Now that the new school year is in full swing, those of you with older primary school children might be seeing their written language assignments getting more and more difficult, and wondering if they’re going to be able to get everything completed on time without your help. But how much should you really step in?
Written language tasks are tricky because they are cognitively demanding. They utilise an individual’s language, reading and spelling skills, as well as their organisational skills. The writer needs to understand the topic and the vocabulary used within the topic, be able to express the ideas associated with the topic using specific vocabulary, be able to spell efficiently and read well. If your child has an underlying language and/or literacy difficulty, they will find writing much more difficult than their peers and may well procrastinate or try to get out of written homework tasks.
As you are helping your child get to grips with the complexity of writing, it is important to bear in mind their age and the expectations of their class teacher. A journal entry for a Primary One student will look very different from that of a Primary Two student. A story for a Primary Two student will look different from that of a Primary Four student. Furthermore, a child’s unique abilities will vary. How you support your child will change as they grow and improve. Early primary school learners will need to be supported through all stages of the writing process, for example, whilst later primary learners may be able to complete some or all of the stages independently.
One of the best ways to help is by teaching and encouraging your child to manage their time. As adults, we already know how to break complex tasks down into manageable segments, and we can teach our children to utilise a similar strategy with their written assignments.
There are many different techniques you can use, but I like the “POWER pencil”. In this case, “POWER” refers to Planning, Organising, Writing, Editing and Re-writing. The aim is to teach children a process of writing with five separate tasks that culminate in a finished and edited piece. Each segment can be put on a calendar or in a school diary so that assignments are completed on time with minimal rushing. By breaking down the big task into smaller chunks you are also providing your child with opportunities to concentrate on high-level language skills, such as generating and organising ideas. Many studies have shown that a student’s written language skills will improve with the use of procedural techniques.
In addition to using the POWER pencil method, you can support your child’s written language skills by encouraging them to think about the purpose of their writing and how this purpose is reflected in the way they organise their thoughts and the language they use. For example, the purpose of writing a journal entry is very different from that of a report or a story. In a journal, you expect to read about an event that has occurred in the past; in a report, you expect to read facts about a topic; in a story, you expect to be entertained.
By the same token, you would anticipate the layout of the various types of writing to be different and the language used to change as well. In journal writing, you might start by setting the scene providing “wh” question answers (when, who, what, where, why), then follow this with a sequence of events related to the scene being written about, and complete it with a statement about how you felt at the end of the events. As a consequence, you would be writing in the past tense, using names of specific people and places, including sequences words (first, next, last) and perhaps some emotion words as well.
However, in report writing, you might start by putting your topic in its wider context. If your topic is frogs, for example, the wider context would be amphibians/animals. Then you might give information related to various features of your topic (such as a frog’s appearance, habitat, diet or breeding). Since you are giving facts about a topic, you would likely write in the present tense, include some technical language, and avoid giving your personal opinion.
Conversely, in a story, you might start with details and descriptions about your characters and setting before moving on to describe how your characters get involved in a problem, what complications arise and how they are resolved. Your language is going to be much more descriptive and is likely to include some conversation, and your complication will aim to be exciting and enthralling.
Filling the gaps
These are just three examples of different writing styles, but there are many more, all of which have their own structures and associated language features. If you are unsure about the purpose of your child’s assignments or the layout that the school prefers, make time to talk to their teacher. The more you know about the expectations for your child’s writing, the more you will be able to help them.
Another avenue of support you can offer your kids is to focus on developing specific skills that may be lacking at a “whole text” level. This is where reading the comments provided by your child’s teacher at the end of each assignment is crucial, as it will highlight what areas might need a bit more work. Has the teacher picked your child up for not paying attention to paragraphs, for example, or neglecting to edit their work resulting in poor spelling? Or perhaps they have suggested that their use of descriptive language could be improved? Again, check with the teacher if you’re not sure where your child’s skills need the most attention and development.
Remember, the assignment is your child’s, not yours. While it might seem helpful, or certainly easier at the eleventh hour, jumping in and writing the assignment yourself is not the answer. Writing is a key life skill and letting your child learn how to do it well now will serve them well for years to come.