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6 Questions to Ask Your Child About Her Writing Assignment


When faced with a writing assignment, many students plunge headlong into writing random, half-formed thoughts straight from their heads in an attempt to “just get something down” on paper. The student usually has good intentions of turning this "sentence spaghetti" into a better piece of work later, but once it is written down, it often gets no more improvement than a quick check for spelling. The resulting piece is likely to come back with a low grade. The student often becomes less motivated with each subsequent writing task, knowing he’s not going to magically become an A-plus writer.

So why are so many students unable to produce a decent draft? Find out in this slideshow, and more importantly, find out what you can do about it, from the suggestions offered up by literacy and numeracy specialist Ali Roundtree. You can get to the bottom of what’s troubling your struggling student and help make writing assignments a whole lot easier.

Click on an item in the set below to see more info.

The Pre-Writing Tasks

There are two important stages that an assignment needs to go through before a student can actually begin writing, and these stages rarely get the attention they need.

The first stage is discussion of the task and its requirements. This is usually done verbally by a teacher during class, or through a written prompt, or both. Sometimes students are put in small groups to discuss an assignment. Whatever the case, you can’t always count on your child effectively going through this stage and feeling prepared to write.

The second is planning the piece of writing. This generally means writing down a basic structure, such as an outline, which helps your child organize his thoughts. Some teachers may require an outline with a specific format. Others don’t, but it always helps to have an outline before diving into the assignment.

To make sure your child has been through these pre-writing tasks, ask her these simple questions…

"Did your teacher explain exactly what you need to do?"

Sometimes a writing assignment is explained in detail, and sometimes an assumption is made that students will understand what to do without a great deal of explanation.

Teachers are usually very pleased when their students ask questions about an assignment. Your child may not know this, so point it out and encourage her to ask the teacher if he can explain the assignment again either at the end of class—which may help other students too—or after class.

"Were you given time to talk about the assignment with classmates?"

You need to know whether your child has been involved in active discussion about the assignment. He may have received only a short explanation. Discussing a task with another person really helps to motivate and prepare a student. If this hasn't happened for your child at school, your discussion with him can make the difference.

"Can you explain what you need to do?"

Students are often still unclear about the requirements of a writing assignment, even if it was explained and discussed actively at school.

If you don't get a clear understanding of the task from your child's explanation, it's because she doesn't have a clear understanding. In this case, read the description of the assignment and explain your interpretation of it. This may elicit more information from her.

Come to an agreement about what you think is expected, and let her know that if there is a problem at school because you have misinterpreted some of the requirements, you will support her by talking with the teacher and explaining your discussion.

The set is continued below.

"Do you have a plan, or outline, for your assignment?"

Planning is a crucial part of the writing process. It not only helps students formulate and organize their thoughts, but also encourages them to consider the structure and layout, and visualize the finished product.

Explain to your child that if he is self-disciplined and really thinks about planning at school, the hardest part of the assignment will already be done. He will be able to start writing a good assignment right away.

"Were you given an outline?"

Middle school and high school students are frequently provided with outlines for writing tasks. These can be very helpful, not just for them, but for you as you lend support. They help direct your thinking toward the requirements of the task.

If your child wasn’t given an outline, tell him to ask the teacher for an outline or for a general format he can follow. If it’s too late in the game for that, try a grade-appropriate format that would work, such as the popular five-paragraph essay format.

"Can you show me your outline?"

Even if an outline has already been completed at school, be aware that your child may have rushed it. Some students just fill it out without much thought “just to get it done.”

If you’re helping your child write the outline, start by asking for a few headings. Have her explain her thoughts to you and jot down at least three bullet points under each heading. If she writes sentences, remind her that the planning stage only requires thought and bullet points.

Teaching the procedure

With your involvement, your child will be in a much better position to write an effective draft. Yes, it does take time to do this, but it is time well spent. You are showing your child the correct planning procedure for long-term writing success, not just for this one assignment.

If you want to help your child develop better writing skills, this is the best way to start because this is where most children have difficulty. Sometimes teachers either don't have or don't allow enough time for discussion and planning; sometimes they do. With practice and your help, your child will become more engaged with writing tasks, will enjoy discussing them with you, and will produce a much higher standard of work.

These suggestions were written for by Ali Roundtree, a literacy and numeracy specialist who has authored several ebooks, including Reading for Meaning and How to Get Your Child to Write.