If your youngster fumbles out in left field, chances are you'll toss him some practice balls in the backyard. But if he stumbles when stringing words into a sentence, what then? Simple. Play with words as you'd play with baseballs - free and easy fun.
That's the advice from Marjorie Frank, author-teacher-mom, whose mission is to get youngsters to write.
Mrs. Frank takes the stance that parents have a stake in this project, not to turn out little Hemingways and Melvilles, but to see that their kids can at least put thoughts into a penciled paragraph. And sparking a romance with words is the first step.
Because schools are up to their chimneys in requirements, there's little time for writing, Frank explains. Teaching young people to write ``the very shortest pieces takes at least a half hour or 45 minutes, three or four days in a row. There's no time'' for this, she explains.
And if a teacher does snitch extra moments for writing, her class probably ``misses the 27 minutes that the state requires for Spanish or computer literacy or sex education or AIDS talks.''
Today, ``I don't know that you can get kids to be decent writers unless parents have a little time personally to put into it,'' says Frank, who gives writing workshops to teachers across the nation. She has also written four books on writing used by both schools and families.
She shuns the heavy-handed approach around the home, going instead for the make-it-a-game method.
And why not? She grew up with that. Her mother was a ``word lover, pure and simple,'' says Frank. She used to bake puns and vocabulary words into cookies. She always had something chalked on the kitchen blackboard - poems to learn, jokes to laugh over, riddles to figure out. All this kind of stuff gets kids tuned to the written word rather than the fast flash of the TV screen.
``And another thing, Mom was always using words that she wanted us to learn. Like we'd come home from church, and she'd say, `H'mmm, that man sitting in front of us certainly had a pruinose scalp.''' Having sat in the same pew, Frank knew pruinose probably meant white dust - or dandruff.
``Mom believed if she used interesting words three or four times, we'd remember them,'' says Frank.
The author takes the same tack with her own seven-year-old daughter, Sara, inventing zany ways to promote the written word. There's a special clothesline strung from the Franks' home to playmates' houses so Sara and friends can send messages back and forth. They fly paper airplanes, too, from window to window. Naturally, words are written on the wings.
Mrs. Frank and her husband, Douglas, live amid the Cascade Mountains near Lincoln, Ore., in an old-time logging camp. Thirteen years ago, the mill with its loggers' homes and cabins was converted into an alternative educational facility for college students who want to spend an interdisciplinary semester away from their regular campus.
Although Frank isn't officially on the staff, she lends her writing expertise. Her husband, however, is a full-time faculty member at the Oregon Extension of Houghton College, which is in Houghton, N.Y.
Frank doesn't find it surprising that kids can't write well, because ``we're in such a non-writing culture. At school, they have videotapes and filmstrips, cassette tape recorders, and computers. At home, children grow up in front of television. Everything's in short segments, constantly switching,'' she comments. It's a jumpin'-jack world where life is a perpetual tap dance with no time to watch the ants crawl by, no time to ponder why the sky stays up so high.
And that troubles Frank.
``I find kids even have a hard time envisioning their own ideas, their own creations, their own stories.'' Today, they're programmed to parrot. ``If you ask them, for instance, to write a story about a monster, they can only envision the monsters on TV - the Incredible Hulk and such,'' she says.
Many are adept at filling-in-the-blanks, says Frank. But they fall short on collecting ideas, sifting and sorting to decide what's needed, organizing into topics, adding what's missing, then finally putting it on paper.
``That's the same thinking process I use when I have 25 people for dinner,'' she explains. ``The same process for selling an idea on the telephone, for putting together a project for an employer, for thinking out a grocery list, for evaluating a presidential candidate. Skills involved in writing are critically valuable skills for other parts of life.''
For parents who want their kids to write well, Frank has three ``musts'':
Monitor the TV.
Value words as you would dollars in the bank.
Read with them.
``There's a strong connection between reading and writing. Don't just read stories, but lots of different things - poetry, signs, ads, newspaper and magazine articles, so they get filled with good writing,'' she says. The bigger and better the word input through reading, the easier [the] kids' output through writing.
All this is fairly simple with young children, because it's still easy to tinker with their daily schedules. With middle-schoolers, it's tougher. They already walk with Walkmans plugged in their ears. They turn on the tube every time they enter a room.
But parents can still toss new words about, offering offspring a change in linguistic diet. And more - on theme-writing night when a blank paper triggers terror, parents can be on hand to lessen the threat.
Frank suggests that parents sit by while youngsters select a subject. Gather information with them. Talk about the topic. Work through the writing together, down to the last period. That's not doing it for them. That's showing them how by doing it with them.
``It's always easier to start writing if you have someone with you,'' says Frank. ``That's why teachers do group writing.
``And you don't have to do an autopsy on everything they write,'' she cautions.
Her final caveat: Parents ``shouldn't play the role of critic. Life is the critic of whether kids can write.''
Gypsies and giraffes on trolley tracks
Here's how to start words somersaulting around your house. The ideas were gleaned during talk time with Marjorie Frank and from two of her paperbacks, ``If You're Trying to Teach Kids How to Write, You've Gotta Have This Book,'' and ``Writing Lessons for Middle Grades.''
A good time to start the family's romance with words is during car rides. Or at dinner if joint supping is still in style at your house. Maybe during TV commercials with the sound turned down. Or better yet, click the tube off for a spell.
Select words just for their sound and write them down. For starters, listen while these roll off the tongue: ``abracadabra,'' ``sassafras,'' ``whoosh,'' ``smithereens,'' ``Rumpelstiltskin.''
Keep ongoing lists of grumpy words (like ``cranky'' and ``curmudgeon''); soft words (like ``cotton,'' ``clouds,'' and ``dandelion fluff''); lazy words (like ``dillydally'' and ``dawdle'') - serious words, loud words, wet words, city words, country words. As time goes on, these will mesh into daily conversation.
Compile words that make you see red (``fire engines,'' ``poppies,'' and ``rouge''). Or how about ``anger'' and ``discrimination''? Words that make you ``see'' blue, yellow, or black.
Make a list of 15 words that family members like. Then combine a few into phrases. You're bound to end up with crazy combinations like ``caterpillars murmur for marshmallows,'' or ``gypsies and giraffes on trolley tracks.''
Collect palindromes - words that read the same forward and backward: ``mom,'' ``gag,'' ``kayak,'' ``level.''
Someone writes a single sentence to start a story. He passes this to a second person who adds another sentence. The paper is then folded down so only the last contribution is visible. Continue in round-robin fashion, allowing the current writer to see only the foregoing sentence. Read them all aloud when finished.
Write alliterative sentences, where every word starts with the same sound. Each person adds only one word. ``Sarah sniffs snapdragons during summer storms.''
Make up sentences that are guaranteed to stop conversation. Things like, ``Dad, what's the IRS? The man who called today was from there.'' Or, ``Mom, did you tell Dad about the roof?''
Draw a face. Choose words to describe that face. Then, select words that reveal the character behind the face.
One person compiles a list of ``moving'' words - ``pirouette,'' ``fluctuate,'' ``amble,'' ``wobble,'' ``strut,'' ``tremble,'' ``canter,'' ``slink,'' etc. He distributes the words to players. A recipient doesn't have to know a word's meaning in order to act out the motion - that's where the fun comes in. Everyone guesses.
All the words in the world are going to be buried - except seven. Everyone lists the seven he wants to save. Each then writes a phrase telling why that particular word is so special. For example: ``joy'' - bleak world without it; ``sister'' - my best friend.