With luck, you’ve got a kid that just loves to write. With no nagging, your kid will get right down to work producing essays, stories, and projects so sparkling that they practically jump off the page. Everything will fall into place: clever ideas, apt phrases, and perfect punctuation.

With luck, that is. In real life, however, just about every twelve and thirteen year old still struggles with writing, whether that means ideas, sentence structure, paragraphs, or flat-out wacky spelling. How do you know your kid is on track?

For starters, you should make sure you check out your state standards, which are available on the website for your state’s department of education. Start by looking up writing in the section on English Language Arts; it also pays off to look in the Social Science section, since writing cuts across the curriculum. State standards do vary somewhat, but you can be sure that writing will be prominent. Here are some particular themes to expect:

Writing to make a point: By seventh grade, students should have had considerable practice with fundamentals like sentences, paragraphs, and simple essays. In elementary school, and to a lesser extent in sixth grade, they’ve also experimented with creative writing. Now they’re ready to expand those skills and practice more complex essay styles. Although specific jargon will vary, virtually all state standards expect a multi-paragraph essay that hangs together. This requirement usually starts appearing on standards lists by fourth grade; but by seventh, it’s considered a basic building block. Your child will be asked to make a coherent point, and to show decent evidence for it, too.

Writing about research: As students practice the analytic and persuasive styles of writing that the standards recommend, it’s natural that they’ll also explore new kinds of information that they might include. When you were a kid, this probably meant you were expected to visit the library. Nowadays it includes a wide variety of media and internet sources as well. You’ll find standards that address this in both the English Language Arts and in Social Science, but in general expect that at least once in seventh and eighth grade, and often more frequently, your child will practice researching a topic, making an outline, and writing it up.

Grammar, Vocabulary and Spelling: Not surprisingly in the “get tough” world of standards, teachers are expected to spend plenty of time on the p’s, q’s, and untangled participles. By the end of eighth grade, your child should be able to write in complete sentences with fully accurate capitalization, punctuation, and intermediate grammar. States cover more specifics in their standards, but there are many valid ways for your teacher to proceed. The best way to find out exactly what your child will be learning in each semester is to talk directly to the teacher.

What to watch for: Like reading, writing is a crucial foundation of any English class, and it’s pretty much impossible to overdo. If your child writes something regularly - even few paragraphs - hug your teacher. That’s a fat stack of papers to read and grade, on top of daily teaching. It’s a sign of dedication - and it’s also the best way to get your kid to write well. Because writing is notoriously subjective, it can be hard to know if your child’s on track. Nowadays, though, most English teachers provide “rubrics” - pages that explain the characteristics of excellent, good, fair, and poor writing for that level. If your kid won’t cough them up, go ahead and ask the teacher yourself! You can also offer to discuss and proofread your child’s writing, but by all means, don’t do it yourself. Here’s one common rule of thumb: when corrections are made, they should come from your child’s pen, not yours.

If you do have a junior Shakespeare, congratulations! But if you’re like the vast majority of parents whose kids are still getting comfortable juggling their nouns, verbs, and adjectives, take heart. Like most skills worth having, writing takes time to do well. Your patient support really can make a difference.