When I went to get my haircut today, my beautician mentioned her eight year old son received a D in writing from his teacher.
“I didn’t even know he was doing poorly,” she said. “When my husband asked what we can do to help bring up his grade next year, the teacher said to have him read more. He already reads a lot. When he finds a book he likes he will read up to one hour at a time.”
“Did the teacher show him how to read like a writer?” I asked.
“I don’t know what she taught him.” My beautician shrugged. “He doesn’t follow directions. He writes only one sentence at a time. The teacher wants him to write three sentences.”
“It sounds like they are working on paragraphs.”
“Yes, but he only writes one sentence. That’s all. The teacher keeps saying he needs to read more.”
Yes, reading can promote better writing. However, someone who reads to learn how to write uses different techniques than someone who reads to learn comprehension. The teacher’s solution to read more sounded glib and ineffective. It didn’t address the student’s real need, which sounded more complex. After all, reading is reading. Writing is writing. They may not be mutually exclusive, but they were not the same.
“Ninety percent of writing is thinking,” I said. “Your son needs someone to help him organize his thoughts.”
The beautician mentioned the young woman who had tutored her son in reading. “I guess we have to ask if she’ll help him with writing.”
“If she can’t, I can help him,” I said.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “I can teach him how to write a paragraph. All he needs is a main idea, two supporting facts, and a final sentence to tie it all together.”
“But you have a job,” my beautician said. “When will you find time?”
I didn’t know. Between the many things I did to earn a living, writing was only one of them. But I couldn’t let someone fail to learn how to express himself through words.
“I can teach him on the weekends for an hour. I’ll give him assignments he can work on during the week. He can start by writing you a daily letter. In the meantime, have him copy a paragraph out of one of his favorite books. By physically writing down the words in that paragraph, he will start to see how someone else organizes his thoughts. Ask him to explain what each sentence means and how it all works together. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that’s how you need to read in order to learn how to write. You just can’t sit down and read a book to become a writer. You have to take every sentence apart and discover how and why it works.”
She thanked me for the offer and said she would discuss it with her husband before calling me.
While I waited to hear back from her, I wondered how this young boy learned and what it would take to instruct him. The only thing of which I was certain was he would learn how to write well because his parents were determined to find someone capable of teaching him, whether or not that person was me. And that was all that mattered.