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Dear Parents and Teachers,

You want your children to write well. You want them to create stories that are interesting, and maybe will win a contest here and there. You want them to be able to write a business letter that isn't embarrassing. You want them to write an essay well enough to get into a good college when it's time to send off those college applications in their senior year.

I want that, too. I really do. But I sometimes think that people have a backwards idea about how this will be accomplished. Teachers send home lists of "interesting" words to be used in creative writing assignments. They do grammar drills to make sure that students write each sentence in a way that will be correct. And they give lists of vocabulary words to be rewritten for a spelling test.

I think these are the wrong ways to go about getting what you want. Let me explain why.

When I was in graduate school, I remember one of the professors commiserating with us on how horrible it is to write a disseration. He talked about the anxiety of writing even one line. He said that even then, as a tenured faculty member, it was something he had to force himself to do, to write a little every day, on an academic paper he was working on. So of course it would be the same for us, too. Only we just had to do it.

This was not the kind of encouragement for me that I think he imagined it would be. See, I don't normally have anxiety writing. I like writing. That is why I am a writer. I actually like to sit down and have words appear on a computer screen or on a piece of paper. I know that they aren't going to be perfect the first time or even the sixth or twenty-sixth time I work on them. This does not bother me. I am willing to accept that the process towards a really good manuscript is a process. Everyone needs an editor in their heads who tells them how to fix what comes out wrong. But if the editor is too loud, then the words that come out on the page will be very few. Or none at all.

I see far too many students, elementary and older, who are afraid of writing. They are afraid of spelling a word wrong. They are afraid of getting the grammar wrong. They are afraid of not writing with "interesting words." And guess what? These kids do not like to sit down and write. They don't do it for fun. They only do it when they have to. Does this make them better writers? Obviously not.

Think about how you teach children to read. Do you sit them down and make them take tests on everything they read. (Yes, I know that some schools are starting to do this, but I think it is an abomination--and it does not make kids want to read. It makes them want to get prizes for doing well on tests. If you want to read about my opinion of AR, go here). Children learn to read by reading. A lot. Every day. And the more they like reading and have good experiences with it, the more they read. And the better they get. It's a cycle like that.

Isn't it obvious that the same thing would be true of writing? Get kids to write more. Every day. They will naturally become better writers. You do not have to correct their writing all the time. In fact, you want to do it as little as possible. Perhaps there will occasionally be a paper that gets marked up with those horrible little red (or green) marks. But it should not be the most prominent experience for a child. Writing should be fun. It should be about what they want it to be about.

Parents, if you want your child to write, get a journal. Encourage them to write in it every day. Don't EVER read their journal. They don't want your editorial eyes going over it. Write yourself. Write a Christmas letter. Let your kids write their own section of it. Write down stories that are from the family. Collect them in books for the kids to see. If you find it fun, they will learn something important from that.

Teachers, if you want your students to write, get them to write a lot. About anything you can imagine. Get them to write jokes, funny stories that happened at Christmas with Uncle Bob who farted, the story about the time they climbed up the tree and fell down. Let them write whatever they want. And do not correct their writing. Do not write anything but encouragement on their papers.

You will see the difference by the end of the year. You will have students who like to write. They will feel confident about their writing. Because writing is really just a way of expressing yourself clearly. The more they do it, the more clearly they will be able to do it. Clarity is what you want, not "interesting words." Believe me, if you have students telling an uninteresting story, all the interesting words in the world will not help it. But they will only tell interesting stories if they feel safe, and "allowed" to tell them. They are afraid of telling the truth, and good writing is all about truth.

Sincerely,

Mette Ivie Harrison


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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.