Teaching good writing skills starts at home

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dear Dr. Dobson: I've always had an interest in creative writing, primarily because I had a teacher who encouraged me to express myself and gave me the skills to do it. My children, however, have not had that exposure. The school system just doesn't teach writing skills anymore. How did you come to be a writer, and how might I give my children a nudge in that direction?

Dear Reader: It is true that writing skills are seldom taught today. That was evident awhile back when I was considering hiring a Ph.D. candidate from a large university. I called her major professor for a recommendation. He spoke highly of this woman and said he was sure she would do a good job for me. I then asked if she was an adequate writer. He said, "Are you kidding? None of my students has strong writing skills. Young people don't learn to put their thoughts on paper these days." He was right!

It hasn't always been that way. I remember diagramming sentences and learning parts of speech when I was in elementary school. It was a major part of the curriculum. Also, my parents encouraged and helped me grow in this area. I wrote a letter to a friend when I was 9 years old. My mother then suggested that we read it together. I had written, "Dear Tom, how are you? I am just fine." My mom asked me if I thought that sounded a little boring. She said, "You haven't said anything. You used a few words, but they have no meaning." I never wrote that phrase again, although that is the typical way a child begins a letter.

Looking back, I can see how, even at an early age, my mother was teaching me to write. In addition, I was also fortunate to have a few English teachers who were determined to teach me the fundamentals of composition. I had one in high school and another in college who insisted that I learn grammar and composition. They nearly beat me to death, but I'm glad they did. I earn a living today, at least in part, with the skills they gave me.

It's not terribly difficult or time-consuming to encourage and teach children some of the basics of grammar and composition. One approach is to ask a family member to correspond with your child and encourage him or her to write back. Then when the reply is written, sprinkle a few corrections, such as the one my mother offered, with a generous portion of praise. Finally, entice that youngster to engage in a little creative expression. As for what you can do to compensate for the de-emphasis on writing in school, I really don't know -- except to seek instruction outside the classroom.

The teaching of writing has gone out of style. But it is an incredibly valuable craft that your child can use in a variety of settings. Don't let him or her grow up without developing it.

Dear Dr. Dobson: Does the middle child really have greater adaptive problems than his or her siblings?

Dear Reader: The middle child does sometimes find it more difficult to establish his or her identity within the family. She enjoys neither the status of the eldest nor the attention given to the baby. Furthermore, she is likely to be born at a busy period in the life of her parents. Then during her preschool years, her precious territory is invaded by a cute little newborn who steals Mama from her. Is it any wonder that she often asks, "Who am I and where is my place in life?"

Send your questions to Dr. James Dobson, c/o Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903. Dobson is the chairman of the board for Focus on the Family.

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