How to help your child with writing a paper (when you aren’t “good at writing”)

If the phrase “writing homework” gives you an instant headache, you’ve come to the right place. I know it’s a cliche to say that “school is different than when we grew up,” but it really, really, is. When I was a kid, writing assignments were an event. Once a quarter, or once a year, we would drop everything and focus on writing for a few weeks. After we produced our essays and typed them in the computer lab with great ceremony, it wasn’t writing time anymore! And I rarely, until maybe high school, needed to ask my parents for help with writing a paper. It might happen sooner these days.

In the years since I put my first report in one of those slippery plastic covers, we have learned a lot about the brain, and the reasons that lots of writing practice is important. For one thing, writing helps us clarify and examine our own thinking on a topic. Because writing is more formal than speaking and we can’t watch the listener to see if we’re doing a good job, we have to have better organized ideas to communicate successfully in writing. For another thing, if a student has gaps in their understanding, seeing their ideas laid out on paper can help both the student and the teacher uncover and correct misunderstandings. Writing also calls on our knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and discourse in ways that reading does not. In other words, we learn lots of valuable things about how writing works when we practice it – more than we learn by just reading good writing.

Still, what can you do, as a parent, to give your children help with writing a paper? It feels hard! But even if you don’t feel confident in your own writing skills, you can still lead your child through the challenge. Here are some roles for a parent in the writing process:

Assignment Clarifier

One problem that can keep a student from starting a writing assignment is that they don’t understand what the teacher wants. Sometimes an assignment has a lot of detail, including directions for how many sentences, or how many words, the student should write. [link how long is a paragraph] Other times, you might see teacher jargon like “complete thought,” “topic sentence” or “analyze the evidence.”

Even if you don’t know what these terms mean, your child might have something helpful in their notebook. Or, in the worst case scenario, you and your child figure out the troublesome terms and seek help from the teacher (Or the parents in the local FB group if the deadline is too close. Who among us has not crowd-sourced some thinking to these neighbors? Someone else must have heard the same confusing instructions your child brought home!)

You can help your child understand and plan this assignment by writing out the steps you identify together. By giving them a short, simple checklist of the first few steps they will do, you can guide them to focus their attention on first things first. Looking at the whole project can be overwhelming, but a couple items on a sticky note or whiteboard is achievable.

Time Keeper

This role can be contentious because sometimes kids who hear they are running out of time blame the person who tells them about the problem. In my house, reminding my kids to set timers for themselves helps them more than when I set the timer for them.

Another part the time keeper plays in writing is helping the student to find chunks of writing time in their schedule. Estimating time requirements is an executive functioning skill that many adolescents are still developing. You can help by suggesting how much time they should set aside for this assignment. This helps to avoid the problem of staying up late to finish writing at the last minute!

Zookeeper

No, I’m not saying your children are zoo animals. But when a child is struggling through a difficult writing assignment, it can really help to have another brain thinking about their care and feeding. Have you ever been so busy with a task that you look up to realize hours have passed? Your knees are stiff, your stomach is empty and your bladder is full. Be available to help your kids take care of themselves while they write.

Adolescents (Remember their emerging executive functioning skill! It’s all a bit precarious!) can have difficulty switching their attention from one thing to another. That’s also why it can be difficult to turn off the games or videos and start their homework in the first place. You can minimize these tough transitions by keeping your child supplied with nutritious quick meals and snacks. Encourage them to take breaks for water, food, fresh air, exercise, and sleep! While it can feel urgent to ignore these things and push through until the work is done, our brain just won’t work right if our basic animal needs aren’t met.

Be the zookeeper by observing your creature in their habitat. Are they restless? Grumpy? On a roll with ideas flowing out of them? Decide if it’s time for food, water, or even enrichment. It can feel risky to send your child out to play before the writing assignment is done, but you may find that they come back refreshed and able to work again. Experiment with different kinds of breaks.

Master of Ceremonies

When the work gets done, even a small chunk of it, don’t forget to celebrate with your child!

You probably know by now, but it is so important that I’ll say it again: your kids – even big kids, even teens, even grown-up looking people who roll their eyes and grunt when you speak to them – need to hear that you see their hard work.

This assignment will get finished, turned in and graded. This, too, shall pass. But the support you give your child while they work through this challenging writing assignment shows that you trust them. You believe in their abilities. And you are there to help them succeed.

While you may not feel like you have the writing expertise to help your child with their assignment, you are on expert on the child. Your praise, and patience, and support, can make a tremendous difference in the way your child tackles this challenge – and the next one.

And if you need a little more specific advice, try my FREE Revising and Editing checklists to help your child polish their writing before they turn it in. Grab them below!

Finish more writing homework in less time

Sometimes it seems like writing homework can take an infinite amount of time! Unlike a math worksheet, which is pretty clearly either done or not done, writing can be an endless process of adding, rereading, fixing, and revising. It seems like we could just keep working on it until the moment it is due. No wonder adolescents sometimes wait until the last minute to start a writing assignment, or to ask you for writing assignment help! It feels like a life sentence!

Watch the clock (and the calendar!)

One of the best ways to free up more time from school writing assignments is to measure the time it really takes. I get stuck in the belief that something is going to take forever. Like this blog post, for example. I’ve been staring at it for a while. I like to set a timer for a short, focused, period of work. For me, I use a 25-minute timer from pomofocus.io. But for younger students, or sometimes older students when they are really struggling, I use a shorter timer. Ten minutes is enough time to plan the basic outline of a paragraph! A 5-minute stretch could be enough to write a main idea sentence or brainstorm examples.

I am always stunned to see that the task I have been putting off really only takes X minutes. If your child enjoys a timed challenge, set a goal and start a writing sprint of 15 minutes, or set a brainstorming timer. If setting a timer is stressful, try this: Set a ridiculously long timer. Marvel at how little of it you actually use to finish the thing. Wow, just 45 minutes? We thought it would be two hours!

The calendar can give you important information about how to get your writing assignment done, too. The common wisdom is to split a big task up and do bits of it over time. I hate that advice because it makes me feel like this writing assignment is just part of my life now, instead of a project with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Instead, I recommend some short, focused sprints, starting when you get the writing assignment and scheduled regularly (at least one or two a week, even if you have all semester to finish!). Even if you have 10 days to write a short paper and you think you could do it in about an hour and a half, total, two or three 30 minute time blocks are probably more efficient than 9 ten-minute stretches. Likewise, writing the whole thing 2 hours before the deadline is probably too concentrated.

Experiment with the length of a writing task or session. Does your child come up with the best ideas in short bursts? At random moments while she’s doing something else? When she sits and works through the ideas for a while?

Re-purpose

Once in a while, a students gets assigned a paper or essay that is truly open-ended. Students are asked to pick a topic from a list, or generate their own topic. More often, a writing assignment comes at the end of a unit of study in school. Students are often asked to write about what they have discussed in class.

So class notes, study guides, annotations in a book, and other incidental info from the class can be very helpful sources of information. Anything that was a topic discussed in class might end up belonging in your child’s essay. Have your child look through their book, notes, and completed classwork. You may find your child has already developed some of the ideas they will need to write, and they can focus on consolidating those ideas into a paragraph.

Know when to fold ‘em

Kenny Rogers said it best in his song, “The Gambler:” You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Writing is open-ended and it feels like you could go on forever tweaking it and improving it bit by bit. But at some point, you have to call a piece of writing DONE. To figure out when an assignment is done, check the teacher’s instructions. Look for:

  • word count – is it long enough?
  • sentence count – does it include enough ideas?
  • example count – does it cite enough examples or facts?
  • on topic – does it stick to one main idea throughout?
  • complete explanation – does the writing explain why each example is relevant to the topic

At a certain point near the end of the writing process, we reach a point of diminishing returns. We have looked at the same piece of writing so many times that it loses its meaning. At that point, the value of any words or ideas that your child manages to squeeze out of his fatigued brain may not be as beneficial as another hour of sleep will be.

Sometimes, students stay on a piece of writing too long out of anxiety. They don’t feel good about what they wrote so far. They also don’t know what else to do to improve it, so they just try to add more. This can be more words, more examples, more adjectives. Sometimes it’s related to making the writing long enough but sometimes it’s just not knowing when to stop! Help them figure out what the teacher expects by looking at the details of the assignment.

Another option for students who fuss with an assignment for too long out of anxiety is for them to arrange with the teacher to turn it in early. Some teachers are willing or able to review a draft and give feedback for revising if the student turns it in early enough. If that’s not available, students could give themselves a “do” date that is early enough for them to send the draft to a parent, tutor or trusted friend for an review.

Either way, help your child wrap up their writing when the time comes, so they can turn their attention to other parts of life. This might mean setting a “family deadline” for a long writing piece before dinner on the day before it is due. It also might mean checking in as the clock ticks down in the evening to make sure your child is aware that bedtime is approaching. Time management relies on executive functioning skills that even the smartest and most capable teens are still developing. Your check-ins (or neutral tools like timers, if your child is bothered by in-person interruptions) are helping them to become more aware of the passage of time, which is knowledge they need as they learn to plan their own work time!

Conclusion

If writing homework is taking too long, here’s my plan of attack:

  1. Figure out what the assignment means and what the teacher expects.
  2. Make it concrete by using the calendar, and a timer, to keep track of how long it takes.
  3. Make a plan for what “done” will look like, and what time that has to happen for the assignment to be on time, and for the student to be rested and ready for tomorrow.

And when the writing is done, make sure your child leaves some time to revise and edit. Grab my FREE revising and editing checklists below.

How do I help my child write an essay?

In a perfect world, students build their writing skills bit by bit over time, writing good sentences, then good paragraphs, and then combining those paragraphs into an essay. Kids can do this with support starting around third grade but it’s a project that might take weeks in class. 

Unfortunately, teachers don’t always build in all these steps, or not all students in the class are ready to be independent at the same time. Either way, the result is an essay that your child has to write on their own and they have no idea where to start! 

Break it Down, Build it Up

Chunk the assignment

Some teachers think about turning their assignments into a step-by-step checklist, while others write a dense paragraph with all the detailed directions buried inside. If your child gets an assignment that seems like a pile of complex instructions, the first step is to help them break it down and decide where to start.

Turn the teachers directions into a checklist. If the directions for the essay say, “Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence, supporting details, and uses transition words,” turn that into a checklist:

  • Body Paragraph
    • Topic Sentence
    • Supporting Detail 1
    • Supporting Detail 2
    • Supporting Detail 3
    • Transition words

No matter how obvious a detail might seem to you as an adult, like “Make sure your name is on the first page.” or “Number your pages,” include those on your child’s checklist. Those details easily get lost in the shuffle of trying to actually write the content of the paper.

Develop a Plan

Even if your child is full of ideas and could discuss a topic all day, the idea of writing it down in a formal essay can be overwhelming. Start by having your child write down what they know. Everyone has personal preferences for this brainstorming process. Here are some options:

  • Write a formal outline, listing the topic for each paragraph and any known details. (I haaaated this as a student and used to write my paper early just so I could go back and write the outline after and turn it in.)
  • Write each idea on a sticky note or index card so they can be shuffled and grouped differently as the plan develops.
  • Draw a mindmap or web, with the main idea in the center and details in branches around it. You can use a tool like Mindmup to make a digital mindmap or draw one on big paper.

Download my Revision and Editing Checklists to help your child polish their paper.


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Write a draft

I grew up writing drafts on paper (dingy manila paper in elementary school and notebook paper in middle and high school) and having to turn in and edit a draft to earn the opportunity to write a typed final draft. While there are arguments on the subject of handwriting vs typing essays, I can’t justify asking kids to spend their time writing and rewriting an essay when the time could be better spent strengthening their ideas!

I recommend having kids start to organize their notes right on the computer screen. It’s so easy to cut and paste sentences and even whole paragraphs that, as long as we keep in mind that this a draft and it will change, putting first drafts on the screen can work great!

Edit and Revise

Editing and Revising are two different, but related, processes. Revise has 2 parts re (again) and vise (look at/see). So to revise a piece of writing is to look at it again and make meaningful changes. This can include adding missing ideas, using more precise and descriptive vocabulary, or rearranging sentences or paragraphs so they are in a logical order. Many students struggle with this process because they think, “I already wrote this. There’s nothing more to say.” It helps to give them choices or a specific action they can take. For example, “This sentence is too short. You could add the word because at the end and explain more about why this event happened.”

Editing is more about the process of correcting errors in the writing. Like many teachers, I use the acronym COPS to remind writers what to look for when they edit. Grab my Editing and Revising checklist for more detailed steps.

  • Capitalization
  • Organization (this includes how the text looks on the page: fonts, sizes, line breaks, indenting, etc.)
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

What’s the point of the assignment?

Remember that your child’s teacher assigns an essay for a reason. Your child may be writing it at home because the teacher believes they can do it independently and show their sklls. The teacher may want to assess their knowledge of some content or build their reading stamina. 

So as much as you want to reduce your child’s frustration or make the essay-writing process easier, make sure your role is to facilitate, not to do the work. Make sure the words on the page, and any final decisions about revisions or editing, belong to your child. You can remove barriers, like unclear directions or not being able to find a starting point, but you have to let them struggle sometimes so they can grow as writers.