How to Help the Struggling Writer

March 31, 2017
6 Writing Tips
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Writing: Chance or a Cultivated Skill?

As a teacher, one of the common complaints that I’ve heard from both traditional and home school parents alike is how hard it is to help their child with writing. Parents often feel helpless and ill equipped as they see their child grow increasingly despondent over poor grades; frustrated by their inability to show their child how to improve and often feeling guilty over the amount of “help” they gave their child, parents are frequently at a loss on how to help their children become confident writers. So they settle for one of two things: 1) just leaving their child on their own, hoping they’ll eventually “get it”, or 2) essentially writing the papers for them, which does ensure a good grade but never truly addresses the problem.

Confident WritingOn a personal level, I have vivid memories of when I hit my own writing wall as a middle school student. My mother, feeling ill equipped to assist me, began directing me toward my father for writing instruction. I can remember handing him my painstakingly typed essay only to have him mark it up entirely until the paper no longer felt like mine. I became even more frustrated when my father’s instructions began to collide with my teacher’s. One would say, “Your sentences are too long. Make them shorter, and more to the point,” while the other would write, “You keep writing these short, choppy sentence. I want you to lengthen your sentences and become more detailed.”

Looking back on my education, I realize that I never really had anyone teach me how to write until my freshman year in college. Before that, it was a lot of trial and error; a lot of mutinously writing what the adult told me to write, without really understanding why that was the better than my original sentence. Back then writing felt more like a hit or miss, driven by chance rather than skill. I’ve taken these memories with me, trying to remember them in my own teaching strategies and eventually with my own children.

The budding writer needs to know that writing is a carefully cultivate skill. That they can succeed, no matter what their natural talents, with hard work and direction. So, whether you’re a home school parent or just a parent trying to help your child with homework after school, here are some practical tips on how to guide your child to becoming confidant in their writing.

Helping Your Child Achieve Confidence

1. Read it Aloud

When I taught middle school English Language Arts, one of my common directives to my students was for them to read their essays aloud. Why? Because when we are writing we have countless ideas in our head that we are trying to convey on paper. We know what we are trying to say, often causing us to miss basic typographical/grammatical errors or how vague a sentence actually sounds. So when we read the paper aloud, we are forced to slow our brains down and to hear how it sounds to another person. Reading aloud also helps oung people figure out more complex aspects of grammar (like commas) because they can hear the natural pauses which indicate the need for a comma. This is a strategy that I use myself in writing, especially when I’m tired and am less likely to catch my own mistakes.

2. Beware Over Correction!

I cannot stress this enough. Particularly when helping younger writers you are likely to see many places for improvement. The problem is, you are looking at the paper through the eyes of a mature, fully educated adult and not from the perspective of where your child should be academically. As a teacher, when I’m grading an assignment I have the benefit of comparing it to 30+ other essays from their peers. This gives me a good sense as to what is below, average, or above grade level expectations. Not having the benefit of this as a parent, err on the side of caution. Be gentle in your corrections and choose the most important points. Don’t try to correct everything.

One way that I do this is by specifically asking the student what they want me to focus on. This makes it clear that I will not make it perfect for them and that they will have to do further revisions on their own. I think this also creates a sense of ownership in the student because they paper remains theirs.

3. Two for one

Writing is a deeply personal thing. It’s not the same thing as a math equation which is objectively either right or wrong. Even if your child’s paper is on a historic or scientific topic, they created it. As such, the finished product is a reflection of their thoughts, ideas, and understanding. Because of this  it is hard (particularly for the young) to take correction on writing. It feels personal; a correction on them as the writer. I encourage you to be mindful of this with your children, making efforts to give lots of positive as well as constructive criticism.

My general rule is two compliments for every criticism. Compliment their creativity, organization, grammatical skills, descriptions, etc. When a paper is laced with positive comments, it’s much easier to swallow the criticisms because you no longer feel a failure. Instead, you see a good start that still needs some improvement.

4. Avoid Red Pens

There is something psychologically jarring about the color red. So when a child looks at the corrected paper and finds red scrawl all over, even if it’s positive comments, their first reaction will be a negative one. Mindful of this, I rarely use red ink for paper grading, relying instead on bright colors like blue, green, and pink.

5. Provide Examples

There is nothing more frustrating than getting a paper back with a comment like “It still needs work” or “You need to explain more.” Though these statements indicate further revision is needed, they don’t show you how to accomplish a better result. I can’t tell you how many times I would get a lower grade on a paper and have no clue why. This is deeply frustrating as a student because then you are unable to improve; you feel stuck in a rut and begin just assuming that you’re “just not a good writer.”

Make mistakes teachable moments

  • Instead of just pointing out or worse correcting the run-on sentence, explain to your child what a run-on sentence is and how to correct it. Then point out various examples in their writing so they know exactly what needs fixing and have the tools to do so.
  • Instead of saying you need to explain this more, help them flesh out their ideas by either asking or writing a series of questions.Then, to provide more detail all they need to do is begin incorporating the question answers into what has already been written.
  • Instead of saying your conclusion is week, get online together and look up examples of strong conclusions.

6. Don’t Re-Write it For Them

Please, whatever you do, do not re-write the paper for them. Though this might make the paper better and even get your child a good grade, in the long run it cripples them. If your child is going to learn how to be confident in their writing, they need to be the ones to do it. Your job is to help provide them with tools for success, by using some of the above tips. Writing it for them just communicates that you agree that they’re incapable. It reduces instead of strengthens their confidence. Creating a Fixed Mindset (click link to learn more).

If you feel like you or your child needs extra direction, here are some books below that I would recommend. Also, if you’d like further guidance or ideas feel free to reach out to me through the contact form.



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  1. This is such a valuable post! I wish I had this advise when my son was struggling through writing, and I wish I wasn’t tempted to add my own rewrite some of his papers! Looking back, I realize teaching writing is not easy, but your advise is so good..I see patience is needed and some very good examples are a great suggestion. My son loved movies and if I just read some examples from books that were made into movies, it would have interested him more to learn sentence structure! Tools like this blog here are so helpful for homeschool families..I didn’t have blogs when I was raising my son and surely wish I did!! The teacher in me would love to go back and do it differently!

    1. I’m so thankful you found this helpful. It’s easy to look back in hindsight at what we could have been done better. I’m sure you did a fine job helping your son through with the resources that were available to you. I do think that writing is one of the most difficult things to teach because it isn’t a precise science, but rather an art that each one of us practices a bit differently.

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