In one of the live Q&A sessions from our parenting for academic success course, two parents brought up a similar issue:
“My kid (middle school) gets 100% on his writing assignments even though they’re not very good. He believes his writing is great because it’s getting 100% percent. How can I show him that he needs to improve?”
“My kid’s language arts teacher doesn’t read or grade their writing – they just have peers read it and give feedback. I know their writing isn’t very good, but they’re not getting any adult feedback about how to improve. They think their writing is fine because they’ve never been told otherwise. What can I do?”
A Common Struggle
Writing is one of the most important skills you learn in school. No matter what career you wind up in, you’re going to need to be able to write clearly. And too often kids don’t receive good writing instruction, good reading materials that model effective writing, and – most commonly – they don’t get constructive feedback from teachers.
When a student is motivated to learn how to become a better writer, they’re happy to let me review their writing and get ideas for how to improve. They might even be eager to practice writing in order to build their skills. And if they don’t know why they’re getting low grades on papers, I encourage them to ask their teacher for better feedback. This might require an after-school meeting, but the one-on-one attention is extremely valuable.
But what about kids who aren’t motivated to improve, like the children mentioned earlier?
How to Help Your Kid Become a Better Writer When They Don’t Think They Need To
Here’s what I suggested to those parents:
First of all, don’t read their story/essay and pick it apart like an editor. Don’t highlight all the things they did wrong and admonish them to put more effort into their writing. Don’t insist on reading their papers before they turn them in. These behaviors will only do two things: trigger resistance and make them hate writing.
Instead, be curious about their work the way you might be curious about a story written by a second grader. At that age, we’re just happy they wrote something at all, and we express excitement to read their creation. We ask questions about what they’re saying – about the characters, the plot, the ideas. We don’t criticize them for misspelling words or forgetting a comma.
Ask to Read Their Writing
Ask to read what they wrote, out of pure curiosity – because you’re interested in the topic. (This might require a bit of acting.)
Also, it has to be okay if they say “no.” If you’ve been critical of their writing in the past, they might not be comfortable having you read it. If you have a two-parent household, let the parent they’re most comfortable with take the lead on this. If Dad’s always criticizing their writing, Mom should be the one to ask to read their paper.
Be Curious, Not Critical
If you get permission to read the paper, remember that you’re not playing editor. Oh, you’ll notice things – misused words, grammar errors, ambiguous sentences, etc. – but don’t point them out! We’re going for curious not critical.
Instead, pick a line from the paper that’s genuinely confusing, something where you’re not sure what they mean and ask about it:
“Hey, when you said ______________ I got a little confused. What were you trying to say?” (Note that you’re not saying their writing was confusing; you’re saying that you got confused.)
As long as your tone is uncritical and genuinely curious, they’ll probably reply by explaining what they meant:
“Oh, I was saying that ______________.”
Then you can paraphrase that back to them using clearer language:
“Ah, I understand. So you were saying ______________.”
Helpful Feedback Without Defensiveness
This process lets them know that their writing was unclear and lets them hear how another person might have expressed the idea more clearly, all without triggering defensiveness because it wasn’t under the guise of criticism.
They’re not being judged. They’re not being given instruction. You’re not asking them to rewrite their paper. You’re only asking because you want to make sure you understand their ideas.
If they respond well to this interaction, you might do it once more after a few more minutes of reading. But please don’t bring up every instance where their writing wasn’t great. They’ll see right through you. They’ll disengage or get defensive, and you’ll never get to try this tactic again. Of the dozen or so errors and ambiguities you find in their paper, limit yourself to asking about one or two.
Encouraging Greater Depth
This approach would also allow you to encourage your child to write and think in greater depth.
The traditional approach is to ask them probing questions about their ideas or outright tell them that they only scratched the surface. This will, of course, generate resistance, so another approach is called for.
Instead, mention some part of the paper/story, and say, “This is interesting … It makes me wonder why that is” or “It makes me think of __________.”
This method allows the student to hear opportunities for greater depth without feeling criticized.
Also Comment on the Good
The goal here is to motivate them to improve their writing, and you don’t do that by making them feel like a terrible writer. You want them to see how they have room to grow without making them feel bad about themselves.
So find things to comment on positively. “Oooh, I didn’t know that.” Or “That’s a very interesting observation.”
Do this before, between, and after any clarifying questions you ask. Mention the positive more often than you mention the confusing.
Don’t fake it. Find something genuinely interesting or well thought out and mention it. And don’t exaggerate. Kids usually see right through overblown praise, and even if they don’t, it’s bad for their self-esteem.
The Curious Editor
Maybe (I said maybe) after doing this a few times, they’ll realize that they’d like your input before they turn in their essay, at which point you get to play editor.
But you’ll only get to continue playing editor if you keep the same light, curious tone that you used before. Don’t be hypercritical. Don’t expect college-level writing from a 10th grader. Your kid might be in Honors English, but they don’t write for The New Yorker.
More likely – and more importantly – they’ll start to see the need to become their own curious editor. They’ll get better at noticing the shortcomings in their own writing. They’ll think more carefully about what they’re really trying to say and make an effort to express themselves more clearly. And that, in the end, is how they become a better writer.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.