Many parents wonder how to motivate their children to write their best. As you might imagine, there are several different schools of thought on how to do this. Some believe in begging, pleading, and threatening. "Write because I told you to!" or "Please, please just write for me. That's all I ask." But that doesn't usually work, and it's not much fun for the parent or the student.
Then there are those who rely on rewards. "Finish this writing assignment and I'll buy you whatever you want." But in the end these motivators fade in their effectiveness. "Write this poem and I'll give you a bowl of ice cream" only works for so long.
And of course, there is that all-time famous motivator of getting a good grade. "If you want an A+ you better do this." But I hope you agree with me that writing (and all education) should be about more than just getting a good grade. This section will give you some concrete hints and ideas as to how to help motivate your writer, and help you help your child produce the best work he or she can.
So What Can I Do?
One important key in encouraging your writer is a positive attitude. It is easy to get excited when your baby utters her first word, even if it is garbled and barely audible. But when your child ages and her work is filled with spelling and grammar errors, it's not quite as cute, and it can be a little more difficult to be a cheerleader. Your children need to see you smile in excitement when they write, no matter the quality. You can (and will) work on improving the mistakes. But at first make sure to give them the praise they need.
Even if the writing is poor, work to affirm something specific about every piece of writing. If you read an absolutely horrible paper and can only find one good thing, even if it seems minimal, start with that. If all you can say is, "I really like the title you chose," say it. Sincere enthusiasm will work wonders, even with older kids.
Here are some more suggestions on how to inspire your readers1:
To inspire your child to write a descriptive piece, go outside and try to find an item. Touch it, smell it, listen to it, look closely at it, and if it's safe, taste it. If you want your child to write about a tree, go spend some time in a forest and observe. Climb some trees. Smell them. Hug them. Look up at their huge branches and all of the leaves and animals living in them. Have your child stretch and pretend he is a tree. Your child will have much more success writing if he or she experiences what he is writing about with his or her senses. You'll get much better results than if you just say, "write about a tree."
Use literature to inspire writing. Read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day and then ask your child to write about the worst day he's ever had. Or write about what would be the best day ever. Or write about how to treat someone who is having a bad day. Or write about what Alexander's next day will be like. Read other books or sections from books and find ways to imitate them as well. This is a big part of Sonlight's approach to Language Arts.
Find some inspirational poetry that will interest your child. Read the poems in dramatic fashion and then have your child mimic the style, changing key nouns and verbs to create his own poem. The book Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is a great example (as well as a wonderful book) of how this works well with kids.
Listen to wordless music as you write. Find the type of music you want for your specific assignment. Use salsa music for a report on Mexico or John Phillip Sousa for a story about the American Revolution. You can also use songs with words and then change the words or add a new verse.
Use paints, crayons or markers to color banners or posters. Then look at the colors and see what they inspire. You could write a poem about a picture or a particular color, such as this one:
Pickles & Stomach Aches, by a Fourth Grader2
Green is broccoli and snakes,
Pickles and the park in spring
Christmas is green
The sound of a croaking frog,
The taste of moldy cheese,
The smell of newly-mown grass
Green is music,
Green is the feeling you have when you've eaten a whole pizza
Read some poems about warnings, such as Warning or Early Bird by Shel Silverstein, If You Should Meet a Crocodile, or Jack Prelutsky's Don't Ever Seize a Weasel by the Tail. Then have your child write his own warning for anything. It could be as dangerous as a shark or as silly as a potato.
Create an Audience
While all of these steps help will inspire your writer, in my humble opinion the best motivation is to give your writer readers and he will want to do a good job.
When my students knew they were going to share an assignment with the class, they worked much harder on those assignments than ones just for me. When I told them I would post their work in the classroom, they put extra effort into what they had to do, because they knew others would read it.
When I was a sportswriter, if an editor told me my story was going to get buried somewhere on page D18 under an ad for Captain Geech's Shrimp Shack I wouldn't have quite the same motivation to write as if it was going on the front page. My coworkers freely admitted that they spent much more time working on stories with higher readership than ones that only a handful would read. One coworker normally wrote on high school sports, but once was asked to cover the Redskins. Because of his assignment, he spent three times as long writing that story as he usually did. When writers have readers they try harder and do their best work. It's human nature. People want to look good in front of other people. When you have an audience, you do your best.
But how does this translate to a homeschooling situation? You can't promise front page space or even a presentation in front of a large class. But there are some things you can do that will help motivate your students to write well. Here are a few suggestions on how to create readers.
Display your child's work in the home. Especially for young children, this works as a terrific motivator. In the same way you probably post your preschooler's artwork on the refrigerator, post your child's writing in your home. You could use a section of wall space and decorate it to display each child's best writing for the week/month/semester.
You could also take one night a week to have a family recital where every member (maybe even Mom and Dad) share their favorite piece of writing for the week. This gives each family member a deadline, a motivation to work hard, and most importantly, an audience.
You could work with your children to create a family newsletter. Many families write Christmas letters displaying the achievements and exciting moments in the last year for every member of the family. Wouldn't it be fun if your children each wrote an article of their own for this letter? And there is no need to wait until Christmas. You can write a family newsletter once a semester or more if your kids enjoy it. This gives them a goal for writing, as well as an even larger audience than your immediate family.
You could get together with other homeschoolers in your area to form a writing club where you share your best work. Give your children a chance to share what they are proud of.
At the end of the semester or year you could create a book of the best piece of writing for every individual in your club or family and publish it. Have your children illustrate their work and find a way to type it up and put them all together for a professional looking publication.
When I was a child I attended an event every year called "The Young Author's Extravaganza." I wrote a story and then made it into a book, drew pictures and made a hardback cover. I then shared my book with other children and read theirs. This opportunity to share what I had done, and learn from other kids as well as presenters, was a tremendous inspiration for my writing. Every year I worked very hard on my book and the work meant so much to me that I still have many of those books today! Look on the internet for local children's writing conventions you could attend as well.
Create a family web page or blog devoted to your children's best writing. Let your children help you design the appearance, layout and format. This allows them to share their writing with friends and family, and even strangers across the world.
Find a pen pal for your child to write to. While friendly letters may not be formal and edited, they do give your children practice to write regularly for an audience. If your child doesn't have a pen pal, your family could also sponsor a child in a poorer part of the world through an organization such as World Vision or Compassion International. This would give your child the opportunity to communicate with someone through letters, as well as broaden his or her horizons about what life is like for kids in other places in the world.
Encourage your child to write a letter to an editor of your local paper. Think of an issue she cares about, and work together to compose a letter that expresses what she feels. There is a chance the letter could even end up in print! When I was nine-years old my father and I wrote a poem with suggestions for what our team, the Texas Rangers, should do in the off-season. I was so excited the day we saw our poem printed in the paper and my name in print! Give your children the same chance, and you never know what will happen.
Suggest your child write to a celebrity or other hero. One of my former coworkers gives this assignment every year. Kids work really hard to create a great letter to impress their heroes, and more often than not they actually get a response, which inspires them to write even more.
Every kid is different, and there is no magical, surefire way to inspire your child every time. But try out some of these ideas, and see what works for you. I'm sure with practice you will find many other ways to inspire your writer. Do what works for your children, and watch them grow in their writing.
If you are interested in reading literature and combing great books into the study of History, Bible, Geography and Literature, check out Sonlight's History / Bible /Literature programs. Your children will love to learn, and you will love to teach, guaranteed. And with a foundation built on fantastic Readers and Read-Alouds, your children will have many opportunities to discover the joy of writing well.
This article is adapted from Your Personal Writing Coach.
1. Some ideas adapted from "Structure and Style: News and Events" The Institute for Excellence in Writing, Number 11, Summer/Fall 2001 and Marjorie Frank, If You're Trying To Teach Kids How to Write You've Gotta Have This Book, (Nashville: Incentive, 1995). Back to article.
2. Marjorie Frank, If You're Trying To Teach Kids How to Write You've Gotta Have This Book, pg. 83 Back to article.
If you'd like to get more advice and information about the homeschooling process, please check out the following Sonlight Podcast: