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You Too Can Help Your Primary School Child with English Composition!

Trying to help your primary schooler with English composition writing, but feeling overwhelmed by all the advice from teachers, enrichment tutors, and online experts? 

First, it’s not easy to tell a good story, and even adults struggle to do this well. So do be understanding, and keep your expectations realistic for your kids.

Below, we look at some myths about ‘good writing’ commonly held by Singapore parents, as well as tips for developing a child’s writing skills, with the broader goal of becoming a better communicator.

Myth 1: The word “said” is bad and always needs to be replaced.

Many of us remember this piece of writing advice from our school days, but does it matter in the ‘real’ world?

Let’s look at a good example of a descriptive story, an essay from The Atlantic titled ”What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.” It’s about a family drama surrounding the diaries of a 9/11 victim, and in it, the word “said” appears 26 times. In fact, the word “says” is used even more liberally — a good 46 times! But read or scan the story for yourself, and see if this bothers you. Chances are, you won’t even notice.

Of course, it can be useful to occasionally replace “said” with something appropriate for the situation, such as: “Don’t worry about it,” she cooed. But there’s really no need to make a child memorise 200 ways to replace “said,” or to set rules such as “Don’t use ‘said’ more than once!” 

If you fixate on “said,” you will most certainly make storytelling less fun for your child. At the same time, it will probably not result in a much better story — sticking with “said” will help your child to save time that can be put to better use elsewhere.

Myth 2: To be descriptive, use idioms wherever possible.

You may have heard that one should use idioms in writing. But just as many people will tell you that a phrase such as “curiosity killed the cat” will make a piece of writing seem unoriginal or even cringe-worthy, and should be avoided. 

What’s the alternative? Going back to our example article (mentioned above), we can see that it kicks off with an interesting description:

“…his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads.”

This is an original description, and it demonstrates what writing teachers mean when they say “show, don’t tell.” A budding writer might want to collect descriptions such as these for inspiration, but do children need to aim this high for a school composition? 

Do bear in mind that many writers agonise over each phrase that goes into a story — your child, on the other hand, may be dealing with the stress of taking a composition exam, as well as a time limit. To be fair to your child, the goal should only be to produce a reasonably clear and interesting story, as opposed to a masterpiece. 

As for common phrases, there is usually more than one way to use them in stories, and again this will be subject to an individual’s skill and preference. If your child decided to write “He blew his top again…” it would not be ‘wrong’ to do so. Other alternatives might include:

“His volcanic temper tantrums made everyone afraid of him.”

“You could say he was like a volcano—no one knew when he was going to erupt.”

Which is best? One perspective would be that there is no ‘best’ way to describe something. The more important factor is the entire story and how it unfolds, and whether it offers any surprises or insights, or at least enough substance to keep an examiner engaged. This can be achieved with simple, no-frills writing as well.

Myth 3: Kids can learn about ‘good writing’ from model composition books.

If you’ve read model composition books, you’ll know that they often contain exaggerated and overwrought descriptions such as “a raging inferno that was engulfed in cantankerous flames.” What’s wrong with this phrase? Well, an inferno already refers to a large, uncontrolled fire, so technically, “raging” is redundant. But more importantly, you wouldn’t say “a fire was covered in flames,” therefore it’s also inappropriate to say that an inferno was “engulfed in flames.”

Examine the writing in model composition books carefully, and you’ll likely find more word usage issues and contradictions, such as “a stern-looking man sauntered” (“saunter” means to walk in a slow, relaxed manner). 

There is really no benefit to having children emulate — or worse, memorise — such writing. Instead, the best place for your child to learn about good writing is by reading good books!

But, if word lists and composition books don’t help kids to become better writers, what can they use instead?

We would recommend that you refer to your child’s school notes and stick with the recommended storytelling structures taught by the school, so as to avoid confusion. 

Some basics that should be in place before moving on to higher-order skills include:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Paragraphing—for dialogue, as well as to organise ideas

For those who have stronger language skills, they can boost their score by:

  • Thinking up refreshing ways to begin a story, rather than “Ring! Ring! The alarm clock rang. I woke up…”
  • Using a wide range of “show” phrases to help the reader better understand what the main character is going through.
  • Setting up a conflict for the main character, where there are stakes involved, i.e. something to be gained or lost.
  • Using relevant details, to advance the plot in a logical way.
  • Providing a satisfying resolution to the story — closure for the character, usually a lesson learned.

Below, we have three suggestions that we believe are more beneficial for children in the long run, beyond scoring well for composition tests and exams.

Tip 1: Listen to audiobooks and podcasts

Reading shouldn’t feel like work. Yet for many kids and teens, it is! 

If this is your child, you now have the option of letting them listen to audiobooks and podcasts, and many of these can be accessed for free. Here are some benefits:

  • It removes the effort of sounding out words, and helps kids to quickly learn and adopt the correct pronunciation for longer new words. 
  • It may improve comprehension and vocabulary acquisition.
  • It’s easier for kids to focus and immerse themselves in a story, and listening may feel like less of a chore compared to reading. 
  • Listening to audiobooks can be a way to help kids ease into more challenging texts, such as the classics, or any book that they deem “too difficult.” They can also read the print version of a book while listening to the narration at the same time — this is known as immersion reading, and you can find out more here

Tip 2: Be creative with language in speech

You may find words like “aggrieved” and “apprehensive” on your child’s vocabulary lists from school, but the truth is, if such words aren’t commonly used at your dinner table, it’s unlikely that your child will feel comfortable using them in a composition. 

We encourage parents to use conversations as a means to improve one’s language skills. For instance, if your child makes a mistake in speech, don’t let it slip by, because these same mistakes may appear in your child’s writing as well. Instead, ask your child to have another go at using the correct or appropriate expression, or simply rephrase the sentence in the correct form, for your child’s benefit.

If it’s vocabulary development you’re concerned with, do make it a point to introduce new words during mealtime conversations, and encourage the family to do the same. In time, the dinner-table will become a safe space for everyone to try out newly acquired words.

Tip 3: To be a better writer, find a way to store interesting phrases for future reference.

Many of us read great stories, but it doesn’t mean we’ll be able to apply it to our own writing. That said, we can always work to improve ourselves, and if you want your children to be intentional about this, you can ask them to highlight the phrases that they like in their books, and find a way to store these phrases so that they can be easily accessed when they’re writing a new story. 

Some ways to record these ‘inspirational’ phrases could be in a notebook, in an app, or simply in an Excel document such as this:

While your child shouldn’t plagiarise someone else’s work, a collection of choice phrases can provide ideas — for instance, your child could look at the phrase “perdition of survivor’s guilt” and write “the seemingly eternal punishment of guilt” instead.

Want more tips from parents? Join the conversation on our “All About English Composition” thread!

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