Parent Primer: Writing
After learning to read, becoming a strong writer is probably the most important skill your child will develop in school. Like reading, the cross-curricular and real-life applications of being a clear, effective writer are limitless. Since 1st grade, your child has probably been honing her creative-writing skills and keeping a journal. Around 3rd grade, teachers begin focusing on writing and may spend a dedicated half hour a day on it, as well as integrating writing into other subjects such as social studies and science.
Since many students are tested in writing in 6th grade, in 5th grade you may notice an increased emphasis on composition. Use this guide to support your budding writer's efforts to perfect her prose.
Types of Writing
Knowing what kind of audience one is writing to, and for what purpose, is important when deciding how to begin a piece. You wouldn't use the same language to sell an old car in the paper, tell a story about the time the car broke down in the desert, and explain how to jump start that car in the winter. Help your child find the right voice and tone by identifying which of the following kinds of writing is required:
- Descriptive: Descriptive writing helps bring someone, something, or someplace to life through words. Your child might be asked to describe the house your family lives in, to express what it's like to ride a rollercoaster, or tell what life was like in America during the Civil War. In this kind of writing, recommend that your child describe with all his senses: What does your house look like? How does it feel to ride on a rollercoaster? What did weapons sound like during the Civil War?
- Expository: This type of writing includes simple explanations, summaries, and anything that falls under the header of "How to ________." Instructions on how to use appliances, directions from point A to point B, invitations to a birthday party, and retellings of a sequence of events are all forms of expository writing. Clarity and brevity are key; flowery details and opinions should be omitted.
- Narrative: Narrative writing tells a story. Assignments like "What I did on my vacation" or "The most important day of my life" are narrative in nature. Your child's task is to describe an experience he has had. This type of writing is almost always written in the first person (using "I") to show that it's a personal experience.
- Persuasive: Persuasive writing focuses on using prose to convince the reader to do something, from buying a new stove to voting for a candidate. Your child might be assigned to argue one side of a debate, such as whether or not the principal can search students' lockers or if movie stars make too much money. A successful persuasive essay will contain evidence (such as statistics, facts, and quotes) to support her argument, a discussion of the opposing view's side, and a well-formed conclusion.
The Five-Paragraph Essay
The five-paragraph essay is the most popular way to teach children how to structure a longer piece. Its structure is constant and easily assessable, which helps teachers to judge essays against a prior paper, or against the essays of peers. This structure is particularly common on standardized writing exams.
A five-paragraph essay contains an introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion that together discuss a thesis, or main point. One way to think of it is as a sandwich, with two slices of bread keeping the meat of the sandwich together. The first and last paragraphs hold together each piece of the essay neatly within.
Before your child begins writing any sort of research paper, there are several steps to complete before putting pen to paper. First, help him narrow down his topic enough so that it's manageable. If he needs to do a report on pioneers, he might first think of doing a paper on the Oregon Trail. But that's too vague — what about the Oregon Trail fascinates him? Let's say he narrows it down to the hardships of the journey. That's better, but there were countless obstacles, including inadequate food, bad weather, and sickness. Instead, a better topic would be something like, "How Hunger Paved the Oregon Trail" or "How Travelers Survived Harsh Winters Along the Trail."
Longer papers benefit tremendously from revision. While ideally your child will write a first draft of any assignment, with longer pieces it becomes essential. During the first draft, your child should focus on getting all the information down on paper. Afterwards, she can work on transitional sentences, spelling, grammar, and word choice. Point out areas that need further evidence, unclear ideas, or awkward sentences.
Next, your child will need to create a bibliography, or list of all the sources he consulted while doing his research. The list of sources should be alphabetical by author's last name. If a source doesn't have an author (such as an encyclopedia or atlas), it should be alphabetized by title. Your child's teacher may have a preferred way to format bibliography entries.
Finally, she should proofread the entire research report, as she would with anything she writes. If she has written the report on a computer, be sure she prints out a copy to proofread on paper — it's far easier to catch errors on a printed page than on the screen.