My experiences as a creative person, tutor of children, and teacher of creative writing

Friday, August 14, 2009

Helping Children Write Creative Stories

Helping Children Write Creatively

A few days ago a mother asked me for ideas on how to help her child write creative stories. This is the approach I have used with third grade students for the last seven years. I’ve learned that children love to write. I’ve even had many children beg to remain in during recess so they could finish writing their story! I feel these principles could be adapted to any age.
The most important thing
to remember is that creative writing originates in the right side of the brain and is therefore closely tied to emotions. A critical comment, no matter how well intended, may shut down creativity. When viewing a child’s art we adults have been trained to say, “Tell me about your picture.” Writing is also an art, so instead of pulling out our red pencil, we need to ask, “Would you read your story to me? I’d love to hear it.”
Some may insist that the child’s work must be corrected, and they are right. In fact the more creative the child is, the more likely their work will be a sloppy, disorganized, misspelled mess, but listen closely and you may hear an exciting imagination, a vivid vocabulary, and a masterful sense of language.
Praise is the essential element of helping children become creative writers. If you think of art, it will help you know what to do and not do. Would you “correct” another’s painting to make it what you think it “should” be? No! You would praise what they have done well. You might gently suggest some possible improvements, but you would not touch their picture.
Another thing I do is discuss how writing is a process. I show them how my writing starts out, all the changes I make, and the final creation. They are always shocked to see my draft with all its miss-spelled and crossed out words and all arrows going everywhere. They seem to think that writing just flows effortlessly onto paper, and if they can’t do that, then they can’t write. Children need to see the writing process modeled, like any other art, before they are able to do it themselves. Sharing some of my writing with them, perhaps some short poems, also helps build a bond between us and sets a supportive tone for the writing experience.
Before they begin writing, I have them make a list, or web, of ideas which they might want to write about. I suggest they continue adding to their list whenever a new idea comes to them. Often I use picture books to stimulate ideas for stories. When the child has an idea for their draft, I encourage them to write as quickly as possible, just get their ideas down, and not worry about other things, such as spelling, at this point. This is the time to get those creative ideas written before they are gone. If the child has difficulty, then I ask them to tell me the experience they want to write about, then have them write it. If they still are unable to write, I write down their story as they dictate it to me. Later, as they gain more experience with writing, I assist them with writing their story, then finally, they are able to write by themselves.
Though writing on a commuter is ideal, many young children are unable to type well enough to get down their thoughts quickly. Therefore, I have children write their stories in pencil on lined paper, skipping every other line. This gives them the space they will need to make improvements to their writing.
When their draft is done, we talk about how this is the point where most people quit, but a draft is just the beginning. Good writers keep going. They aren’t quitters!
The next step is revision (re- again + vision- to see = to see again). This means to look at their work again so they can make it better. To help them improve their writing, I ask them questions, then allow them time after each question to look over their work and make improvements. Most children (and me too!) can only look for one thing at a time. Children will quickly become overwhelmed if expected to revise and edit all at once. Younger children, or those struggling with language, can also become overwhelmed if they attempt to go through the entire writing process with too long of a story. If they are struggling, they can just work with a page or even a paragraph at a time. Watch out for those children who want to continue writing page after page, but never really work through their writing. These may be exceptionally creative children who find finishing their writing boring. They may need encouragement and small specific revision and editing assignments to complete their story.
The idea of writing is to share what is in your head with other people, so I ask if there is anything they could do to improve their writing. Could they make the beginning more exciting? Does it catch people’s attention? Have they stayed with just one topic? Do they need to add some details or explain something? Can their writing stand on its own without them having to explain parts of it? Is everything in the right order? How is their ending? Does it really feel finished? Are their any “boring” words they could improve? Asking specific questions help them focus on things they could do to improve.
Now that they feel that they have their story the way they want it (revised), I ask, “Is you story done?” They usually say, “Yes”, then I question if they can read it easily. Do they think someone else could read it? Could they figure out what their story says in a couple of days? What do they need to do?
We identify the next step-- editing. Now is the time for them to put in their periods and other punctuation. I encourage them to use color to help them see their changes and make the process more fun. For example they can circle all miss-spelled words in orange, put in red periods, green capital letters, and purple paragraph symbols. I explain that these marks help other people read their work the way they want it to be read. It is like their street signs or directions to the person who is reading their story. I also point out that periods keep thoughts from mushing together, give people a moment to think about what they said, and gives them a place to take a breath. If they can’t tell where to put periods etc., then I ask them to read part of their paper aloud. When they pause or take a breath, I point out that is where the period goes. It is their stop sign. When a child hasn’t used any punctuation, I may read part of their story to them and ask if that is how they want it to read. They are surprised to hear me read it all in one breath. This helps them understand why punctuation is important. It takes children a while at first, but soon they will be able to edit on their own. Besides discouraging creativity, if adults “correct” the child’s writing the child never learns to edit on their own. I realized this when one child told me, “Thanks for fixing up my writing. That would have taken me a long time.”
I do not devote much time to identifying parts of speech and labeling. I’m encouraging artistic expression, not testing verbal memory. Classifying is a left brain activity and thwarts creativity. My goal is to help the child clearly express their ideas and stories.
When I am teaching a whole class to write, I do it with small groups of about six children with similar writing ability. Children are more comfortable sharing their writing in small groups. It also gives them opportunity to provide positive examples for each other and work on common problems they are having, such as how to use contractions. We only study what that group needs to know. If they have written a complex story, and many children do, but do not know how to punctuate it, this is the time to ask them if they would like help. I say, “You have done something really fancy. Having people talk in your story makes it more exciting. Would you like to see how to write that?” Sometimes they need to be shown about other punctuation such as colons, or how to break their writing down into paragraphs, but if that group is not using such complex writing yet, then I do not mention it. Punctuation has meaning when it is something they are using. They will remember it if they apply it frequently, but not if they are to learn something “because you will need it later”. I may try to inspire them to try different types of writing or methods by showing them examples from fun literature, but the option to make changes is their choice. They are always in complete charge of their own writing.
After their punctuation is the way they want it, it is time to correct their spelling. I show them how to use a dictionary and give them alphabetized lists of frequently used words. The important thing is to keep the child from becoming discouraged and overwhelmed. Often, they will need help with spelling, so feel free to tell them how to spell a word. When I spell a word for a child, I write it in their own personal spelling dictionary, so I they will have the word for future writing. This can be as simple as a small notebook with an alphabet letter on each page or a few pages in a large ringed notebook. Remember that creative children often find the left brain sequencing of spelling difficult. Having them picture the word may help them spell since they usually have excellent visual memories. Be careful never to assume that if a person can’t spell easily, then they are not intelligent people. Look beyond the illegible handwriting and poor spelling and you often discover a gifted writer!
When their work is revised and edited, then they may publish their work, or copy it neatly with all their improvements so they can read it. We always talk about improving not correcting their writing. If the child can type reasonably, the whole writing process is much faster and less tedious if they use a computer. Spell check is wonderful!
When their work is published, children love an opportunity to share it. They might want to draw some pictures to go along with their story. You can even put their stories into a notebook so they can make their own book of stories. With very young children you may need to write down their story for them as they dictate it to you. Some children may need you to type their revised and edited story for them. This allows them to finally gain the recognition for their creative abilities. Many children write wonderful stories which go unrecognized because they are unreadable.
After they read their story to people they feel comfortable sharing it with, then I ask their group what they liked about the story. I never allow any negative comments. If they left something out, I might gently ask a question to clarify what is happening in their story, then I will suggest that they might want to add more details to their next story to make it even better than this one.
I praise whatever they have done well: their fun idea, their attention getting beginning, all the relevant details they have included, their organization, their use of exciting verbs (we list other words they can use instead of boring words like “said”), descriptive words which really help us see, hear, and even smell what’s happening in their story, and their ending which makes the story feel complete.
Children love to share their stories with others whether it is a real life or a fantasy story. As they do, I treat them gently, with respect, because they are sharing a part of themselves. Over time, as the children learn by doing and are guided by praise instead of criticism, their stories improve and their love of writing grows.