What do you do when your child shows you a piece of writing that he has authored? As with most rough drafts, it probably contains handwriting
that is not perfectly neat, some sentences that are not completely clear, and may be littered with spelling and grammar mistakes. It probably also
reveals some creativity, a spark of the child's personality and imagination. What is your role in responding to such a piece?
I would suggest two things. The first is that you deal with the content of the writing separately from the mechanics of it. Respond first of all to the message of the piece. Toby Scott’s idea of two stars and a wish is helpful. The two stars represent two specific compliments about the child's work. Just saying, "That's brilliant!" or "What good writing!" does not help the child. However, comments like, "What an interesting way to start your story. It makes me want to keep reading", or "I like the way you used such vivid action words; I can really picture the scene in my mind", let the child know what you liked and why. There may be many aspects of the piece which could be improved. However, it is not our duty to bring each of these to the attention of the child. Doing so can be quite overwhelming and discouraging for the child. It is more useful to make one "wish" (or sometimes two), pointing out a way to improve their writing. Often the child himself can identify a weakness. Questions like, "Which part of this are you having the most trouble with? What do you think you could do to solve your problem?" or "I am puzzled about how ... happened? How could you make that part more clear?" can help the child take another look at his own work. The goal is to praise what is good and to give helpful, constructive criticism that can encourage the student to improve his writing in the future. If you are overly critical, the child may quit writing altogether. On the other hand, if you don't offer helpful suggestions, he has no impetus
to sharpen his skills.
So when do we deal with the mechanical errors in the piece? Only after the content has been discussed. It is also my opinion that not every spelling and grammar mistake has to be pointed out in every piece. It may make us feel better to mark the piece with a red pen, not letting a single error slip by, but it can discourage the child. Also, just because the errors have been pointed out, doesn't mean he has learned to correct them and won't make the mistakes again. The errors should instruct us as to what kinds of grammar/spelling lessons we should teach in the near future.
Save detailed editing for pieces that will be
brought to a completed state, not for every rough draft they write. Children can have their own editing checklist which they go over before they bring a piece to you.
They can be required to check for capitals, punctuation (at their skill level), and look to see that their sentences are complete and on topic. They can also underline
or circle words that they are unsure how to spell. This lets them know that these skills are important without it being so burdensome that it discourages them from
writing at all. It is also helpful to point out one or two spelling errors and help the child to analyse why he spelled the words incorrectly. Is there a phonics rule that
he forgot or a word family that would help him avoid the error in the future? Help him hone in on this specific error and plan a trategy to keep from making it in the future.
The goal of all feedback is to encourage the budding author to keep writing and motivate him to improve the content and mechanics of his work. Give lots of specific
praise and encouragement. Remember that not every piece of writing needs to be of award winning quality. If one or two kills have been honed during the writing
process, the venture has been worthwhile and the skills will keep improving when they tackle the next project. Enjoy the writing your children present to you and use
"Two Stars and a Wish" to spur them on to write more and better.
As a trained primary school teacher and home educating mother, Val Robb has had experience with both enthusiastic and reluctant writers. Val has a Bachelor of Religious Education as well as a Bachelor of Education from the University of Calgary where she was awarded the Clarence Sansom Gold Medal in Education and the Governor General's Silver Medal. Val has traveled with her family, and given writing workshops and seminars in Auckland, Christchurch, Canada, and China. She is a member of the New Zealand Christian Writer's Guild.