Ironically, “be more specific” is the most uselessly vague criticisms my students seem to get about their writing. I am tempted to give them official permission to growl at the next person who says it to them.
When I ask new (English-fluent) students how they could improve their first piece of writing for me, 90% of them say they should have used more details or been more specific. And when I have followed up with, “What do you mean by that? Can you show me an example of what you would change?” only ONE student has ever actually known how to make such a change. One. It breaks my heart to know all of those kids have taken the criticism to heart without any understanding of how to fix it. They must feel such impotence.
So what can a parent do to help their child? Think about what led you to say, “Be more specific” and discuss that. Do you not have a good mental picture of the setting in your mind? Are you confused about the order of events? Are the words repetitively boring because everyone “goes” and “says” and “is” but never does anything with any other verbs?
Be able to point to something specific in the text as an example and explain your problem. “It says here that she’s driving. I imagined a car because that’s the most common but in the next paragraph the story talked about ‘closing the back gate’ and I realized that what I was imagining was wrong.” “I know there are three sisters but you don’t tell me their ages so when you say ‘the oldest one,’ I’m not sure who you’re talking about.” After being specific, ask the kid to look for any other places that might confuse someone.
If you can’t point to anything specific in their own writing except a total lack of adjectives, ask them to draw a picture of their story and then express surprise at a newly discovered detail. “I did not realize the house was red! I bet the people who are only reading the words would love to know that. Where could you add some words to tell them?”
Even better, instead of criticizing the work (because, oh, we make writing such a mysterious game of “guess what the adult is going to dislike this time” and just being appreciated sometimes is invaluable in creating adults who don’t hate writing), give them confusing texts themselves to read and ask them what the author could have explained better. When you are reading aloud to your child, pause sometimes if you could *reasonably* misinterpret something unspecified and talk about what the author could have said instead. If you are reading picture books, say “I sure am glad that picture shows that the old woman whispering hush is a rabbit, because the words by themselves would not give me that detail!” When you are reading to yourself and see a sentence with great details, share it out loud with your family. “I love how this book describes the ocean. Listen to this…”.
If we want kids to be specific, we have to start by being specific ourselves!
September 19 is Talk Like a Pirate Day. It’s fun and easy and a little bit weird (that’s a good thing) – you just try to talk like a pirate.
Step 1: Greet people with “Ahoy!” If the inventor of the telephone got his way, this is what we’d be saying every time we answered it.
Step 2: Whenever you don’t know what to say, say “Arrr!”
Step 3: Growl a lot. Say all the regular things like a grumbling, rumbling animal…or like someone who has been stuck on a boat with no microwave oven, no television and *gasp!* no showers for a couple of months.
Quite seriously – we love Talk Like a Pirate Day. The American “R” sound is one of the hardest for English Language Learners to master, and being in Boston doesn’t help since locals often drop it, too! Some experts think the pirate accent comes from an actor who was cast as a pirate in several movies. He used the accent from southwest England, where many pirates in English history came from. You can also hear a strong R in Irish speech, but many other regions and many other languages give that letter a different sound. So today’s fun “holiday” is a great opportunity to practice this tricky bit of American English.
We’ve got pirate books on the yellow bookshelf:
Comfortable, casual conversation is one of the hardest skills to master when learning a new language. All the workbooks in the world can’t prepare you for the sudden changes in topic, the use of slang and idioms, or just the personal choices your conversational partner might make. Unlike when you’re reading, you can’t always pause a conversation to go look up a word in a dictionary (but when possible, try to ask the person you’re talking to what they mean). And since casual conversation is important for all students, children and adults, to feel like they are fitting in to their new community, we urge our students to take every chance to practice.
But talking to strangers as practice for talking to strangers can feel almost impossible – if you felt comfortable doing it already, you wouldn’t need to practice it!
Our copy of Table Topics is getting as well-used as our dictionary!
This is why families and friends are so valuable: they already know you are not perfect but they still like you! If you make a game out of your conversation with them, mistakes become part of the fun.
In our classrooms, we have a game called Table Topics. We use the family edition so that the questions are always child-appropriate, and even adults can laugh while answering child-focused questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Family dinner is a good time to use this game. Some questions have simple, one-word answers, but when people are comfortable they can spend time explaining why that is their answer. You can answer questions in English to practice the language, but even discussion in your home language will help children practice the thinking skills that they need to learn and use English. Be silly, don’t be perfect, and maybe you’ll learn something new about the people you love!
Random House publisher’s YouTube channel recently posted a video of famed book author and illustrator, Peter Spier: Peter Spier Author Video – YouTube.
I loved Peter Spier’s books growing up. Following on yesterday’s discussion of allowing children to read books at all levels, I will confess that even after I was reading 300 page novels, I still spent hours pouring over Spier’s picture books, many of which have few or no words at all. They taught me about the complexity of our world and the skill of a master storyteller, which continue to bring joy to my life. They taught me to observe the details around me, a habit which helped me in many school subjects.
An interesting question arises at the 1:22 mark in the video. Spier’s books are being released for ereaders and he says he was asked to color in the half of the illustrations which he had originally chosen to do in black and white. This made me ask three questions … I don’t have the answers yet! Maybe your family can think of some answers:
- Why were some illustrations in color and some in black and white, originally?
- Why did the publisher ask him to color the black and white ones for ereaders?
- What might the book gain or lose by having all illustrations in color now?
We have three Peter Spier books for our students to read: Tin Lizzie, Noah’s Ark (Caldecott winner for 1978), and People. People was my personal favorite book for many years.
Following directions (crafts, cooking, etc.) is an excellent way to practice reading and comprehension skills – if the result looks good, then you followed the directions well!
Plaid Kids’ Crafts has daily craft posts on their blog, as well as an email newsletter. Plaid Enterprises makes craft supplies, so many of the posts name specific products. However, any good crafter knows that you can always find a substitute.
Nick Jr. has crafts and recipes for preschool-age children, so the directions are some of the simplest to follow.
Martha Stewart’s website also has many ideas for kids’ crafts, and Disney/ABC has sections on their family site for both crafts and cooking.
For cooking with kids, Spatulatta has both print and video recipes. I recommend using both forms where possible as a way to check your English understanding – students who use more than one way of learning the information can also speed up their language learning.
Cooking With Kids includes much more than just the recipes, but one drawback is that it also refers frequently to several books by the site’s author. Their handy icons helps children focus on the different kinds of information in a recipe.
I can’t end without mentioning one of my favorite blogs, although it doesn’t have the crafting directions that this post focuses on: Playing by the Book is written by a UK mother of two young children. Most posts begin with a book review, and then discusses a craft activity inspired by the book. Happily, many of the UK resources can also be accessed in the US. For example, I try to catch the KidLit on the Radio programs on my smartphone or computer using TuneIn. Added bonus: she has frequent book giveaways!
P.S. If you make a mistake and end up with a mess, you can always submit the results to CraftFail! 😉