“How come I have to write a summary? My teacher says she reads this book to the class every year, so she already knows the plot.”
~ Anne, 4th grade ~
Do you ever hear your child say, “Can’t I just say it out loud, instead of WRITE it?” or, “I can draw a picture of our lab report, but it is too hard to write about.”
What s/he is really saying, in geek-speak, is that his/her working memory is taxed, and writing is the most complex academic skill required. S/he has to multi-task in a way that his/her brain is not chemically wired to do. So she needs assistance.
Parents are often the default editors and revisers of their children’s writing. This role is enhanced after middle school, when 5-paragraph essays are worshiped like sacred statues in ancient mosques. Since teachers don’t have the time to sit down and do one-on-one tutoring (which is what all the teacher training suggests they should be doing with no consideration for the time restraints, but that is another story), parents pick up the slack.
Most teachers refer to the 3 body paragraphs of a 5-paragraph essay as “The Magic of 3.” In my work teaching students to write, I’ve discovered that The Magic of 3 is actually much more than just a framework for essays. It is a tremendously useful strategy to enhance many aspects of the writing process.
The Magic of 3 offers a model for speaking, and writing, that is common among multiple professions, including law, public speaking, journalism, and even sports. On the TV and in movies, lawyers in a courtroom typically make 3 arguments. A typical football practice will likely have a warm-up, 3 main drills, and a cool-down. Three just seems to be a magic number.
So how can you use the Magic of 3 to support your child when s/he struggles with writing? There are many strategies to becoming a skilled writer, and many “right” ways to write. Below, I offer suggestions to help using the Magic of 3. But remember, this is NOT a Rule of 3 – part of the magic is in figuring out what works for your child!
1) Sentence Builders. When your child needs to improve word retrieval, sentence development, and ease with writing, you can try to make the following exercise fun by challenging him/her to create single, unrelated sentences using 3 of the following prompts (we call these “Ws and How” words) in each sentence. Note, my example uses all 5, but your child only has to choose 3.
How Words: When, Who, How, Why, Where
Example: After the long wedding (when), Marta (who) raced home in a flash (how) to feed her dog (why), who was waiting on the porch (where).
2) Conjunctions. When kids are stuck, have them use one of the three most common conjunctions in the middle of a sentence, with a full sentence on either side of the conjunction. This is commonly known as a compound sentence.
Conjunctions: and, but, so
Example: I really like soccer. I get to do a lot of skill practice. It is all year round.
Improvement: Soccer is a way to improve different skills, and you can practice and play year-round.
3) Topic Sentences. When your child is struggling with a writing assignment – especially if s/he is frozen at the prospect of writing a topic sentence – help your child come up with 3 different options for a topic sentence (or thesis statement). Once you demonstrate that any of the three topics would work, then choose one for the essay. This prevents topic sentence phobia and the perfectionism behind it, and reinforces the idea that there is no single right way to write.
4) Powerhouse Verbs and Adjectives. During the revising process, if your child’s writing seems flat (or “wimpy,” as some of my middle schoolers call it), it is likely missing some powerhouse verbs and interesting adjectives. Use the following guideline during the editing process:
Guideline: For every 3long sentences*, include at least 3 strong emotion or action verbs and 3 adjectives, which can be as simple as color or number words. They can be distributed in any way, across the 3 sentences. Each sentence does not need one. It’s easy to find examples of powerhouse verbs in award-winning novels such as Newbery books.
Example: We went to the water park yesterday and my favorite slide was a long, long one. My brother was scared. It was hot and we all had fun then went home.
Improvement: We played all day at the water park and slid down a lot of slides. My favorite one was a long one called “Geronimo” and it was the fastest, so my brother hung onto me as we skidded down. We beat the heat by staying in the water all day.
Verbs: played. slid, hung, skidded, beat, staying
Adjectives: favorite, long, fastest
While some kids find freedom in the writing process, others find frustration. “Why can’t writing be more like math, with its correct answers?” These kids want specific rules for constructing a sentence. The Magic of 3 offers a great template to provide your child with the structure s/he craves. You don’t want to dampen the creativity of writing, so it should not be rigidly enforced. But establishing a foundation with “The Magic of 3” can help some kids find the comfort zone they need to take the stress out of writing.
*For 4th grade and above, a long sentence = 10-25 words.