbs.
Words outside the target are basic and simple words. Yellow are one step better than grey; orange are one step better than yellow and red are the most effective words.
If a child uses a word in their writing that is simple, and is a grey or yellow word, work with them in using a thesaurus to choose orange and red words that mean the same thing.
This activity is great for children because it lets them see the different levels of word choices, and they can understand more clearly that they can choose more effective words.
Using these words to improve writing
Let’s use this example sentence, which is very similar to writing you might see from a Year 4 child.
“I ran fast because the big boulder was chasing me.”
First, let’s use the vocabulary board to work on “fast”, which is an adverb, and “big”, which is an adjective.
Now, the sentence can read “I ran hastily because the colossal boulder was chasing me.” It’s definitely an improvement, but we can still make it better!
Write for your character’s senses
Telling the audience about your character’s senses is vital to creating a realistic story where the reader can see themselves in that character’s situation. Children often forget to write descriptively from the perspective of their character.
Currently, our sentence has nothing personal to the character in it.
What can they see? What can they hear? What can they feel? What can they smell? What can they taste?
“I ran hastily because the colossal boulder was chasing me.”
This changes to:
“The thundering rumble of the colossal boulder chased me. My feet pounded against the hard earth, pushing me toward the distant, dim light at the end of the tunnel.”
“thundering rumble” – Sound
“feet pounded the hard earth” – Feeling
“distant, dim light” – Sight.
We can see this new version is much more effective. It makes it much easier to imagine the character running and to visualise the scene.