What families need to know to support their child’s writing

I’m not a professional writer. I haven’t published a novel. I don’t work for a newspaper. But I do consider myself a writer because writing is a central part of my daily life: I scribble reminders for myself on scraps of paper, I compose emails for work, and I write when I respond to a group text thread or post on social media. It’s hard for me to think of a single day I haven’t written something. I imagine you might have a similar experience.

I can rely on writing daily because I learned to use it as a tool in school. In this and some upcoming posts, my colleagues and I will share information with you about writing development in children so the kids in your life can benefit from writing, too. We’ll also share practical tips on how to support writing development at home. (Reading and writing go hand in hand, so if you’re interested in our earlier family series on literacy, see How to support reading at home: A guide for families.) But first, let’s start with the most fundamental question of all.

Why do we write?

Writing is an essential life skill. It has huge implications for how we participate in society. It opens doors to educational, economic, and personal growth.

Writing is important for all aspects of school. Sure, students write in their language arts classes, but they also write in science, social studies, math, and other classes. We use writing to show what we know to others, and through the writing process, we also discover new ideas we hadn’t considered before.

Writing about a new topic or concept helps us think about and understand ideas more deeply. Writing about a text—whether that’s responding to questions, summarizing a passage, or something else—helps us better comprehend that text. Indeed, developing writing skills is closely related to developing reading skills. Writing is a tool for thinking and learning.

Writing is also important for career opportunities. According to an article in Inc., 73% of employers list writing as one of their top sought-after skills when hiring new employees. Good writing skills can lead to hiring and promotions. They are essential for filling out job applications, polishing a résumé, and communicating via email.

Writing is a tool for thinking and learning.

People use writing for personal reasons, too. With the traumas of the pandemic and school violence, writing can be used as a therapeutic tool for children to express and process complex feelings. Indeed, writing is linked to improved happiness and health benefits. Children can use a journal to explore their emotions, reflect on challenging conversations, examine the pros and cons of a difficult decision, experiment with their creativity, and more. Writing is a wonderful way to encourage social-emotional growth, something that will benefit children throughout their lives.

How do we learn to write?

To better understand how to support your writer at home, it helps to learn about the multiple processes that are involved when children are learning how to write. We’ll explore these—and explain how they’re connected—in upcoming posts. But for now, let’s look at the basic elements of what it takes to learn to write. This model is called the Simple View of Writing.

  • Transcription: This is the act of converting spoken language into printed words. Transcribing involves spelling, handwriting, and keyboarding. In school, when you took notes while your teacher was explaining an idea to the class, you were transcribing.
  • Executive function: This is the ability to use your mind to manage tasks and monitor progress. In writing, this might involve setting goals, planning, organizing, evaluating, revising, and shifting your attention based on what you find. If you have ever drafted an email, read your writing, and then deleted or rewrote portions of the draft before sending it, you’ve used executive function skills.
  • Text generation: This refers to the creation of thoughts and ideas and transforming them into language in written words, sentences, paragraphs, and full texts. When you wrote a response to a question from your teacher, whether it was a short-answer sentence or an entire essay, you were engaging in text generation.
  • Working memory: This is the limited mental space in which all these processes take place. If you’ve walked into another room to do something only to get there and completely forget what you were going to do (I know I’ve been there), then your working memory was probably overloaded.

The Simple View of Writing is represented in the graphic below. The top triangle is text generation. The two skills needed to reach this goal make up the bottom two triangles: transcription and executive functions. All three triangles are located within the circle representing working memory.

The Simple View of Writing

A circle labeled Working Memory, containing 3 equal-sized, labeled triangles. The triangles are arranged in 2 rows. The bottom row has 2 triangles: Transcription and Executive Functions. They hold up the third triangle, Text Generation, in the top row.

Children just learning to write have to work really hard to develop these skills, and there is a continuum, or order, of skill development so that it is easier to learn the more complex skills later on. In fact, even adults continue to grow their writing skills. Writing expert and researcher Steve Graham says, “Writing develops across the life span, [and] some forms of writing take many years to master.”

What can I do now to support writing at home?

So where do you start to help your child? There are lots of things to consider in the Simple View of Writing model, and I promise we’ll dig deep into each component in the coming weeks and give you more specific strategies to try. But for now, I encourage you to focus on the following three things.

1. Get to know your writer

It’s valuable to talk to your child about how they feel about writing. Do they like to do it? What do they like to write about? How is writing going at school? Who are their favorite writers? What do they like about books they read? Understanding your child’s motivations and attitudes about writing can help you be better prepared to support them.

2. Model writing in front of your child

Adults’ attitudes toward writing influence children’s perception of its value. Have your child observe you while writing a thank-you note or composing an email to a friend. Watching you write and hearing you voice aloud your thought process while writing (“I think I might need to use a different word here to show my appreciation”) can help to establish a recognition that writing is a useful and positive part of everyday life.

3. Write together

Kids are more likely to engage with writing when they find it relevant and meaningful to their lives. Collaborating with your child on a writing project (small or large) can give you insight into where they are in their writing development.

For very young children, this might involve creating art and having your kid tell you a story about what they’ve drawn, while you write their words down on paper.

For children just learning to read, you might help them spell words. Children this age are learning to connect sounds to letters and letter patterns, and they often use invented spelling to express their ideas. This is a very normal and helpful part of the learning-to-write process.

For older children, you might rewrite the ending to one of their favorite books or movies.

For more ideas about general writing activities to do at home, check out “Parent strategies for improving their child’s reading and writing.”

You can do this!

Remember: you don’t need to be an expert in writing to try any of these ideas. And you may already be doing these things to some degree. Wherever your child is in their writing development, there are meaningful and doable ways you can support them at home.

Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Heather Cella, Meg Guerreiro, Tiffany Peltier, Julie Richardson, and Kellie Schmidt for their contributions to this blog post.

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