How to Help Your Kid Become a Better Writer

A student writing

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.

an adult looking critically at some 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.

a curious kitten

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 ______________.”

“Right.”

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.

a parent and child looking at writing together

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.

Why Doing Your Homework is Good Manners

A happy teacher with polite students

Your dad tells you to mow the lawn.

Your elderly neighbor asks for your help moving a piece of furniture.

Your aunt says you need to use a coaster rather than putting your La Croix directly on the coffee table.

What do these all have in common?

These are all reasonable requests made by well-meaning adults, so complying is good manners. It would be rude to ignore or refuse these requests.

And it’s actually the very same when a teacher assigns homework.

Why It’s Rude to Not Do Your Homework

First, a teacher assigning homework is simply a well-meaning adult making a reasonable request, so ignoring or refusing that request is bad manners. But there’s more to it than that. Not doing your homework is actually harmful to other people.

Homework is designed to reinforce and expand upon the learning you do at school. It pushes you up the mastery path, deepening your understanding and improving your memory. And this isn’t just about doing better on the upcoming test; it’s also about being more prepared for tomorrow’s lesson.

Teachers write lesson plans that are progressive and cumulative. The lessons build on each other as you go from one topic to the next throughout a unit, and from one unit to the next throughout the school year. So both teaching and classroom activities go much better if everyone is caught up.

A dynamic classroom where everyone is ready to participate

If you don’t keep up with the homework, it makes the class worse for everyone. You can’t participate effectively in group activities and classroom discussions. You can’t help your classmates, and it’s harder for them to help you. Your teacher is forced to spend more time reexplaining old concepts and less time helping the class move forward.

Thus, skipping the homework isn’t just hurting your learning, it’s hurting everyone else’s learning too, while simultaneously making your teacher’s job more difficult.

Why It’s Rude to Turn Things in Late

The same problems arise when you do your homework after the due date. It is, of course, better to turn things in late than not turn them in at all, but you’re still going to be behind the class and therefore slowing down the collective learning process.

Turning things in late is also a hassle for the teacher to grade, which is another reason it’s bad manners. Teachers grade in bulk, meaning they grade all of their students’ versions of one assignment at one time. They enter the grades for that assignment into their grade book in bulk. It’s still tedious, time-consuming work, but at least it’s efficient.

But when you turn in a few old homework assignments late, they all have to be graded and entered individually, which is very inefficient. As a result, you’re making life harder for your teacher. You’re being a pain in the butt. You’re being rude.

an exhausted teacher grading papers

Don’t get me wrong – I’d rather you did your homework late than not at all, and your teacher would too. They became a teacher because they want to help students learn. And they’ve assigned you homework to facilitate your learning. Doing the homework will cause you to do better on tests, reducing the need for test corrections and retakes, both of which create extra work for your teacher. So it is better late than never.

But don’t get upset if it takes your teacher a long time to grade your late work. And don’t be upset that there’s a penalty for turning it in late. Be grateful that late work is accepted at all and resolve to turn things in on time in the future.

An Alternative to Grade-Focused Parenting

Viewing homework from the lens of good manners allows parents to separate conversations about grades from conversations about getting their work done.

Usually, when parents nag their kids about missing homework, it’s because their grades are suffering. And when students have missing work, they often say things like, “Well, it’s not worth that many points, so I decided not to do it,” or “It’s too late to turn that in, so I can’t do it.”

If homework is all about grades, then these responses make sense. But if homework is about learning and practicing good manners, then these defenses quickly fall apart.

It doesn’t matter how many points the assignment is worth; the teacher asked you to do it, so you should do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s too late to turn it in for a grade; you can still do the work and show the teacher that you did it. You can even apologize for not doing it on time because you understand that disregarding the teacher’s request was rude.

a parent enforcing good table manners

As parents, you get to teach and enforce good manners in your children. You expect them to say “please” and “thank you.” You expect them to obey the requests of other parents when they’re at a friend’s house. And you can expect them to turn their homework in on time.

But this expectation isn’t about grades. If they decide to do a poor job on their homework and earn a low grade, that’s on them. But you get to hold them to the standard that, at the very least, they complete the work and turn it in, just because it’s the polite thing to do.

How to Model a Healthy Relationship with Technology

A teenage student studying on a laptop with no paper

If you’re a parent reading this, odds are you grew up learning primarily with analog technologies: pencils and paper, textbooks, planners, etc. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’re well aware of the benefits of those tools.

Meanwhile, your kids are growing up in a digital-first or digital-only world:

  • Most of their schoolwork is done on a computer.
  • If they have textbooks, they’re probably digital.
  • If your kids take notes at all, there’s a good chance they’re using a tablet or a laptop for note-taking.
  • They study with Quizlet, YouTube, and Khan Academy.
  • They don’t use planners or to-do lists because all their assignments are on the school portal.

Don’t get me wrong – these digital tools aren’t bad – they can just be limiting. Writing things out by hand is a powerful learning technique that’s too often missing. Digital textbooks are often terribly hard to use. And kids regularly forget to do or submit their homework, even though it’s all there on the school portal.

So many parents wring their hands with worry, watching their kids struggle to learn without so much as a scrap of paper in sight.

The answer is not to tell them that tech is bad and paper is good. They’ll dismiss you as out of touch – and rightly so. In fact, the answer is probably not to tell them anything, but to model something different, something better. As usual, our primary strategy for influencing our kids is leading by example.

Modeling A Mixed Approach

In today’s polarized world, we too often get locked into all-or-nothing thinking. Digital or analog? Laptop or composition book? Quizlet or hand-made flashcards?

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Why not both?

a father working at a computer but writing on paper

There are times when digital makes more sense, there are times when analog makes more sense, and there are times when it’s actually best to use both. We have the freedom to choose whichever is most functional in the moment, and parents should be modeling this kind of flexibility:

  • Use Google Calendar and a planner.
  • Use cell phone reminders and sticky notes.
  • Take online courses and take notes in a composition book.
  • Maintain a digital grocery list with a smartphone app and have an analog to-do list system.
  • Learn from books and from podcasts.
  • Play video games and board games.
  • Enjoy streaming Netflix and spending time in nature.

You can be tech-savvy without being tech-dependent, and you can be wary of tech addiction without being a Luddite. It’s absurdly limiting to be all digital or all analog. To thrive in the modern world – and the modern classroom – you need both. And kids need to see more examples of adults modeling this mixed approach to life.

Can you ever talk with your kids about using pen and paper?

Since nobody likes unwanted advice (especially teenagers), it won’t work to tell them about the benefits of writing things down if they’re happy with their performance. If they like how things are going, they’re not going to be interested in a different approach.

The only time you might get to offer ideas is when they’re expressing frustration with their performance:

  • Their test grades are low, and they don’t know why.
  • They’re putting in a lot of time studying and don’t feel like they’re getting much out of it.
  • They’re having a tough time grasping the concepts in a difficult class.
  • They keep forgetting about homework assignments, and they’re not happy with the resulting grades.
  • They’re having trouble keeping track of their busy schedule and feeling overwhelmed.

If your child complains about these things, then you’ve got an opening. Just remember that your role is to offer ideas, not dictate a change of strategy:

“That sounds hard. I have some ideas that might make it easier. Would you like to hear them? It’s okay to say no.

What should you suggest?

If you get an opening, don’t push for a purely analog approach. In my experience, students are much more open to a mixed approach that adds some pen-and-paper elements to their current digital system.

a student using a mixed digital and analog approach to learning

Suggest ways they can incorporate writing by hand into what they already do:

  • Pause and take notes while watching a YouTube video.
  • Have a composition book to support online math practice.
  • Take notes on paper while reading the digital textbook.
  • Use Quizlet to find words you don’t know and write them onto flashcards or a two-column list.
  • Check the school portal for homework and jot down today’s action items on a to-do list.
  • Put a sticky note on your desk to remember to check the portal for current and missing homework.

They probably won’t try everything you suggest, or they might adjust your suggestions in ways you think are suboptimal. Let it go. They need to run some little experiments to see what works – and doesn’t work – for them.

And remember, incorporating some traditional pencil-and-paper strategies into their digital education will seem a lot more normal if you’ve been modeling this mixed approach yourself.