Many in-person 11 plus entrance examinations include a writing paper as part of the English assessment. Depending on their current school, your child may or may not be familiar with composition, but there are key writing skills and techniques that you can introduce at home to help them feel comfortable with the writing process.
There are six common creative writing prompts that your child might encounter in an English composition writing paper. Familiarising your child with these writing styles will help to improve their writing skills. These writing styles are:
1. Description based on an image: your child is given a photo or an illustration and must describe it in as much detail as possible.
2. Story based on an image: they create a narrative using the image as a stimulus.
3. Continuation or adaptation of an extract from a story: your child will most likely have answered comprehension questions on an excerpt in the first part of the paper and will then continue, resolve, or adapt the story themselves.
4. Verbal prompt: these are the most open-ended prompts. For example, your child could be asked to write a fictional story that begins with the phrase, ‘I had been waiting my entire life for this moment.’
5. Autobiographical writing: this question requires self-awareness and the ability to create a story from a life event. For instance, your child could give examples of or write about a time when they overcame a fear or about the proudest moment in their life.
6. Argumentative writing: an argumentative question is less common than the prompts above and might only appear in scholarship examinations or entrance tests for schools whose principal focus is academics. Your child could argue one or both sides of a topic, for example: ‘Some people think that recycling is a waste of time. Do you agree?’
Does your child stare at a blank page and not know where to start? There are many reasons why your child might struggle with writing skills and composition, especially if English is not their first language or if they experience learning difficulties. Lack of progression is often cyclical; low confidence can put your child off completing writing tasks, hindering their ability, which then further knocks their confidence. It is easy to underestimate English grammar and spelling, but it is a language with more sounds than letters, and punctuation rules are complicated. This makes mistakes or grammar errors easy to miss. Good writers feel confident in English grammar, spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary, but this takes practice and determination. Factors that can affect your child's writing skills include:
Children learn to read and write simultaneously; forming letters is only the first hurdle. Translating their thoughts onto paper using complex language is challenging if they have a limited vocabulary. Spelling and grammar will also be a challenge to your child's writing process if they don't have a strong knowledge of vocabulary. If your child doesn't have a wide vocabulary to pull from, they will loose marks for word choice and resort to simple words in their writing.
If your child is not a reader, they probably don’t grasp what makes a good story or what kind of stories they like. They will struggle with story writing because they won't have as many ideas to pull from. Reading regularly also helps children to become more grammatically correct and to recognise what good writing looks like.
If your child does not have a good grasp on how to outline their writing, they may get carried away and explain things that are not relevant to the prompt. They may also use filler words or unnecessary words and forget to consider their audience when writing.
Every child has the opportunity to improve their writing skills. Starting early with creative writing exercises in Year 5 will help to improve your child’s confidence as a young writer and to make the 11 plus exam feel familiar and achievable. Here are five things that you can do to help your child with their writing skills:
Read with your child as much as possible and explain words they don’t understand. Ask their school for an age-appropriate reading list and timetable reading time into their week. The more your child reads, the more they will be exposed to literary techniques, story structure, vocabulary and grammar. Seeing other strong writers in action will also help them to understand why writing skills are important.
Every time your child comes across a new word, note it down. Using roughly ten new words at a time, ask your child to find their definitions in a dictionary and write down a few synonyms they already know. This will help to improve their spelling and grammar, and general grasp of the English language.
Once they have a vocab list, ask your child to pick at least five words from it every time they do a piece of writing. This way, they have a better chance of these new words becoming part of their everyday vocabulary and not reverting to the same words they always use. Verbal communication can be just as important in this practice. Additionally, word choice is important in writing. Having a bigger bank of words to pull from will improve writing skills.
Host your own writing workshop. Ask your child to draft written communications (letters or email writing) to family members or write the next short chapter of their favourite book. Time them for 30 minutes and ask them to reread the story and read the story aloud when they have finished. Provide feedback so they know how to improve writing skills in the future. Doing these mini writing workshops will help boost your child's confidence and make them feel like a writer.
As an incentive to improve writing skills, you could ‘publish’ each of your child’s stories into a DIY book, using ribbon or treasury tags to bind them together. This way, they will feel proud reading through their own book and will be able to see how their written communication has improved.
As frustrating as it is for parents, some children respond better to an adult outside of their family when it comes to learning. An experienced 1 to 1 tutor can motivate your child to practice their writing skills. Private tutors can introduce new writing strategies to your child and model strong writing. If you're child isn't responding to your support, private tuition may be the answer.
Good exam technique is invaluable for any test, but especially composition. It is normal to feel overwhelmed by the task ahead, but if your child can practice breaking it down into a simple framework, they will keep calm in the exam and write to the best of their ability. You don't need to join a writing group to improve your writing skills. Here are some tips that you can share with your child to help them improve their writing style in compositions:
Use the first five minutes of the writing exam to plan the story in a few bullet points with a clear outline of the beginning, middle, and end. Doing this will allow the examiner to follow the composition through an effective story structure. It will also ensure that the story doesn’t go off in the wrong direction!
During the planning time, write down a list of literary devices (i.e. similes, metaphors, alliteration, personification, etc.) to use during the composition, and make sure to use at least two per paragraph. Don’t be afraid to use the same language device twice.
Especially when describing a setting, use the five senses (see, smell, hear, touch, taste) to bring the reader into the world of the story. Write down at least one thing for each sense. If the setting is a forest: See - tall trees; smell - fresh pine; hear - birds singing; touch - cold, wet moss; taste - blueberries from a bush.
Use at least three paragraphs in your composition – one for the beginning, one for the middle or plot development, and one for the end. Use indents for speech, and start a new paragraph every time the story shifts focus to a different setting, character, or idea. Try use different lengths of sentences to help convey meaning. For example, short sentences can show shock or surprise. Longer sentences be useful when describing the setting.
Keep a clock or a timer visible to get an idea of how long it takes to write a complete story. Simplify the story if you often need more time.
During their exam, they may be asked to write for different audiences, so it's important for them to understand how to choose the right tone for that audience. Research different examples of good writing for varying audiences, and get your child to tell you who they think the example is aimed at. This will help them to understand how to choose the appropriate tone for their written exam.
Using passive voice can make writing feel impersonal and can confuse the reader. Your child should always try to stick to using active voice in their writing. For example, "Alexa started writing her outline" instead of "the outline was started by Alexa". This will help them to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively.
This often happens when a child is so excited about their story that they forget to plan effectively. If a child doesn't take time to plan their work, they will forget to include different elements such as varied sentences (longer or shorter sentences for effect), interesting word choice and original phrasing, and literary devices.
Some children think that once they have finished writing their story down on paper, the writing process is finished. In fact, one of the most important parts of the writing process is editing. This means they should go back through their work to check for any grammar or spelling mistakes. They should also make sure they have varied their sentences and word choice, and that their writing is clear to the reader. They can do this by removing any unnecessary words or filler words. Editing is easy to forget, but can make all the difference in the marks your child receives for their writing. If I forgot about the editing process when it comes to writing this blog post, I'm sure you'd be seeing many more mistakes!
Becoming a strong writer is not something that will happen for you child overnight. Equally, learning how to improve writing skills is something that parents often struggle with. However, writing is an important skill for the 11+ and beyond. Whether they are doing academic writing when they reach Uni, writing a cover letter or amending their cv for a job description, these writing skills will be invaluable throughout your child's life.
Writing starts beyond pen to paper. Encourage your child to become a reader, practice communicating and varying word options in your everyday activities. Get your child to notice how their favourite author uses shorter sentences for effect to communicate in an interesting and exciting way. And remember to emphasise the importance of each stage in the writing process: planning, writing and editing.
While learning how to improve your writing skills may not be easy, following the tips above will help to make writing easier for your child. Remember, practicing is the best way to help your child to communicate effectively in their written work, so get them to start writing today and you'll see their writing skills improve in no time!
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