Power-Up Writing with Just the Right Word

I had the great fun of scoring fifth grade writing assessments for the state this past week-end. Again I was excited to witness the continuing improvement of young writers. The topic this year was to tell about a time that you did something that was awesome. While the word awesome is over-used in today's vocabulary, it seemed to work magic on the papers that I read as it led to the description of so many incredible experiences.

Students often wrote about a family vacation as an awesome experience. They mentioned the packing, the airplane ride, Disneyland, Mickey Mouse, the hotel, the food, and finally the trip home. Thus writing became a list of events rather than explaining the details of one part of the trip. To help your child write better here are a few tips. Have your child name a memorable event. Brainstorm all of the significant parts and then focus on just one aspect of it. If the most thrilling part of the trip was breakfast with Mickey Mouse, have your child write down (or record for younger children) all of the wonders of meeting this favorite character. How did Mickey look, act, feel, behave, smell, and every other minor detail? Seeking the fine points of an individual moment powers-up writing.

Next read each sentence together and discuss how clear and captivating it is. If Mickey Mouse is described as big, help your child select another adjective for big, one with more punch, like huge, awesome, immense, gigantic. Line these up from the least powerful, probably huge, to the most powerful, immense or gigantic. Then try the adjectives next to Mickey Mouse to get the sound of the language, Immense Mickey Mouse or Gigantic Mickey Mouse. I like immense because it adds alliteration with all of the Ms, but either one works. Pick a couple of other nouns and work on adding adjectives to make the writing more engaging: midnight-black, rounded mouse ears or giggly grin on his gigantic face. Writing most often does not require a total revamping of all material but rather just a few adjustments in words through the piece.

Now check the writing for active voice. If you see far too many is, am, are, was, were verbs, you are deeply entrenched in passive voice. Instead of Mickey Mouse is big, how about: An immense Mickey Mouse towered over tiny little me as he gently patted my trembling hand. Use verbs that activate the writing.

To expand student understanding of powering-up writing, here is an activity for word choice that is quick and fun. Pick a word, any word, like: bad, nice, run, love, or friend. Next brainstorm all of the different synonyms for the word. When you have exhausted your brain, call grandma for her input, and then refer to a thesaurus for more ideas. With the word bad, for example, my thesaurus came up with: awful, terrible, dreadful, ghastly, appalling, horrific, evil, wicked, debauched, ruthless, unpleasant, and seventy more. That is overwhelming proof that there are better word choices than bad. Some of the choices will not fit with the writing topic, but many of them will. Take your top ten or twelve choices for the word bad and line them out on a piece of paper, using the least effective to most effective method described above. There is an intense connotative difference between bad manners, ghastly manners, and ruthless manners. Discuss this with your child. Naturally you will need to consider the age of your child to help them understand these terms, but I have found that even the youngest writers have considerable vocabularies. They love words and playing with new words becomes a game.

Keep your word brainstorms in a notebook for future reference. As you model how to improve writing through word choice, your child will follow the example. Remember when you could not wait for the first words to form on those tiny lips? Maintain that fresh accomplishment with every new word your child learns. (Well, almost all of the new words our kids learn!) Words are power. They express, describe, define, and help children develop understanding. What a gift you bestow as you stregthen your child's vocabulary grow through creative, articulate writing. I can envision this as a family road-trip game as well. Dad gives a word, ie, travel, and then responses for synonyms rotate around the car until all possibilities for travel are depleted. Then move on to a new word. You could probably make it from here to Alaska and back on this game.

On a separate note, I spent Valentines week in several elementary classrooms. So many little students came up to tell me about the amazing cards they were creating. What a wonderful tradition, sharing cards and kind words with friends and classmates, family and neighbors. The greatest joy spread across young faces as they whispered to me, "My cards have suckers in them for everyone in my class!" I can just imagine the special (extraordinary, unusual, unique, outstanding, incomparable, exceptional) celebrations (festivities, parties, fetes, merriment, galas) across the district. Words really do bring meaning to life!