By Pamela A. Zinkosky
Like other academic subjects, writing is best learned when it's integrated with a child's education after school. Encouraging children to write outside of school not only gives them more practice, but also teaches them writing's practical uses and increases the likelihood that they'll reap its indirect benefits.
The key to encouraging children to write as part of family home activities is parents' participation.
"I think the best way for parents to encourage kids to write is to write with them and to them," says middle-school teacher Sherrie Gentry.
She says that she and her husband used to write letters to each other when they worked opposite shifts, and that she read a magazine article about a parent who does something similar with her children.
If the children have a difficult question to ask or dilemma, they write a letter and leave it on their mom's bed. She, in turn, writes back to them, leaving the letter somewhere in their rooms. The practice not only gives kids - especially teenagers - an alternate means for communicating with their parents, but also turns writing into a meaningful exercise.
"Parents should help their kids see that writing is real and purposeful and fun," Gentry says.
In addition to writing to their children, parents can engage their children - and themselves - in fun, practical activities that improve writing skills. Here are some suggestions from Roy Peter Clark's book, "Free to Write":
All parents want to see their children do things well, and writing is no exception. However, the personal nature of writing makes it difficult to provide constructive criticism without discouraging children.
If you take a "right vs. wrong" approach, you'll stifle a child's individuality and creativity, which are essential to good writing. A more constructive approach is to ask questions and offer suggestions, Gentry says.
"First, say something you like about the writing, then ask a question about something that confuses you or that you would like to know more about," she suggests.
While grammar and spelling are important, parents and teachers should be careful not to focus only on these topics when discussing a child's personal writing. If you overlook what the child is trying to express with his or her writing and hone in on spelling and grammar, the child will also focus on writing's mechanical elements instead of its creative and expressive qualities and may begin to dislike it.
Pamela A. Zinkosky is a freelance writer.