Meaning, genre and purpose most important in motivating children to write

Author and educational consultant Matt Glover shares his tips for getting your children to effectively put pen to paper at home and in school

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 8:30pm

Literacy expert Matt Glover has more than 20 years of experience as an educator in the US, including 12 years heading an early childhood school in Cincinnati, Ohio. His work with kindergarten and first-grade students showed him that we often underestimate what young writers can achieve. Since then, Glover has written several books on literacy development, including Engaging Young Writers, and Already Ready (with Katie Wood Ray). Glover was in town earlier to speak at a regional conference hosted by the Hong Kong International School. Here he shares some insight on how to build confidence, competence and a positive disposition in young writers at home and in school.

What are the best ways to motivate young children to write?

Three things are important in building engagement in writing. The first is “meaning”. Children write better and with more stamina about things they find meaningful. In order to have meaning, we need choice. We shouldn’t assume every child to be equally engaged with a certain topic.

Choice of genre is also important. In school, we often teach writing in specific genres – like opinion essays or feature articles. Children have favourite genres just like adults do, so choice of genre affects energy for writing as much or even more than choice of topic.

The last is “purpose” – why are children writing something? They might put up their writing on the refrigerator or in the local skateboard shop. Whatever it is, an authentic purpose gives children more energy for writing.

How can parents apply these ideas at home?

Parents usually have insight about purposes, topics and genres that are meaningful to children. In school, the genres taught are often not the ones children are passionate about. If children love fantasy writing – as many fourth and fifth-graders do – but have no opportunity to do so in school, encouraging them to write in this genre at home is important.

It is amazing how many children have secret writing lives. My daughter Molly loves writing songs and has notebooks full of songs at home. Choice of topic is crucial, too. I talked to a first-grader at HKIS who is passionate about snakes. When he writes about them, he writes better. We should capitalise on that at home.

What are some genres that young children are passionate about?

What three- to five-year-olds do most naturally is write things organised as a list. They like telling you all about their family, or everything they know about dogs. With younger children, we shouldn’t think that all their writing has to be stories with plot.

What are the best practices of teaching writing in the classroom?

The best tool is studying what published authors do. Teachers should teach students to notice and try out writing strategies and read like a writer. As soon as children know they are making informational picture books, they read these books differently. If I were teaching how to elaborate on something by stretching out the action, I would show them how an author does it and encourage them to try it in their own writing. Because writing instruction always involves some subjectivity, some teachers are less confident with it. With this strategy, they can study real writing as concrete examples to show students.

Dividing time between independent writing and individual conferences in the classroom is also important. A writing workshop starts with whole-class instruction before time for independent writing, during which the teacher has short individual conferences with each student. That is the most effective way to help children improve, as their individual needs are catered to.

How important is the teacher’s role?

There is a big difference between just telling children to elaborate on their writing and showing them a specific strategy from a book. The latter is certainly more effective. Teacher decision-making has a great impact on children’s disposition towards writing.

[Parents and teachers] want kids to enjoy writing, but often they are not working towards building confidence and enjoyment in writing and in learning to do it well.

Children are exposed to technology and internet language very early now. How does that affect literacy development?

Technology enhances young children’s learning in some ways but hinders it in others, so we need to be cautious. A teacher once told me her five-year-olds were making books on the iPad so they could use clip art without worrying about illustrations – but composing illustrations is crucial, because the thinking involved there is the same as in composing words. I wouldn’t want technology to replace that. But we can scan the books the children make onto iPads, record voices, and put them on the class blog – that would be a great way of using technology.

Are there targeted ways of helping bilingual children develop literacy?

In the early grades, making picture books is particularly important for bilingual children as they can start by conveying more meaning through illustrations. That helps them write in more detail in later stages.

What should parents do when reading with children?

They should expose them to texts they can read easily. The books should not be overly easy, but at the right level, so children can enjoy them without having to figure out every word. We often fall into a trap of reading something with children that is too hard. We should also engage them, but in the sense of having conversations rather than quizzing them.

We should define reading as making meaning out of writing. Three-year-olds might not be decoding words, but if I give them a book, they can “read” it by saying something about each picture. Parents should not wait until children can read conventionally to teach them how to comprehend. Right from the beginning, we should build a strong identity in them as readers and writers and try to strengthen that as they get older.

What are the biggest misconceptions about teaching writing?

One would be the idea that teachers should teach conventions first before teaching composition. This is basically saying teachers should ignore thinking until students can produce complete sentences and correct spelling.

Composition and conventions have to be parallel.

Does it mean teachers should not point out mistakes all the time?

Something a seven-year-old wrote might have 25 misspelled words. Even if I fix them all, I still can’t teach 25 things at once. The child might only “learn” to write with the words they already know. I’d much rather a first-grader use “scrumptious” and spell it incorrectly than use “good” correctly.

They can’t spell everything correctly from the beginning. Parents and teachers should always try to think about the next small step. Going from 25 misspelled words to none is not a small step. Individual conferences allow teachers to teach into the next small step.