How to Teach Writing Skills to Older Kids

A writer is a person who writes about stuff. In order to write about stuff, you have to know stuff and do stuff. That sounds really basic and juvenile, but it is the reason why I am against writing programs for children under twelve years old. Most of the writing prompts for younger children aren’t very exciting and they know it. But we do need to know how to teach writing skills to teenagers.

A teenager has more to say than, “I did this and then I did this.” A lot of journal prompts for younger kids ask for those types of simplistic answers. Not all of them, but many. However, teenagers resist those types of writing activities. They think deeply, they have had some experience with life, their command of language is better, fine motor skills are more developed and they have the mental capacity to absorb tons of knowledge in a short period of time. In contrast, a young child possesses none of these and writing is often laborious for them. Forcing younger children to write will guarantee that they hate writing. Instead, teach young children to write with games and other activities.

So, once a child reaches at least age ten (but boys will likely be older than age ten), we need to know how to teach writing skills more formally.

How to Teach Writing Skills to Older Kids

how to teach writing to older kids who use open notebooks and drink coffee

Start with the Keys for How to Write Awesome Sentences

All writing starts with the sentence. By now, spelling shouldn’t require a great deal of thought. And, teens know how to use spellcheck if they have trouble, anyway. Forget about the grammar lessons, too. If your teen has read lots of books and had many discussions with adults who speak well, he should understand how to structure a basic sentence. Writing, to some degree, is talking on paper without all the “umms” and “uhhhs” and “ya knows.” Besides, many teens have heard of Grammarly as well. If they are unsure of their complex sentence, they will likely use it whether you know about it or not. So, don’t worry so much about those things. Focus on good writing and start with improving each sentence.

Forget boring.

He ate breakfast.

Boorrrinng! How about “Dave gobbled pancakes” or “Susan nibbled toast?” The first thing to teach teens is this–don’t just offer vague information. Make it pop! See if your teen can change these yawning sentences into statements that make readers sit up and take notice.

  • He went to the store.
  • She was sick.
  • He sat in the chair.
Use specific action verbs.

So, how do we make sentences pop? Avoid using generic verbs or “to be” verbs whenever possible (am, are, is, was, were, has been). Let’s look at the above examples.

He went to the store.

Okay. Pretty boring and generic. Did he jog, amble, shuffle, drive, whiz, stomp, or crawl? Let’s substitute “crawled.”

He crawled to the store.

Hmm. With just one substitution, we imply a great deal about this person and that creates interest in the mind of the reader.

She was sick.

Uh-oh. There’s one of those “to be” verbs. Let’s clarify her illness. Did she: vomit, pass out, faint, sneeze, cough, keel over? Let’s say

She vomited.

Much better. Now readers know more about her illness in just one word and are curious about why.

He sat in the chair.

No one just sits. Did he slouch? Shift? Squirm? Sleep? Perch? Flop? Let’s change it to

He squirmed in the chair.

We imply that he is impatient or that he has been sitting a long time. Maybe he is a child or he is uncomfortable. All of these things cause readers to want to know more and that is ultimately what we want, isn’t it?

Use specific adjectives.

Another way we make sentences pop is by using specific adjectives. Did you know that there are fifty Eskimo words for snow? Things are not green or brown, they are forest, lime, hunter, sable, chocolate, mahogany. Don’t say house when you could say villa, hut, mansion, Georgian, American 4-square, condominium. When you first introduce someone, give them a name and a little bit of relevant information about them. Let’s try this with our sample sentences.

  • He crawled to the store becomes Five-year-old Bubby crawled to the vegetable stand.
  • She vomited becomes Vivian vomited blood.
  • He squirmed in the chair becomes Teddy squirmed in the dentist’s chair.

So, the first main tip for how to teach writing skills to teens is using these two basic steps for how to write awesome sentences. This is the first step toward transforming their writing from boring to gripping. Then, we move on to paragraphs, which are just a group of sentences about a central idea or topic.

A great done-for-you option for teaching how to write using the methods I’m discussing (almost exactly, I might add), is Clearwater Press. Their programs all teach writing in this manner and put it in a real world context. They offer Byline, Cover Story, and One Year Adventure Novel, appropriate for 6th grade and up. I highly recommend their programs and have used them myself because hey, let’s face it. If someone else has already created the very product I would try to DIY, why DIY? It saves time and effort and their stuff is very well done, using dramatized video lessons. Take a look.

Then, Teach How to Write Awesome Paragraphs

According to modern writing practices for a general audience, we should shoot for short, 7-10 sentence paragraphs and not these long, essay-length paragraphs. Long paragraphs tend to lose the reader and also tend to wander off the main idea. A college professor may be the only person impressed with such writing. But, newspaper editors, marketing directors, and most other professions that write for the public will not be so impressed. Paragraphs should not be longer than about 150-200 words. And, sentences should be shorter than 20 words. So, how do we teach writing skills accordingly? How do we help our teens add more sentences about the same topic and flesh it out?

Try the Five Senses

Let’s use one of the examples from above–Teddy squirmed in the dentist’s chair. When I’m trying to get my teen to write more about Teddy and his experience at the dentist’s office, I might ask, “What else does Teddy sense?” What does he see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Think? In other words, flesh out Teddy’s experience and why he’s squirming. I want to be able to be Teddy and empathize with him. This works whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. All writing is essentially storytelling, whether you’re a reporter for a crime scene, arguing for a new power plant, or a novelist writing a new blockbuster. Help the reader step inside that person’s world.

Sometimes, as your teen brainstorms answers to these questions, he may come up with many sentences about each sense. That’s great! Then, he’s actually got several paragraphs, which makes him one step ahead. But, for the struggling writer, just coming up with one sentence about each sense is a good start.

Try the 5 W’s and an H

This is the usual method of covering every angle for non-fiction reporting. Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions ensure that the essay or article includes all the facts. Can your teen come up with an awesome sentence for each of these questions? If they can think of several sentences, again, that’s great!

What is the problem and how do you solve it?

Another consideration for expanding sentences into a paragraph is to include a couple of sentences about what problem the person, place, or thing faces. In our example of Teddy squirming in the dentist’s chair, maybe Teddy’s problem is that he has to go to the bathroom. Your teen could write a few sentences about this problem and ideas going through Teddy’s mind for solving it. In an essay or report, each paragraph will likely center around a different aspect of a problem faced by a person, community, company, movement or other entity. Then, she would have a paragraph for each possible solution.

How to teach writing skills through content marketing

Content writing is designed to keep people reading so that they will eventually buy a product. Learning the techniques used by marketers will improve your writing. It forces you to write in the active voice, say more with fewer words, and draw people in to your story. All writing, even a business or finance book, is essentially storytelling. I highly recommend subscribing to copywriting blogs to learn these important skills. I used what I learned in content marketing courses to ghostwrite a novel and improve my own published books.

Other ideas for how to teach writing skills for awesome sentences and paragraphs

One of the best ways of how to teach writing skills is to examine the writing of great writers. Choose some sample paragraphs from award-winning journalists, authors, bloggers, etc. and analyze them. What words pop out at you? How does the writing make you feel? How does the writer clearly communicate her ideas? Does she use short sentences? Do you recognize any techniques he uses? How are the sentences related to each other and flow into each other? Consider these different aspects and the methods I mentioned above. Can you imitate this person’s writing in your own works?

Ideas for What to Write About

Okay, so I gave you some ideas for how to teach writing skills to older kids, but how do they apply those skills? What do they write about? Should they write college-prep essays or research papers? Or, should they write fiction? When will they use this stuff other than for college?

Write about your passion

First, I will say that everyone uses writing skills to some degree. Do you write emails or letters to relatives? How about text messages? Personal blog? Do you read blogs on business pages or on things of personal interest, such as what you’re reading right now? Outside of college, teens will have to write if they choose teaching, legal, or business-related professions. Many other professions require some level of writing ability as well, even if they’re not writing legal briefs, annual reports, or epic blog posts for a company website.

But, the best place for teens to start is with their passion. What is your teen passionate about? What are you passionate about? Start there. However, sometimes people are passionate about something but don’t truly know a lot about it. For example, I have heard some young people say, “I’m passionate about helping the poor.” That is wonderful! Start there. Ask questions like:

  • What do I really know about this? Is my knowledge based on talking with people, listening to pundits, reading books, or something else?
  • Do I only know one perspective? Who has an alternative perspective and why do they think that way?
  • How extensive is my practical experience with this topic?
  • What makes me angry or upset about this topic?

These kinds of questions will spur your teen (or yourself) to dig deeper, to uncover truth that needs to be shared. Then, it’s time to talk about how to structure the writing, such as writing a blog or an op-ed piece for the local paper.

Other ideas

There are times when passion is lacking or the student is reluctant. How else can we decide what to write about? Here are some additional ideas to get the juices flowing.

  • Choose an article from the newspaper and rewrite it from a different point of view.
  • Choose an event from your life and write it with an alternative ending, not the real ending.
  • Write about an event you attended from the perspective of a foreigner.
  • Look through business magazines and discover a problem that a company is having. Write a white paper outlining how your unique idea is the solution to their problem and why.

How to Conquer Writer’s Block

It happens to every writer. I’m humming along, words flowing out of my brain on to the page, and then, BAM! the river runs dry. It’s not the same as sitting in front of a blank page wondering what to write about. No. I’m talking about the times when I am in the middle of a page and suddenly, the words stop. This is commonly known as writer’s block.

Even if all my ideas are mapped out in an outline and I have researched a topic to death, I can still get an attack of blank brain. Maybe it’s because good writing is more than just stringing facts together. It’s more than thoughts on a page. It’s painting with words. Painting is hard on the arm and hand that move the brush. It is hard on the mind that must sift through thousands of words to find the right way to say something. Shutting down the thought process is how the brain says it needs a break from all this creative work. So when your teen has been humming away on a writing project and then suddenly can’t come up with anything, try these tricks.

Ways to conquer writer’s block

Do something physical.

Your teen can go for a walk or run. Engage in an aerobics or Pilates class. Put on her inline skates or go for a swim. Hanging around outdoors with siblings, bowling, or anything that forces him to move his body are good choices, too. Moving the body has been shown to provide stress relief, increase the hormones and neurotransmitters that make your mind alert. This type of activity gives the brain a break from thinking while at the same time feeding it what it needs to work better. What could be better than that?

Make something.

Use a different type of creativity through sculpting, adult coloring books, cooking, painting, or drawing. Handicrafts such as knitting, crochet, or needlework are also good. Exercising the creative muscle in a different way helps the brain make new neural connections that enhance writing. And, because she is using her visualization abilities instead of her writing abilities, she still gives her brain a break. Not to mention, it is fun to learn something new and create beautiful things.

Get out in nature.

There is something very calming and rejuvenating about the outdoors. If he can combine this with doing something physical, then hey, double the benefit, right? Get barefoot and reap the benefits of grounding, which include better sleep, reduced pain and stress, and increased healing. Not to mention numerous other benefits of the outdoors. Wow. Giving your brain a dose of the outdoors is giving it vitamin G as discussed here.

Read something lighthearted.

Shifting gears and interacting with language as a receiver instead of creator/giver can be just the dose of change she needs. She should avoid reading heavy, technical books. That will only tire her mind even more. It’s best to choose a novel in her favorite genre. Try a comic book.

Sometimes, all you need are frequent snack breaks!

It’s true. The brain needs fuel and when it’s running low, it sputters. Encourage your teen to get out of his chair, go down to the local cafe and meet with a friend over lunch. When he comes back refueled in multiple ways, the words will flow again.

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