Just this week I've spoken with several parents who are concerned about their kids' writing abilities and want to use the summer to help them improve.
“Sounds like a blast!" says little Johnny. (I'm sure his mom begged her parents for a writing program when she was little.)
All too often we are teaching kids purely for the sake of school and testing. While we have their future in mind, kids don't always see it that way and tests are not great motivators for all students – they are boring for some and stressful for others. A meaningful reason is often the spoonful of sugar that's needed. (Disclosure: I have a kid who wants to do well for the sake of doing well and another who wants a good, solid, enjoyable reason to do well.)
Homer Hickam, who wrote his story in “October Sky," was destined to be a coal miner but really wanted to work for NASA. He started launching rockets as a kid and, at a certain point, he needed to figure out how high they were going. He needed calculus for that. He was successful at petitioning to have calculus taught at his school but only the top five kids were then able to take the class. He was not one of them.
So he taught himself calculus, not for the sake of school or doing well on tests. For rockets. While rocket launching is what moved his trajectory from the mines and into NASA, it was his love of it that propelled him to learn calculus. He learned it so he could use it. No small feat.
Learning can be enjoyable, and almost transparent. Most of us enjoyed more independence as children than ours do today – our activities were fun and we learned. Many of us had pen pals or wrote letters to friends or relatives. Again, it was fun and we learned. Get it?
At the very least, give your kids a good, solid, enjoyable reason to learn.
Eva Baker started Teens Got Cents when she was 15 as the “meaningful project" her mom had tasked her with during her junior and senior year of homeschool. She'd been listening to Dave Ramsey with her mom and chose to create a website and blog about what teens can do to become financially savvy. This is how she earns her living today.
Here are ideas for kids of all ages to improve their writing this summer:
Have them start a blog and request that they write an entry a week or X entries over the summer. They can even have guest bloggers from time to time and act as editor. It doesn't matter how old they are (to a certain extent). If they can't type yet (see note below), they can write it out and dictate into your iPhone. That could make them want to do it themselves. Use Weebly or Wix to set up a free site and choose a topic they love – Harry Potter, Legos, cooking, dogs, grandparents.
View other blogs with your kids that they might be interested in for content and mechanics. Simply writing is the best first step. Then you can work with them to outline their next blog – three important points plus an intro and conclusion. Show them where they can grab free images for their blog or have them take their own. They can send an email out to their relatives and friends each time a new blog is up. If their list expands, have them use MailChimp's free service. This could be the beginning of a business.
This could be via paper with a grandparent or a person who would enjoy it. It could be email, but it should be lengthy. Our kids correspond via email, message on phones, and through games but this is not anything of substance (it doesn't count as “writing").
At first writing anything is good but, eventually, remind them to include niceties (“How are you?" “What have you done this week?" “I was thinking of you because…"). Then go into a topic for the letter and segue into a conclusion, much like a conversation.
My daughter and I started a journal before she could even write! We'd draw pictures in a notebook and leave it on each other's beds so it would go back and forth. Writing followed quickly and we would exchange ideas, thoughts about the day, how bad the dog was, what we'd like for our birthday, and so much more. We still use the journal on occasion and, because we've kept all the notebooks we filled, we often enjoy them as bedtime reading material.
Ask your kids to write out how to perform one of their chores should another unfortunate child inherit it. When I noticed that the trash bag wasn't actually making it into the outside trash can, I had my son write up “How to Empty Trash Cans" so that I could see if perhaps he didn't think that was part of the chore. He did. We laughed. It was interesting. I had my daughter write “How to Unload the Dishwasher." Very entertaining. Of course, I reviewed them and had them make edits, in case I decide to adopt.
Public speaking and writing are very similar – an organized, cohesive message regardless of the topic. For speaking, it's “Tell them what you're going to tell them; Tell them; Tell them what you told them." In writing, it's “Intro, Content, Conclusion." Using this same format to speak will reinforce organization in writing.
Make this fun by having them choose a topic or giving them one to use for a one minute speech at dinner. You can do it, too. “Why dogs are great." “Why dogs should eat at the table." It can be impromptu: if she delivers a “Why I Don't Need to Make My Bed" speech, you can immediately respond with a “What Happens to Children Who Don't Make Their Bed" piece.
Have them write some or all of the family's holiday letter. Start this during the summer and remind them of the fun (and funny things) your family did that can be shared. Have them include pictures.
Magazines or contests
Many children's magazines have sections where kids send in responses to a question or send in a question. I had this on my daughter's “Summer Spruce Up" in the fourth grade. She responded to a question in “Discovery Girl." A year later, they emailed asking for permission to use it and for a photo! Even more exciting was that before we were able to obtain a copy, my cousin called to say that her daughter had her read this “great idea" she found in the magazine and that upon reading it, she discovered it was from Marie. Her daughter hadn't noticed that part of it since they weren't given advanced warning. It was thrilling!
For older kids, have them write essays for scholarships. FastWeb has a list of these for a variety of ages and due dates all throughout the year. You can get a trial subscription or pay a small fee to receive it. There are other ways to find these, too, of course.
Have your child submit something to a writing contest. There are many. Even if the deadline has passed, they can get ready for the next year.
Have your child, any age, write a book. While you could put it on Amazon, you don't have to. It can be free and as simple as converting a Word or PowerPoint document into a pdf. (Check out the eBook Eva Baker gives away on Teens Got Cents as an example.) They could even create an eBook library on a website for friends and relatives. Take a look at some child authors who self-publish, like Owen Whaley who got the word out via Next Door.
NaNoWriMo is a free writing challenge for all ages that involves a word count goal. They also have a Young Writer's Program where you can set your own word count goal. My daughter's friend has done the adult version since the fourth grade and her dad said the first year her story was not good. But remember, we start simply by doing. Now, he says, her stories are great. He's amazed at her talent.
Your child can become a reviewer of books, movies, restaurants, games, or really anything they like. They could officially review books on Amazon or other sites where they achieve special status if they review enough. Or they could, again, create their own website to write reviews and then email or message friends and family the link when new ones are up. By reading others' reviews, they can perfect their writing skills.
Tip on Typing: Two of the parents I spoke with also want their kids to learn to type (notice they didn't say they want to teach their kids to type). Some of these ideas are best if one can type. My kids learned in second grade and are thankful (and I'm thankful I didn't have to teach them). Their teacher simply used Dance Mat Typing, which they enjoyed, and then they perfected it by using Nitro Type where they race other kids. I even had Nitro Type on a “Summer Spruce Up" one year where they had a word per minute goal.
Learning can be fun. You're the teacher!