I got invited to this party too.
Lulu has been writing college application essays. For the past few months she’s been talking through them with me. Often that’s meant she comes home from school on a Friday afternoon all worked up and wanting to talk. I’m not sure what it is about Friday afternoons, but one thing I know about writing inspiration is that you should indulge it when it hits. So I’ve tried to drop what I was doing on those fired-up Fridays (another day, inbox!) to hear what she had to say.
Mentoring her through this process mostly meant that I listened to her ideas, and talked to her about them. I took notes when she asked me to, or when she said something that had her particularly riled up. I occasionally offered suggestions for how she might write one of her ideas, but honestly, she rarely took my suggestions. My suggestions only seemed to have the effect of making her more sure of her own. (Interesting how that works.) I looked at her drafts and underlined places that seemed particularly powerful, after asking her to do the same first. I helped her figure out where to cut and tighten when her word count was too high. Before she submitted, I proofread for spelling and grammar.
Her essays completely morphed throughout this process. She scrapped topics and drafts and figured out which parts of her she wanted to share. She came up with an essay that pleased her.
I loved being invited to the party.
I earned that invitation. I earned my role as a mentor to Lulu and her writing every time I held back from teaching her how to write over the years, and listened to what she needed instead. Sure, I screwed up at times, giving instruction when instruction wasn’t wanted, but apparently not enough to keep her from coming back for my help.
I’ve spent seven posts trying to describe this process to you, and today I’m tying up the series with a few big questions:
How do you offer constructive feedback on your kids’ writing? How do you help them improve without discouraging them?
Be careful about offering feedback that isn’t desired. This is a tricky one. If we parents come from a schooled background, as most of us do, we may carry the assumption that as a homeschooling parent we should teach, that we should manage our kids’ learning. Remember, though, that teaching isn’t the only way to help a child develop. You may want to read my first post in this series which explored the difference between being a teacher and a mentor. I admit strong bias here: I believe that the mentor role will be the more influential in the long run. That means that when it comes to writing, we may want to put our energies into earning that mentorship role. We want to be that person who our child wants to share their work with. Remember when your child was four, and she rushed to show you the heart she’d drawn, or the robot he’d made from Play-Doh? You want to keep being that person–even if the kids don’t dash at you with the enthusiasm of a four-year-old. The best way I know to do that is to stick with mostly positive feedback for a good long while, unless your child asks for specific help. (Did you tell your four-year-old that her heart was crooked, or that his robot’s head was too big for his body? I’ll bet you didn’t. Writing shouldn’t be any different.)
Consider that the desire to revise and improve writing may be developmental. I discovered this slowly, over years of working with many kids. Here’s a snippet from my book:
I came to understand that revision is somewhat developmental. Younger kids write, are happy with their writing, and they’re finished. Most don’t want to linger with something they’ve already written. Over time, though, I began to see that even if kids didn’t revise the work at hand, they often applied workshop feedback to later writing. When workshop kids request more dialogue in a story, for example, a young writer might not go back and add dialogue to that particular story, but her next story might have more dialogue. In But How Do You Teach Writing? Barry Lane summarizes this notion well: “It is important for young writers to see the possibility of revision in their work, even if they revise their story by writing a new one.”
I also learned that teens–and some younger, particularly avid writers–are more likely to want to revisit their work and rework it.
Help your kids find authentic audiences for their work so there’s a built-in reason to improve it. I wrote about authentic audiences at the end of part 6 of this series. If your daughter is writing a letter, or text for a history fair display, she might want to make the work better. If your son is submitting a review to a kid’s magazine, polishing the work may be necessary. In either case, you can be a helpful resource. (On the other hand, if you are concerned about the spelling in a thank-you note to Grandma, be careful. Is it your child who wants the spelling fixed, or your pride? If it’s pride, and you push your child to fix it, watch her response. If she doesn’t mind fixing it, okay. (Well, maybe okay.) If she balks, ask yourself if a correctly spelled thank-you note is worth establishing yourself as a person who thinks your child’s writing isn’t good enough. This might be at odds with establishing yourself as a mentor.)
Keep remembering the power of positive feedback. I already went on and on about this in my last post in this series, but it’s worth repeating and repeating and repeating. Positive feedback is not only encouraging, but if your positive feedback is specific and detailed, it can be instructive. More instructive than you may realize.
Ask kids what they want feedback on. Where do they need help? Kids will be more likely to learn from your insights if your suggestions are based on what they actually want to improve. Ask them to think about what they’d like help with before you read their work. They might not be able to voice such requests at first, but may get better at it the more you work with them. This can help them see you as an ally, rather than a critic.
If your kids are open to instructive feedback, focus on one or two things to improve. For one, you want to keep the ratio of positive/constructive feedback very high if you’re trying to earn mentorship status. Also, kids are more likely to take in suggestions if those suggestions are fewer and focused. Too many suggestions overwhelm and discourage. Choose carefully. (And keep spelling and grammar out of the equation for now. See below.) In my writer’s workshops, I have participants consider the following questions when offering feedback: What confuses you in the piece? What would you like to know more about? Your responses to these questions are likely to be useful, without seeming like you are attacking your child’s work.
Consider responding in writing. I discovered how useful written feedback could be for kids by chance. At twelve, my oldest was writing a review for a magazine, and I offered the same sort of written suggestions on his draft that my writing group gives to me. He loved it! I noticed that written feedback from a parent has less of a tendency to feel loaded than verbal feedback. I could take time to be thoughtful about what I wanted to convey to my son, and he could consider what I wrote without me looming there and expecting a response. If offering feedback on hand-written work–which is a labor that can feel very personal to the writer–don’t make your notes on the piece directly. Consider using Post-Its so your child doesn’t feel that you’ve taken over and vandalized his or her work. Melissa of Imagination Soup has a nice post on responding to a child’s work, complete with a photo of how you might respond with Post-Its to a younger child’s work.
Once you’ve earned your child’s trust and have been offering this sort of feedback for a while–and he or she has responded well to it–you might move into offering more thorough, line-by-line feedback on a written draft, if your child wants that. Older kids–perhaps those moving into their teens–are often ready for this. You might even come up with a system for conveying the many things you like (underlined words and sentences, + signs, check marks, smiley faces) and those that make you pause (wavy lines under confusing lines, for example.) Make sure to support such symbols with written insight too: This description is vivid. I can see it! You want to be specific about what you like and why you like it, and what you wonder about. Continue to keep the positive/constructive ratio high.
Offer proofreading help separately from feedback on content. In other words, spelling, punctation and grammar should be worked on only after you explore the ideas in the piece. I have already nattered on about the importance of not getting fixated on spelling and grammar. This can be hard for many parents, but remember that spelling and grammar get mastered over time (or kids learn to work with their spelling and grammar handicaps) but you want to help kids focus on the content of their writing from the beginning. It’s what really matters. Having someone engage with their written ideas is what motivates most kids to continue writing. I would go so far as suggest that you only offer proofreading help on work that has a need for proofreading help: work that needs to be polished for an audience, or that the child wants polished. Every piece of work does not need to be perfected in such a way. Teachers require proofreading fixes; mentors offer help when a writer wants the work to look good for a real reason. There’s a big difference. (Older kids who have been working with you as a mentor for several years can probably handle content and proofreading suggestions in the same draft–I do this once my kids are teenagers–but again, be careful. If your proofreading suggestions distract your kids from the content of their work, separate the two.)
Remember that you are offering suggestions. The writing belongs to your child. He or she needs to own it. Your suggestions should be just that: suggestions. Offerings for the writer to take or disregard at will. If you want to encourage thoughtful, effective writers who know how to make independent decisions about their work, you need to allow them this freedom, this power. This is what I’m trying to get at here: the more you offer rather than push, the more you encourage rather than demand, the more likely your kids are to value and seek your input in the long run.
Remember that enthusiastic learners teach themselves. I have written this at least a hundred times in a hundred different ways on this blog. It’s a suggestion that requires observation and faith on your part. It takes time to play out. Kids who write because they want to write will improve as writers. They will improve in both staggers and leaps. They will pay attention to the writing of others: in the books they read, the forums they scroll through online, in the work of other kids they encounter in writing workshops and science fairs. They will learn from the conversations they have with you. Instead of teaching, consider doing some of what I mention at the end of this article to encourage a literate, word-loving atmosphere in your home. Put in this time and energy and realize that you are teaching your child to write. You just aren’t doing it with red pen in margins. (Unless your child wants your red pen in their margins.)
Phew! It feels almost as good to tie up this series as it felt to watch Lulu hit the send button on her first college application. What started out as a blog series somehow wound up as a synopsis of my mostly closely held beliefs about kids and writing. Anyone who has traipsed through all these posts with me deserves a prize. Or a party.
If there’s more you want to chat about, fire away in the comments.
You can read all the posts in this series here.