Reading, and reading problems, get lots of attention. Not so with writing, and writing problems which receive far less time and effort. The consequences of this neglect are serious—as many discover once they leave college and try to move up the career ladder. Skilled writing is an enormous advantage for both academic and job success.
In the desert landscape of writing instruction in schools, one form stands out. It goes by the name of “journal writing.”
A product of the whole language movement, daily or near daily, journal writing occurs throughout the nation in the primary grades. It is based on the idea that children’s interest in writing would be increased and their skills would be enhanced if they were to write about their own experiences—experiences that were "meaningful" to them.
Exposure to this type of writing occurs even in the earliest years---even in kindergarten. There it takes the form of encouraging the youngsters to draw a picture of something in their lives and then put down whatever words they can to go along with the drawing.
Those who are familiar with invented spelling (another product of whole language) can easily see the compatibility between the two systems. The topic can be anything that comes to the child’s mind and the spelling can also be anything that comes to mind. The seeming freedom is thought to be a boon to the child’s expression and confidence. As many a parent knows, it frequently doesn’t work that way.
Many children, dreading the daily assignment, begin to rely on simple repetitive formulas that they hope will allow them to get by. Often, for example, not knowing what else to do, a child will write about his or her pet. The end product, repeated with slight variations from day to day, is something like “I have a pet. His name is Charley. I like him. We play together.”
After a few days, the teacher will respond with a message such as “I love hearing about your pet but I would love to hear about something else. Can you think of something else in your life that really is important to you?” The child has been anticipating—with butterflies in his or her stomach—this moment. It is the message that always recurs after a certain number of repetitions on the same theme. All the child can do is hope he can get away with his or her ploy for as many days as possible.
The irony is that even when a child writes journal entries "well," they do little or nothing to foster the writing skills that he or she will need both in higher grades in school and in jobs in adult life. Why is that the case? Well, think about it for a moment. What is the essence of journal writing? What is its message?
The answer is that it is a form of personal diary writing where a written record is made that reports on something meaningful that happened to the writer over the course of a day or other period. But for whom is a diary written? Or put another way, who is supposed to read a dairy?
Generally it is only for the writer. It is the self-expression of someone who wants to get his or her ideas down—just because that expression leads to a better sense of well-being or release. They are not designed to be read by anyone else. So when a teacher reviews, edits and comments on them, it is basically an invasion of privacy. And when the teacher, seeing the repetition, requests new content, he or she is essentially making an inappropriate demand. It is a violation of a diary writer’s rights.
From a purely pragmatic view, the practice is also mired in difficulty. The demands of journal or diary writing have little or no similarity to the major set of demands that individuals face in the later school years or in their careers. The type of writing that is required is termed “expository writing.” Basically in this form, the writer is “exposing” or “illuminating” a theme about a subject of importance in the society—whether it is the causes of the Civil War in a middle school class; a critique of the United Nations in a high school class or an analysis of business practices of competing organizations in a job setting. Journal writing offers little, if anything, in the way of training for this type of writing.
Please don’t interpret my message to say that I am against a child keeping a diary. If a child wants to do that, it’s great. Any reasonable activity that a child ELECTS to do should be encouraged. But journal writing in school does not fit this category. It is not an activity that the child has chosen to do. It is an IMPOSED activity that uses up time and fails to teach what the children need to learn.
So what is a parent to do? It is, of course, not feasible for parents to create the writing curriculum that schools have failed to create. But there are a number of things you can do that are manageable and have enormous payoff.
Here is one activity you can try with children from about third grade on. It is well known that artists learn a tremendous amount about their craft from (intentionally) copying other artists. The same is true of writing. Imitating the construction of well-formed ideas is invaluable.
Take a newspaper article that fits the child's reading level. It might be something as esoteric as the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or it might be something like New for You http://www.news-for-you.com --an excellent paper for young children. First have the child read the article. Then help him or her over any points that are unclear. Then select one of the paragraphs. At the outset, it should be a relatively short paragraph of no more that three to four sentences.
Ask the child to read the paragraph again. Then cover it and ask him or her to “recreate” the set of ideas. This need not be a word for word recreation–but all the key ideas need to be included in well-formed sentences.
If, in the middle of the writing, the child needs to go back and look at the paragraph, allow that to happen. However, when it does, the child has to start the writing again—from scratch. In order for these writing skills to develop, it is essential that the child be able to deal with a set of ideas--and not ideas separated one from the next. If you allow him or her to deal with one sentence at a time, a key element in effective expository writing is nipped in the bud.
If you do this activity twice weekly for a sustained period of time (e.g., six months), you will begin to see major changes in your child’s writing abilities. Of course, the atmosphere has to be supportive. If it ends up as a yelling bout or with lots of preaching, it will be of little benefit. But if you can put the time aside and commit yourself to this, the effects are amazing. Not only do your child’s writing skills flourish, but the regular interactions lead to interesting, illuminating exchanges which enhances your relationship with your child.