We don’t enroll babies and toddlers in formal language classes to teach them to speak. Most children learn language by osmosis, absorbing words and their meaning from loving familial interaction.

Words, and word manipulation and usage, are the core of writing. You can help your students become better writers by creating a language-rich environment in your classroom which facilitates osmosis, that effortless and often unconscious assimilation of knowledge.

  • If you want your students to be great writers, they must be great readers. What is the best way to motivate them to read on their own? Very simply, you must be a role model. Seeing you read a book at your desk, seeing you reluctantly close the book when they enter your classroom, those actions will send a clearer and more profound message than any verbal utterance.
  • Read aloud to your students every day, no matter what their age or grade level. Read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, newspaper and magazine articles, comic books – everything and anything. When reading aloud make it a “reach” read, read a grade level above your students’ current grade level. It’s not only the best way to teach your students vocabulary, it is also the best way to introduce them to writing elements, styles, structures, and story telling techniques.
  • When reading aloud take a minute to comment on what you have read. Casually point out a great opening sentence or the writer’s use of dialogue. With younger students, use the read-aloud moment as an opportunity to introduce writing terminology. For example, James Marshall’s George and Martha books are wonderful books to introduce younger students to the concept of dialogue. Explain that when real people speak to each other, it’s called conversation; when characters, like George and Martha, speak to each other, it’s called dialogue.
  • Build a classroom library stocked with fiction, nonfiction, comic books, and magazines, especially if you do not have a school library. As soon as your students understand the concept of alphabetical order, skip the student editions of dictionaries and thesauri and use the adult editions. Student dictionaries and thesauri are limited and limiting. If possible, each student should own their own paperback dictionary and thesaurus.
  • No matter how old your students are, make sure they have a library card. If the majority of your students have not visited your neighborhood library, take them for a field trip. Encourage them to read library books in school and at home.
  • Writers and artists often have heightened sensory awareness. Expand your student’s sensory awareness and teach them to be observant. Take a walk around the school yard and ask your students to describe what they see, hear, touch, and smell. See if they can remember and describe the details of the school library, or the streets where they live. Ask them to describe their lunch foods using only their sense of touch and smell. Push them beyond cliché descriptions and make them be as specific as possible in their details. For example if a student says or writes that a “flower smells nice,” ask questions to help that student become more observant and precise. Are the flower’s petals magenta or flame red? Does it have full heart-shaped leaves or feathery leaves? Does it smell light and spicy, or heavy and acrid? Use dictionaries and thesauri to help them find specific words to convey their impressions.
  • Encourage your students to play with words. Keep word board games like Scrabble and Boggle and Balderdash on hand for recess and lunch. Teach them to play the old parlor games Hangman and Dictionary.
  • Develop creative writing exercises that expand students’ word usage. Have them create their own dream menus for a favorite restaurant, writing enticing descriptions for each menu item. Or separate them into small groups, giving each group one basic color word, then challenge them to see how many different synonyms they can list for each color. For example, for the color black, they might list: licorice, charcoal, slate, tar, patent leather, midnight, etc. Have each group list their colors on the board. Conduct a class discussion noting how often color words communicate a combination of sensory messages. Licorice brings to mind the color black, but it also conveys taste, texture, and scent allusions.
  • Read poetry aloud often. Poets pull and tug and play with words, using words in surprising and magical combinations and arrangements. Many of us, sometimes because of our own insecurity on the subject, are timid about bringing poetry into the classroom. Be brave and move beyond haiku and limericks. An interesting poetry website for you and your students is Poetry 180 on the Library of Congress website at: loc.gov/poetry/180.

©2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance