English is undisputedly the lingua franca of the world. Being unable to express oneself clearly, either in speech or writing, is likely to set one at a disadvantage. For most children, the aptitude for writing lags behind the aptitude for speaking. In many cases, the former never catches up with the latter, even in adulthood.
Writing is part science and part art, and can be thought of as an amalgamation of three components.
Grammar – the language-specific set of rules that govern how words could be stringed together in a coherent manner – is the science of writing. Grammatical correctness is objective, with right and wrong clearly defined. Using music as an analogy, grammatical correctness is akin to singing in key.
Mastering grammar is not an easy task. Most of us are exposed to grammar incidentally in the initial stages of learning the language. We learn to speak and read before we even know what prepositions or conjunctives are. So, if a child is exposed to an environment in which grammatically correct English is used, or if the child reads widely, he or she assimilates the rules implicit in writing without conscious effort. Conversely, if a child has been exposed to grammatically incorrect English, it is only inevitable that this will manifest in his or her writing. It is therefore important for parents and educators to communicate with children in proper English from the onset.
As a child grows older, the learning of grammar happens in a more structured manner in the form of classroom lessons. If a child’s foundation is already strong, formal lessons merely reinforce what the child already knows. For children who have imbibed unsavoury language habits earlier on, structured grammar lessons are important to rebuild their foundation.
Vocabulary is every writer’s arsenal, and with a quarter of a million words to choose from in the English language, a writer is hypothetically spoilt for choice.
Building an extensive vocabulary is frequently confused with the propensity for being bombastic. Furthermore, many people erroneously equate using uncommon or “difficult” words with good writing. Having an extensive vocabulary is only constructive insofar as it can be used discriminately. It is really about using the right word in the right context.
For children, who are just beginning to learn the language, the range or effectiveness of their expression is frequently limited by their vocabulary. They may have brilliant ideas, but without the words, they will struggle to express them on paper. Thus, it is essential that a child reads broadly and looks up the meaning of new words in the dictionary. A convenient way of learning new and interesting words is by subscribing to “word of the day” emails offered by various online dictionaries.
The expression or application of creative skill and imagination in writing is an art. When judging this subjective aspect of writing, one has to be content with “like” or “dislike” instead of “right” or “wrong”. Going back to the music analogy, one can opine that one dislikes Justin Bieber’s singing style, but not that he sounds off-key in the CD.
Creativity usually means surprising the audience. In writing, this can be happen in two modes. The first is through content, which means fresh ideas or concepts. The other is through creative use of words. Arguably, the first cannot be taught, but the second can be nurtured.
What parents or educators can do is demonstrate the infinite ways of expressing a single idea.
Compare “I like writing”, “I love writing” and “Writing is my passion”. How are they the same? More importantly, how are they different? Point out how different words express different intensities of the same action or emotion. Show how the use of a simple adjective, adverb, simile or metaphor can dramatically alter the import of a sentence. Guiding a child through simple exercises such as these opens up the child’s eyes to the boundless possibilities offered by the world of words.
A child should also be exposed to varied writing styles. This can be done by introducing books of different genres to the child. In time, they will appreciate the subtleties of writing and realise that a sentence can be crafted in different ways to evoke different responses in the reader.
In summary, all three components – grammar, creativity and vocabulary – are integral to any piece of good writing. Solid grammar forms the foundation, while creative use of vocabulary breathes life to the text.
As with any skill, practice makes perfect. The role of parents or educators is to show a child the literary devices which the child might not have noticed before or paid much attention to, and to guide them along as they start making use of them. Hopefully, along the way, they develop their own writing style, and a love for the written word.
Adrian Kuek Mind Stretcher Special Curriculum Director