Category Archives: Read more to write better

How to keep students writing this summer

For me, as a writing tutor, one of the hardest aspects of enabling a student to write is finding a topic.  A few students with vivid imaginations could write fantasy narratives each week, but they balk at writing informational or persuasive essays.

Most boys have one inexhaustible writing topic—playing video games—which I nix.  Too many of my students have written such essays with poor, unintelligible results.  And boys don’t like my idea of writing about “why I like video games” or “what I learn from video games.”

The students I tutor—and I assume they are like most other students—know nothing about what is happening in the world.  (Last fall some didn’t know a Presidential election was underway.)  Writing about current events is out unless I spend a big part of the class bringing students up-to-date on world events.

Students don’t read books unless forced by their teachers. Writing about book themes, characters, or settings is possible, but because the number of books my students have read is minuscule, such writing opportunities are meager.  They balk at reading books during the summer.  “It’s vacation!” they wail.

What to do?  Here are my solutions.

For my high school students, I search for well-written newspaper articles.  Recently, for example, The New York Times had one on underinvestment in the computer chip industry, and The Wall Street Journal had one on a forgotten jazz composer.  I create SAT-like questions about each article, including identifying vocabulary meanings.  Then I create a specific narrative, informational or persuasive question about the article for the student to respond to in essay fashion.

Using news stories has many advantages.  It offers a broad range of subject matter for students to read and for me to ask questions about.  It offers up-to-date reading material—students can’t believe they are reading and writing about something in yesterday’s paper.  It requires intense reading but just for 350 to 500 words, far less effort than reading a book.  It allows me to assign an essay every other class or sometimes every class, using class time to discuss the answers to the questions I give a student and to critique the essay.  Homework often is to revise the essay in ways we discuss in class.

The drawback is that I must spend time finding good articles and then writing questions about them.  But this is my job.

For my middle school students and fifth graders, I assign the reading of stories with questions to answer. produces 40-plus stories of classic books like David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer, grouped by difficulty level.  Ten pages of reading are followed by ten pages of multiple choice questions.  I assign these, one a week or one every other week.  After a student has read a story, and we have gone over the questions to be sure the student comprehends them, I assign a narrative, informational or persuasive essay.

Using booklets like these has advantages.  They introduce students to great stories.  They force the student to read and to prove they understand what they have read.  They offer students and me a common topic about which to write.  I must come up with essay questions, one for each type essay middle grades students are expected to master.  We critique the essays and revise them based on the most serious errors or shortcomings.

Sometimes for fifth graders I assign books to read such as Judy Bloom’s Fudge series or the first Harry Potter book, and I create essay questions based on those books.  I choose books I have read and know well to cut down on my class preparation time.

These days I interact with students via Zoom.  I find the results are good.  Students share their essays with me via Google drive.

It is possible to keep students reading and writing about what they read during the summer.  Perhaps you have found some other ways?  If so, please share them with me at this blog.  Or if your student needs a tutor, contact me.

How to encourage kids to write

The best way to improve your writing is to write more.  Writing is a skill which improves with practice.  But how do you get kids to practice writing?

The blog Daily Writing Tips offers ten ways.  Let me paraphrase a few of them.

Encourage students to read, read, read.  Reading isn’t writing, true.  But if students read widely, they encounter all kinds of writing styles.  Subconsciously they discern what is good writing.

Encourage students to write stories for younger kids. If students are in third grade, have them write for kindergarteners, using themes and words kindergarteners understand.  By doing so, students consider audience, style of writing, how complicated to make the plot, what kinds of characters to include, the setting—all elements of stories.

Encourage students to keep going even if they know there are mistakes.  Professional writers don’t stop to fix every mistake as they write.  No, they know they will go back later and fix mistakes.  Once students are in the “flow” of writing, they should push on.

Encourage students to keep journals and to share those journals.  With partners or in small groups they can share their writing and receive feedback.  Positive feedback is so important to motivate a student to keep writing.

Encourage students to ask for help.  Some parents think students should write alone and confer with a teacher only when the writing is done.  Wrong.  Conferring during the writing process allows students to ask questions about verb tenses, a better way to say something, the meaning of a word, and plot possibilities.  The teacher becomes not the judge but the helper.

And I would add an idea of my own.  Write with students.  Ask them questions as you write, so they can see you welcome their help.  Share your writing when it is done, warts and all.  Model the behavior you hope they will use with you.  Let them help you.

Why writers should read, read, read

I have been writing and rewriting parts of a novel for  years in hopes of improving my writing and story telling.  One story line within my novel has had me stumped.  In newspaper articles, TV shows and radio stories I have sought solutions, but none have seemed spot on.

Last night I was reading a suspense thriller in bed—not the genre I usually read, and not the genre I am writing.  But  my sister suggested it, and I trust her judgment.  The thriller started slowly, so slowly that I almost stopped reading.  But then I read a particular scene, and from that point on I was hooked, turning page after page long past midnight.

I was enjoying the novel, of course, but as a writer I was also aware of how the author was constructing her book.  In particular, the protagonist’s interior dialog fascinated me, how her thoughts sounded so real—or what I assumed was real since I have never been in a situation like that character’s.  I need to try writing like this, I thought.

And then all of a sudden, while I was reading about a secondary character, I had one of those light bulb moments.  In one  incident I saw the germ of how I could develop my own story line.

Chills rippled through me.  I had a plan!

Two aspects of this reading experience are important.  One, in the back of my mind I was thinking about a particular writing problem. I was seeking ideas, so when I read the scene in the thriller, I could readily see a connection to my writing problem.  To make an analogy, the seed fell into fertile ground.

Two, I wasn’t thinking specifically about my novel as I was reading the thriller.  I was focused on the thriller.  But my subconscious, always aware of my novel, made a connection.  To make another analogy, I was like a mother focused on making dinner, but through my peripheral vision and hearing, aware of my child in the background.

So many good writing ideas have come to me while I am reading.  I don’t read to learn how to write, but that’s what happens.  I see the way another writer handles a writing problem and try that technique.  Or subconsciously I make a connection between what I am reading and what I am writing and snatch the germ of an idea.

I find that I do more writing and better writing when I am reading.  I am on vacation now, so in the past two weeks I have read three books—two novels and one memoir.  The ideas keep coming!