Can my child write better English essays?

Every so often I see advertisements plastering “English Writing Courses” and parents asking for courses to help their child write better. So, can your child actually write better essays?

That depends if they are already writing good essays. If a person is already writing quite well then attending a writing course might give marginal benefits to structure the entire writing a little more tightly or to help the writer discover how to tighten a particular style or genre they’re aiming for.  Most of the time, though, when writers write they don’t even consciously think about and then make up the premise or points – it’s already there mentally in an instant, overflowing with imagery that they have to spill out onto words either on a screen or a written pad.

Do I believe I can teach children to write better English essays? No, I don’t. And I don’t think ANYONE can.  Yes, there are a gazillion advertisements proclaiming that such and such writing course is going to help you improve and score well and as we know there’s a world of difference between what an advertiser proclaims and what their service can really do.

What parents should realize that before a child can “write well” in a second language they first have to be able to write well in their first language.  For some bilingual families, they may consciously choose one language as a spoken mother tongue and another as a written mother tongue.

In order to write well in their first language a child would most probably have had an extensive incubated period of being an advanced reader – a reader that has been consistently readig 4-5 years above their age level for an extended period of time.  Another condition has to be in place as well – that, during that long gestation period where quality reading material creates a fertile soil for imagination and creativity begins to bud, no factor exists to extinguish or stunt that process. Unfortunately, all the things that can go wrong in extinguishing writing genius  has gone wrong in a Malaysian education system by the time the child reaches 15.

The most common “complaint” I hear from parents, teachers and students alike when it comes to writing is that “they simply have no idea what to write.”  There are two reasons we lack ideas : First, we are being forced to choose from a list of topics we have little or no interest in and on top of that we would have to abide by very narrow marking guidelines of our written work. This is one of the things that can go wrong in extinguishing writing creativity.

To overcome this it would be helpful to give as much needed context (readings, discussions, group work, projects) as possible to help the child build a scaffolding of the subject matter.  Most Malaysian requirements for writing sadly lack context and only serves to dumb children down. However, providing extensive context alone isn’t enough. Teachers and parents have to bear in mind that in order for a child to be able to produce A-grade writings they have to at least already have been an advanced reader for an extended period of time. This doesn’t mean that a child who reads well will definitely be a great writer but it is a prerequisite to be able to write well enough.

The second reason why most people complain about not having “enough ideas” to write about is because of a fear of making mistakes. But that’s the nature of writing – to put ourselves out there to be judged. Even though writers are often said to be their own worst critic they are still empowered with a seemingly natural-born sense of self-assuredness that makes it hard for them to reign in their ideas and thus have the effect of magnifying and multiplying ideas exponentially over time, making them better and better at coming up with more. The more ideas they need to express the better they become at finding and making use of words which help writers express them.

The truth is, not everyone’s going to be a writer and not everyone has to be. Writing, I believe, like other forms of Human Expression like Music and Sport, is an instrument, an outlet of the mental faculties and creativity of mankind. Trying to make someone good at writing an essay is like forcing an anatomically challenged person to be good at high-jump. If you’re only as tall as I am and weigh as much as I do you’re never going to clear the bar to an equivalent of an A-grade standard in writing.

Given, we have to exercise our ability to express ourselves in the written word just as we have to exercise the rest of our physical parts. Bearing this in mind we have to stop putting in the benchmarks that make the exercising of writing impossible. Children shouldn’t be forced to write out standard scripts based on standard pictures and standard key words. Before parents worry about their children’s “essay writing marks in school” and scramble to find the next best English writing tuition in town they have to first understand a few fundamentals :

  • Whose standard is your child’s writing ability being judged by?
  • How qualified is the person judging your child’s creative writing? This question can be easily answered by looking at the body of written work the assessor has written him / herself. The only person who can judge other people’s writing is someone who has made a habit of having his/her writings judged by the public.
  • Do you want your child to learn the joy of expression through writing or do you want your child to learn plagiarism?
  • Is learning literacy and then expression in writing more important or is meeting false school benchmarks more important?

Apparently, recognition through school benchmarks is the only way parents validate the entire writing process. This is one factor that robs the joy out of the long and wonderful creative writing process and creates the premise for plagiarism. Writing is organic, not standardized.  And plagiarism is a result of teaching people there’s a right and wrong way of expressing ideas and frequently timing them to squeeze out the answers examiners want to see. If time and the right standard answers are all that matter then the  creative and meta-cognitive intellectual processes of writing cannot anymore.

And it’s one of the many things sacrificed on the altar of Standardized Testing together with drawing, reading, music, etc. Can your child write better English essays if you get them a private tutor or send them to a short writing course? Most probably not but they will most likely learn how to plagiarize better.

I’m sure you’re curious to know as well if that’s the case then what do I do when I’m asked to help a child write better? “Thought comes before language”. If you can think better, you can write better.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Can my child write better English essays?

  1. Shalom

    A few weeks after posting this article a student who had just recently transferred into a preferred international school from a Chinese school brought in an essay that was, overall, superb.

    She lost some marks in editing herself for punctuation after writing the piece. Well, she’s only 10.

    After one “tenses polishing” exercise, one extensive classroom activity spelling test, dictation and corrections on them she internalized the punctuation rules and the rule of consistent tenses in writing.

    I would like to add that I can teach some technicalities to help a writer edit for clarity but I don’t think I, nor anyone, can help a non-thinker and non-reader to write.

    “Thought comes before language.”

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