Common Problems in Elementary School Writing
Learning to write is uniquely challenging. Writing requires the mastery and concurrent use of a complex array of language skills, from vocabulary and spelling to the ability to organize and convey ideas. Indeed, the intricacies of writing make it one of the highest forms of human expression. Is it any wonder that many elementary school students need extra support along the way to becoming writers?
Elementary Writing Hurdles
In elementary school, children are encountering the elements of writing for the first time, from the formation of letters, to organizing their ideas, to using correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Elementary school students are expected to advance from learning the rules of writing to automatically applying those rules beginning in grade four. By the end of elementary school, your child should be writing independently and producing multiple-paragraph essays that contain formal introductions, supporting evidence, and conclusions.
How to Spot Common Writing Problems
As a parent of an elementary school student, you shouldn’t be overly concerned if your child’s writing is not perfect. Writing ability improves in stages, as children build upon the skills learned in prior grades. However, you should keep an eye out for repetitious errors and habits, such as in incorrect grammar and spelling, poorly structured essays, and unsupported ideas. Frustration is also a red flag. Writing is hard work and can be a chore, but excessive complaining and procrastination may indicate a bigger problem with writing. If not addressed, eventually writing problems can lead to problems in other subjects and affect overall academic success.
Overcoming Writing Problems
If your child isn’t making progress in writing, take action early. As a first step, make time to meet with your child’s teacher. Come prepared with your concerns and observations. Does your child seem to have trouble in one aspect of writing, such as grammar or getting started, or does the problem seem to stem from a larger issue. Writing problems can be an indication of other learning problems, so consider consulting the appropriate professionals if those are your concerns. The good news is that with patience, understanding, and targeted help, writing problems can be overcome.
Does your child’s writing look like this?
The errors and awkward phrasing in their children’s essays often surprise parents of elementary school students. Usually children exhibit a stronger command of language in conversation than on paper and don’t begin to write at a level equivalent to their own speech until grades four to seven. Here are some common errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics that will help you identify the trouble spots in your child’s writing.
Problem: Proper Nouns Not Capitalized
Example: I saw dr. smith in new york.
Solution: I saw Dr. Smith in New York.
Problem: Sentence Fragments
Example: Going to the grocery store for milk.
Solution: I am going to the grocery store for milk.
Problem: Run-on Sentences
Example: I like riding my bike after dinner first I have to help with the dishes.
Solution: I like riding my bike after dinner, but first I have to help with the dishes.
Problem: Lack of Subject-Verb Agreement
Example: He run every day.
Solution: He runs every day.
Problem: Incorrect Noun Plurals
Example: The berrys are ripe.
Solution: The berries are ripe.
Problem: Incorrect Plural and Possessive Nouns
Example: My parent’s wedding photo is beautiful.
Solution: My parents’ wedding photo is beautiful.
Problem: Wrong End Punctuation
Example: What are you doing.
Solution: What are you doing?
Problem: Not Forming Compound Sentences
Example: Tom likes baseball his friend likes hockey.
Solution: Tom likes baseball, but his friend likes hockey.
Problem: Lack of Commas in a Series
Example: Our flag’s colors are red white and blue.
Solution: Our flag’s colors are red, white, and blue.
How Parents Can Help
There are many ways you can help your children enjoy and improve their writing.
- Give positive feedback. When reviewing your child’s essays, give positive feedback along with talking about what needs improvement. Engage your child in the revision process by discussing the mechanics of writing without disapproval of their ideas. Students should understand that writing is a process and all writers revise their work. Remember, children need encouragement as much as correction. Also, speak in private to avoid possible embarrassment.
- Incorporate writing into family activities. There are lots of ways to bring writing into daily family life. Ask your children to help you make lists and record messages. Have your children write poems or skits for family events, or movie reviews to share at the dinner table. Journals and pen pals are also great writing outlets. Encourage your children to write about what interests them—even if it’s just a paragraph.
- Don’t rush writing. Make sure your child has a quiet place to write and help them gauge how long it will take to complete a writing assignment. Writing usually takes longer than we think. If the assignment is rushed, students may feel they can’t write, when they really just needed more time to revise.
- Get extra help. Recognize when extra help is needed, either from the school or outside professionals. Often children respond well to having a personal writing tutor. Ask if your school has after school programs that target writing. Most importantly, don’t ignore writing problems—working with teachers and utilizing available resources can make a big difference.
Time4Writing Tackles Elementary Writing Problems
Time4Writing currently offers three writing courses designed especially for elementary school students.
Our online writing courses provide highly effective writing instruction and skills reinforcement. Elementary school students work one-on-one with an experienced, certified teacher with the goal of mastering the fundamentals of writing, step-by-step.
- In the Grammar Rocks course, students are introduced to the parts of speech, correct punctuation and capitalization, and proofreading strategies.
- The Sensational Sentences course tutors students in writing complete sentences, while teaching about types of sentences and key concepts such as subject-verb agreement.
- Perfect Paragraphs teaches students to how to write different types of paragraphs, including narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive.
- An Excellent Essays course is under development. Courses can be taken individually or in succession to build skills from the ground up.
With over 1,000 students served, Time4Writing has ample proof that writing problems can be overcome. One parent of a Time4Writing elementary school student wrote, “My son is happily writing for the first time ever. He really enjoys the feedback and finally believes that he is a good writer. Thanks to Time4Writing for unlocking his potential.”
“Pick one place you’d like to go in the world and explain why.” This is an example of a typical assignment a fifth grade teacher may assign a class.
Once the papers are turned in, the teacher would then review 20-30 essays for clarity, grammar, sentence structure, use of vocabulary words, organization, idea development, elaboration and accuracy. Not surprisingly, students often wait several days before receiving feedback.
Now imagine a class where students type their essay into a software program that immediately flags lower-level writing errors like spelling, punctuation and formatting, and provides suggestions for improving organization, sentence structure and word choice.
Students are able to instantly correct errors, make revisions and resubmit their essays. Teachers can then focus their efforts on helping students to improve their critical thinking and higher-level writing skills.
The PEG Writing system, developed by Measurement Incorporated (MI), implements automated essay scoring (AES) through a number of formative assessment software products. This automated essay evaluation (AEE) software system is being used by nearly three-quarters of a million students in the United States and several other countries.
While researchers have investigated the reliability of scoring models, Joshua Wilson, assistant professsor in University of Delaware’s School of Education, is taking a different approach. His research focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of AEE on teaching and learning.
He is looking to determine if it help students — particularly those who areat risk of failing to achieve grade-level literacy standards — improve their writing skills.
Writing instruction is gaining importance
Under the federal No Child Left Behind policy, writing instruction took a backseat to reading and math. With the introduction of Common Core standards and associated literacy assessments (e.g., Smarter Balanced) writing has once again been brought to the forefront.
“The majority of U.S. students lack sufficient writing skills,” said Wilson. “Roughly two-thirds of students in grades four, eight, and 12 fail to achieve grade-level writing proficiency, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).”
Why does this matter? “Students with weak writing skills are at a greater risk of dropping out of school or being referred to special education programs — potentially failing to secure stable and gainful employment,” said Wilson.
Yet teachers face many barriers with respect to teaching writing.
“A major impediment is the time it takes to evaluate student writing,” said Wilson. “Subsequently, many students do not get adequate practice or feedback to improve as writers.”
Wilson has found that PEG utilizes natural language processing to yield essay ratings that are highly predictive of those assigned by human raters. Consequently, students receive more thorough feedback.
Stacy Poplos Connor, a master teacher in The College School, started working with PEG after reading about it in UDaily. She has found it to be an incredible teaching and learning resource tool.
“The students receive immediate feedback on each of the main traits of writing,” she said. “If they are struggling with a particular genre and/or editing tool, they can watch videos embedded into the site or send me messages while they write.”
Findings of the research
For the past three years, Wilson has partnered with the Red Clay Consolidated School District to pilot and research PEG Writing in grades three-five, and select classrooms in the Red Clay and Colonial school districts’ middle schools. Collaborating with a number of UD graduate and undergraduate students, Wilson has published three studies focusing on the impact PEG has on both learning and instruction.
In the classroom, he has found:
• Students’ quality of writing improves in response to PEG’s automated feedback, and it appears to be equally effective for students with different reading and writing skills.
• On average, students with disabilities participating in the general education curriculum are able to use automated feedback to produce writing of equal quality to their non-disabled peers, even when their first drafts were significantly weaker.
• PEG can identify struggling writers early in the school year so they may be referred for intervention to remediate any skill deficits.
Wilson also compared results of teachers using GoogleDocs versus PEG to evaluate its impact on writing instruction. The analysis revealed that:
• Students in the PEG Writing group demonstrated an increase in writing motivation. There were no changes in writing motivation for students in the GoogleDocs group.
• Teachers using GoogleDocs provided proportionately more feedback on lower-level writing skills, such as capitalization, punctuation, and formatting.
• While teachers using PEG Writing still commented on lower-level writing skills, they were able to provide more feedback on higher-level writing skills, including idea development.
“PEG allows me to pick a topic based on several genres while also incorporating my own teacher-created prompts that fit with my instruction,” said Connor. “It has definitely saved me time in grading and editing. I would highly recommend PEG to any teacher.”
Wilson is now piloting and researching PEG at George Read Middle School, Gunning Bedford Middle School and Castle Hills Elementary School in the Colonial School District. He is expanding his analysis to determine if the additional practice and feedback through PEG writing can help English language learners (ELL) in elementary and middle school pass the ACCESS for ELLs test.