When faced with a writing task, many students plunge headlong into writing random, half-formed thoughts straight from their heads in an attempt to “just get something down” for the draft.
The student usually has good intentions of turning this “sentence spaghetti” into a better piece of work later, but once it is written down, frequently the only improvement it gets is a rewrite and a spelling check.
The resulting piece comes back with a low grade. The student often becomes less motivated with each subsequent writing task, knowing they are not magically going to become a B or an A grade writer.
So how do you go about helping your child to improve this sort of writing “system”?
There are two important stages that need to happen prior to the drafting stage. The first is discussion of the task and its requirements. The second is planning the piece of writing.
As a supportive parent, you can check with your child whether or not these stages have already happened at school. Have they been involved in active discussion about the task, or have they just been a recipient of the details? Have they then gone on to plan the task, working either individually or collaboratively? Can they show you a completed planning sheet?
Discussion of the task
Students are often unclear about the requirements of a writing task. Read the task description with your child and ask, “Can you explain what you need to do?”
If you don’t get a clear understanding of the task from their explanation, it’s because your child doesn’t have a clear understanding. In this case, read the description again and discuss your interpretation of it with them. You will find that this may elicit more information from them. Come to an agreement about what is expected, and let your child know that if there is a problem at school because you have misinterpreted some of the requirements, you will support them by talking with the teacher and explaining your discussion.
Planning the piece of writing
When your child has a clear understanding of what is expected, it’s time to start planning the piece of writing. Planning not only helps students formulate and organise their thoughts, but also encourages them to consider the structure and layout, and visualise the finished product.
Both primary and secondary school students are frequently provided with planning sheets for writing tasks, and these can be very helpful, not just for them, but for you, as the support person. Even if the planning sheet for the current task has already been completed at school, be aware that it may have been a rush job. Some students just fill up the boxes without much thought…”just to get it done”.
If your child has a completed planning sheet, ask them to explain each heading and what they’ve written under it. You will soon see whether or not they have thought about it.
If they have a sheet that hasn’t yet been completed, discuss each heading with them and ask them to think about what they will say. When they have explained their thoughts to you, they should jot down at least three dot points under each heading. If you see your child writing sentences, remind them that the planning stage only requires thought and dot points.
If they have no planning sheet, it’s easy to draw up a simple one for them. It should suit the task, so revisit the task description for ideas for headings. Then discuss what will go under each heading, and ask them to add their dot points. Tell them to keep the planning sheet to hand in with the draft because it will be valued by the teacher as planning is a very important part of writing.
By going through these stages with your child, they will be in a much better position to write a draft. Yes, it does take time to do this, but it is time well spent. You are supporting (perhaps even modelling) the correct planning procedure for long term writing success, not just for this one task. If you want to support your child in developing 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 your help, and with practice, you will find that your child becomes more engaged with writing tasks, enjoys discussing them with you, and produces a much higher standard of draft work.