Healthy Parental Support of Student Writing
Tips from a veteran English teacher on how to coach parents and guardians to support high school students’ growth as writers.
“He won’t let me read anything he writes!” laments one mom, a former English major who admits she still has her high school essay on The Great Gatsby. Another mom confesses, “I never liked writing either. I have no idea how to help her improve!”
I teach high school juniors, and my students write many challenging assignments, including a research paper, an argument essay, and a college admissions essay. Parents often want to talk with me about their children’s writing, and whether the parent is eager to engage or at a loss for how to help, I’ve found that many are looking for guidance: They want to support their children’s growth as writers, but they don’t know how.
Back when I was a new teacher, I was reluctant to engage parents’ support. Overenthusiastic parents, I feared, would dominate their children’s writing process. But over the years, I’ve learned that parents can be a valuable asset when they get some coaching on how to be allies in improving their children’s writing.
Release Judgment and Focus on the Big Picture
I encourage parents to frame their support as a judgment-free zone. Ultimately, their children are the experts—on the topic, on the class, and on their teacher’s expectations. Parents should approach assistance with that mindset, reassuring their children that they are collaborators, not teachers or evaluators. The same mindset is necessary even for advanced or more confident student writers who may be concerned that parents will not know enough to help.
I tell parents that unless they’re looking at a final draft of a multi-draft paper, the initial focus should be on big issues like the argument, evidence, and organization in a persuasive piece, rather than grammar or punctuation. Bogging a student down with small corrections will not only discourage them but also keep them from focusing on the more important issues that face them as a developing writer.
Offer Responsive Feedback and Ask Questions
Once a child is receptive to working with a parent, the parent should ask what kind of feedback the student would like to hear. Simple questions like “What would you like me to listen/read for?” or “Where are you in this piece? How can I help you take it further?” can be helpful starts. Such questions can ensure that the parent’s feedback is appropriate for the assignment and the child’s needs—and empowers the child as a writer.
Parents should prepare to offer their feedback in line with the needs that the student has articulated. It may help to initially frame such feedback as questions, focusing on provoking intentionality in their child’s writing. Questions like “Why might this be the case?” and “How does this connect to the point in the paragraph before?” encourage student decision-making and student voice.
I encourage parents to ask their child to read the piece aloud, a practice I use in the classroom with student partners. I’ve been thrilled to see partners validating their peers’ writing and finding their own inspiration from their classmates’ work. Such an approach at home has multiple benefits. First, children often perceive an adult hearing the piece—rather than bringing a dreaded red pen to it—as less confrontational. Second, the simple act of reading aloud (slowly and deliberately) may allow students to hear problems (e.g., grammatical errors or awkward constructions) themselves. In this case, parents may not need to comment on the piece at all, which can be useful if the student is very reluctant.
The read-aloud approach can also be flipped: Parents can read just a short section or sentence to their child and then ask the child to restate the idea back to them while the parent transcribes. This process can make students more aware of sentence structure and clarity, just like when they read their own work aloud.
Comment, Don’t Correct
Some students may feel uncomfortable reading their piece aloud. In that case, after conferencing about the type of feedback the child needs, a parent can offer written feedback on a draft. However, I offer a warning to parents who are inclined to read with a pen in hand: It’s tempting to reword the clunky sentences or awkward arguments of emerging writers, but doing so rarely teaches students how to craft sentences or thoughtful perspectives in their own voice.
Instead, as with all feedback on writing, parents should craft comments and questions that encourage student decision-making. Even if parents are reading for minor issues, such as grammatical errors on a final draft, they should note the errors and enlist the child’s help in choosing how to correct them, rather than simply making the changes.
Express Heartfelt Enthusiasm
Regardless of the type of assistance that parents provide, they can also play one final supporting role: that of cheerleader. As with all praise, a generic “Good job” does little to encourage students. Instead, parents should identify specific areas that surprised or delighted them, like a particular word choice, turn of phrase, or transition between paragraphs, or they can note where they’re seeing improvement over previous work.
I once had a 17-year-old boy grinning ear to ear as he handed in his final research paper. His mom had written an enthusiastic note on his last draft. She had remarked on how movingly he’d integrated an interview with his grandfather and how confidently he’d carried his claim through the essay. “I can see how much better this is than what I’ve written before!” he told me.