As a seventh and eighth grade English teacher, I am both intrigued and disheartened by how many students enter my class who have already declared themselves "not a reader" or "not a writer." Certainly, writing a literary analysis in middle school language arts is different than writing an Instagram post or texting with friends, but we are all readers and writers. As parents, family members, and support system members of middle school students, we have a tremendous opportunity to encourage students as communicators.
In the seventh and eighth grade English classroom, I encounter many students who find the writing process or reading to be challenging to the point of frustration. Recently, I coached students in class by reminding them that my goal as their English teacher is not to trick students into loving academic or essay writing. I know full well that most of my students will not have to write a literary analysis essay as a routine task in their eventual everyday life or chosen career. However, I do know that there are many skills developed through academic writing that students will carry into adulthood.
Beyond just the technical concepts obtained through academic writing, the process teaches our students valuable lessons about themselves, time management, openness to new ideas, and fosters a growth mindset. The soft skills of interpersonal communication, marked by an ability to clearly and concisely state ideas and support them with specific evidence as they dialogue with others, will retain value throughout a student's educational career and beyond.
As influential people in the lives of middle schoolers, it's worth asking ourselves a few questions:
How can we reasonably and authentically encourage seventh and eighth grade students to grow as communicators?
How can we effectively engage with a middle school student about the value of the processes of reading and writing (especially when they’re working through a task for English class that they may not particularly enjoy or find tedious)?
Just as I recently explained to my students, the role of any support system member is not to force or trick students to love reading for school and academic/essay writing. Instead, parents can embrace the role of encouraging their student to communicate more clearly and to embrace these practices as opportunities for growth.
We are all gifted uniquely, and I believe that we need to help students in this age group specifically to understand how effective communication through the written and spoken word can be glorifying to God, conducive to unifying His people, and helpful in living out His will for our lives as we work, live, and grow--regardless of how much they like or dislike reading and writing in an academic setting.
There are three practical ways that parents can encourage their middle schooler as a reader and writer:
- (Without getting on a soapbox) Organically share how reading, writing, and communication impact your daily life and work. Think beyond your career or vocation: consider your roles in clubs, groups, church, etc. and how you dialogue about reading and writing in these areas, and talk about them with your middle schooler.
- Find something to read or write together. Think outside the box: read cookbooks, almanacs, podcasts with print components, Biblical commentaries, etc. Write a story while you’re on a road trip or take time to journal alongside each other. Seize your child’s interests and work to cultivate shared interests. Work through the process authentically together by looking up the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases, summarizing ideas that are hard to understand, and working to clarify ideas. Be vulnerable alongside your student in admitting what you don’t know and have yet to learn. Pace yourselves.
- Offer to read your student's writing (but don’t be offended if they decline your offer). Ask thoughtful questions instead of telling your student what they did wrong: allow them to take the driver’s seat and increase awareness of areas where they are stronger or need to improve.
- Some questions to ask when you read your student's writing...
- Tell me more about (insert idea or concept here). How does this idea or concept fit into the bigger picture of what you’re writing about?
- (In response to a statement made) What makes you say that?
- What would you like me to look for as I read this? (see below for suggestions)
- Who is your audience, and does your writing meet the needs of that audience? For example, for a more formal academic piece, do you use formal language and avoid personal pronoun phrases like “I think” and “you should?”
- Do your ideas or arguments make sense to others? Are they clear and specific?
- Do you use words and phrases that are interesting to reader? What words do you overuse or repeat?
- Are there any grammatical mistakes like capitalization or punctuation that you didn’t catch?
- Do you support all of your ideas or claims with evidence?
We can engage in meaningful conversations around reading and writing with our middle schoolers. With the right mindset and framing (instead of harping and shutting down conversations), we have the opportunity to remind students of the value in working heartily unto the Lord in tasks that aren’t our favorite and of the possibility for connection that comes from the written and spoken word. To God alone be the glory – even in a literary analysis essay!