For 20 years I have tutored children in how to write. Only one rising first grader and two children already in first grade were ready to write essays. Essays require thoughtful organization for which most first graders don’t have the patience or organizational skills. They want to jump right in without planning.
What qualities do I look for in students ready to write essays?
- Children who already write long narratives—the fronts and backs of notebook paper. Sometimes this is the sign of a gifted child who is more advanced than her peers in writing skills.
- Children who can read at a third grade level or better. Through their reading, these children have encountered lots of writing which subconsciously will influence their style, vocabulary and topics.
- Children with strong vocabulary skills. During a writing class, students will hear new words, or will hear words used in new ways. Liking to work with words is a sign that students are ready for essay writing.
- Children who can spell well (not perfectly) with more correct spelling than phonetic spelling. A writing lesson is not a spelling lesson.
- Children who speak English well, using words and grammar correctly. Writing lessons include fixing up grammar errors, but in general, the student’s command of English grammar and usage should be good. A writing lesson is not a grammar lesson.
- Children who can focus for up to an hour. Many skills come together during writing classes—holding a pencil, forming letters and words, organizing thoughts, spelling, finding synonyms in a thesaurus, listening to a teacher’s instructions, sitting (or standing) for most of an hour, and asking questions. Writing is a process, not a single skill, and parts of the process are best worked on while the ideas are flowing, so the child needs to be able to hang in there.
- Children willing to take direction. I have taught talented first graders who had all the above qualities but they were not willing to listen to my suggestions or to follow my directions. Children need maturity to begin essay writing.
Third grade is a good time to start essay writing for some children. For others, fourth grade is better. During kindergarten, first and second grade, students can focus on writing sentences or paragraphs. They can also learn from reading with an adult. You can point out to your child why a certain sentence sounds good, or how a writer gets the child’s attention. You can point out how a certain character in a book sounds like a child because of the words she uses or the way she uses them, while an adult sounds differently.