ActivityHero shares the insights of writing professionals who work with kindergarteners through high schoolers. With these tips, parents can help support kids’ writing goals.
By Wendy Chou
Writing is a key life skill that engages and empowers kids–and is highly correlated with overall academic success. ActivityHero talked with professionals from two writing programs to learn their favorite tips. We also list online resources that will appeal to today’s tech-savvy kids, ‘tweens, and teens.
Tips for Elementary School Writers (Age 6-8)
1. Have some fun
Darrell Dela Cruz, of Cupertino’s Communication Academy, recommends playing word-centered games to boost knowledge of words and definitions. Some examples are Mad Libs, Boggle, Scrabble, and Bananagrams.
2. Be a role model
Remind kids that writing matters in daily life. Adventures In Writing (AIW) Camp co-founder Jen Hartvickson tells parents: “Write lists, write thank you notes, write letters. When they see you writing, they will do what you do!”
3. Check out these resources for elementary school writers
Storybird is an online forum that allows kids to create and share their own books or to read from the free online library.
Krakeln is a friendly vocabulary-building app suitable for even young users.
Orange Street Newsis a newspaper created by Hilde Lysiak (with her dad’s assistance) when she was just 7 years old and is the inspiration for her own book series.
Tips for Tweens (age 9-12)
1. Practice, practice, practice.
All the experts we consulted agreed that practice leads to writing improvement. Journaling and writing to pen pals can encourage regular writing habits. Jen Hartvickson also finds that tweens are more motivated when given free rein to choose their own topic.
2. Read widely, then discuss.
AIW Camp Co-founder Hans Hartvickson sees value in parents and kids reading books together, then talking about “what worked” for them and why.
3. Try a song.
Hans Hartvickson suggests songs help teach writing traits and are fun too. AIW Camp has published many songs on YouTube.
Stone Soup Magazine is a high-quality literary publication (in print and online) by and for kids.
Youngzine presents current events for a school-aged audience and accepts kids’ submissions of articles and book reviews.
KidPub.com has featured kids’ works since 1995 (requires small fee to publish).
Brainstorm great reads with blogs like Brightly which lists dozens of titles sorted by age and genre.
Tips for Teens (age 13+)
1. Experiment with styles.
Take chances and try out new styles and content. Teens are starting to develop their unique voice.
2. The more practice, the better!
Consider entering contests at libraries and at school. Don’t stop there: find open mic events and poetry slams. Teens may enjoy blogging about a particular hobby and developing an audience. Many sites host blogs for free.
3. Find online networking sites devoted to teens
Online writing communities allow teens to network and seek advice from other writers. Here are 4 recommendations:
Underlined is a teen-centered website that provides opportunities for collaboration and feedback.
Wattpad is the largest and most visible online reading and writing platform, giving it the nickname of “YouTube of writing”. Teen Ink hosts writing submissions by teens, including essays, articles, fiction and poetry. Teens can also contribute their art and photography.
Power Poetry is the largest online community for teens interested in poetry.
Final words of advice: Lighten Up!
According to Dela Cruz, parents shouldn’t make writing feel like a chore or something with a clearly defined “right or wrong answer”. The Hartvicksons believe kids need reassurance that mistakes and editing are to be expected along the way. Most of all, our experts all agreed that parents should provide fair and constructive feedback to kids. A “Goldilocks” balance means avoiding unrealistic over-praising, while also refraining from giving only negative comments, which can be demoralizing for kids.
Education has long been a popular setting in mainstream media, both for inspiration and for entertainment. It has introduced us to famous teachers (Mr. Kotter, Mrs. Frizzle), famous schools (Ridgemont High, Rushmore, Wayside School, Hogwarts), and famous school-centric stories and shows (Wonder, South Park, Saved by the Bell). In each case, we watch with excitement, empathy, or humor, based on our own set of school experiences. And sometimes we get to relish the experience of seeing school (and the learning process) in a whole new light.
Here, we have gathered a list of titles for families who want some academic role models or lessons for their children, as well as a couple selections that simply offer a little scholastic comic relief. Reflecting a broad mix of real-life and fictional stories, the listings here prove that there are many different ways to learn and many different ways to teach.
Great Books with a Schoolroom Setting
The Year of Miss Agnes
Schoolteachers don’t usually last very long at this one-room schoolhouse in Alaska. Miss Agnes is different. Not only does she stick around for a year, she also makes learning relatable and enjoyable to the citizens of the remote village.
Adventures in vocabulary are in play in this story. A boy creates a new word for an ordinary object, and his creation catches on, much to the chagrin of his teacher and parents!
Strong community and deep friendships form in this fantasy novel. Love of words and learning propel the heroine to become an invaluable resource within her community.
This creative app taps into the user’s imagination and enthusiasm in true 21st century fashion. Videos, photos, drawings, and inventive challenges combine to inspire learning.
Kids’ Movies with Inspiring Academic Role Models
Akeelah and the Bee
A girl’s journey to a big spelling bee is supported by her community. At times she struggles to embrace her own intelligence and worth.
This documentary follows several competitors for the National Spelling Bee. Hard work, family, and big dreams are part of the equation that helps get these kids on the big stage.
On the Way to School
Most Americans have a simple way to get to school; a short walk, bike ride, or trip in a car or bus will get us there. For other kids around the world, it’s not easy, or comfortable, but it’s worth it because they desperately want an education.
The Miracle Worker
The story of Helen Keller and her teacher is beyond inspiring. Helen has no understanding of language or of interacting normally with family members. Through ingenuity, perseverance and patience, teacher Annie Sullivan opens up the world of words and language to her student. Annie is a testament to all teachers’ hard work. A must-see.
Determination and hard work are the life lessons strongly represented by the main character in this fine film. With the help of a kindly teacher, teammates and friends, the underdog Rudy fulfills his life’s dream. Definitely best for tweens and older, due to language, a death and sports violence.
Little House on the Prairie
The one-room schoolhouse in this beloved series is not the only location where education takes place. Pioneer children living on a farm learn a variety of practical tasks and life skills every day. History and geography are natural discussion topics when watching as a family.
Exhibiting a strong level of curiosity, the crew of Mythbusters sets out in each episode to prove an idea, sometimes an urban legend, sometimes an idiom like “a bull in a china shop.” There are often explosions, items being thrown into walls, or things launched skyward, all in the name of science and discovery.
More Mature TV and Movies About Academics
These titles have more mature themes and language, so they’re recommended for older teen audiences.
The mission at this school is to inspire and encourage teens at risk of dropping out. Celebrity mentors and teachers have their work cut out for them. Be aware: Strong language and personal circumstances mean this is best for teens and older.
Dead Poets Society
This classic is an inspiring coming-of-age story that celebrates creativity and a free spirit. There are mature themes and activities, so this is best for older tweens and teens.
Good Will Hunting
Ages 14+ (rated R)
This Academy Award winner demonstrates that academics can open doors for people from all classes (e.g., a working-class Boston youth), but you have to believe in yourself and want to walk through those new doors.
An idealistic high school teacher discovers the way to connect with her students is to help find their similarities. Her emphasis on really listening to her students is notable. The hip-hop soundtrack will appeal to teen viewers.
Stand and Deliver
Sacrifice and hard work are front-and-center in this inspiring movie. It is based on the story of a real math teacher who went to extreme lengths to teach his kids math, and eventually AP Calculus. The students struggle with life issues outside of school, but while in school they become driven and engaged. Real-life scenes can be rough, and the language is questionable at times, but relevant to the movie.
To Sir, With Love
This classic is another inspired teacher tale. Real-life issues such as class and race are addressed, while the teacher works hard to connect with and discipline his students so that they are ready and able to learn.
A professional writer shares inspiring secrets and 9 games to help inspire your kids to find the fun in putting words on a page. (Smash book, anyone?)
By Reesa Lewandowski
As a blogger, I know that staring at a blank page can be daunting. I also know how good it feels once it’s filled with words that (I hope!) can help other people. By inspiring your children to love writing (especially if they now say they hate to write), you’ll be giving them a gift that lasts a lifetime. Strong writing skills are important everywhere — on a school exam, in a college course, and at the workplace. Here are a few of the things that bolstered my love of writing — and how they can give your reluctant writer the boost he or she needs.
Do Some “Creative Reading” with Your Child
One of the best ways to get kids to love to write is through reading to them. Ask your child to point out phrases and words that he finds fun or interesting. Encourage him to predict what might happen in the next chapter. Almost every child loves to share their opinion.
Let them be in charge of what inspires them! Create a bulletin board where they can pin pictures, words, and other clippings that jump out at them as inspiration. Think a Pinterest board for kids! Let your kids choose where their writing space will be. Let it be a place they really love.
Plain white paper doesn’t excite anyone. Take your child to a bookstore or office supply store and let her pick out a journal that resonates with her. Or for a different twist, purchase marble notebooks and allow your child to Mod Podge the covers. (Simply gather a few old magazines and tell him to clip out words and pictures that inspire or describe your child, then attach them, following the Mod Podge instructions.)
Next your child needs some distinctive writing utensils like pencils, colored pencils, and fun erasers.
Last, something you may not think about is a dictionary. In today’s tech-forward world, we often rely on autocorrect and spelling checkers to think for us. It is still vital for your child to learn how to spell and to know synonyms and antonyms of words. (Think SAT and ACT tests!) It also can be fun to flip through a thesaurus and read random entries.
Get Creative with Everyday Writing
Now that your kids have their writing supplies in hand, it’s time to get those creative juices flowing. Here, 9 totally fun assignments to get kids thinking about writing in new ways:
Make a smash book. This is essentially a completely unplanned scrapbook. Have your kids paste in photos, brochures, stickers, or anything else…and let them then do a little “caption writing” on the page they created.
Invent a bedtime tale. Print off the first sentence of a few of your child’s favorite books and put them into a jar. Or write your own story starters. Aim for a variety of topics: outlandish or suspenseful, sci-fi or realistic, etc. Have your child pull out a random prompt and write what happens next.
Create a picture book. Art is a big part of the writing process. Have your child draw an image to go with what he or she wrote.
Do some local reporting. Writing doesn’t have to be fiction. Have kids write letters or cards to family members or friends. Encourage them to create a family newspaper or newsletter.
Include writing in playtime. Is your child playing restaurant? Have him write a menu, including meal descriptions. Are your kids replaying a scene from a trip or vacation? Ask them to make up a brochure about their experiences.
Keep a daily journal. This can be a great outlet for a child who has trouble talking about feelings.
Make a Mad-Libs book. Then have fun filling in the blanks!
Create a family recipe book, favorite dishes. Also include any “secret” family recipes, and make copies to hand out as gifts.
Be a pen pal. Write letters back and forth to your child in a notebook or journal.
Remember to keep your kids’ writing environment stress free and unrushed. Let them take as much time as they need to get their thoughts out. And be sure to let them carry around their writing journal with them: you never know when inspiration will strike!
Find the “write” workshop or class for your young wordsmith. If one of your children shows a real love of writing — or would like a little extra support and guidance in making use of the written word — find writing classes or camps in your area.
If your middle schooler hasn’t fallen in love with reading, take a look at this list of books. From fantasy to nonfiction to movie stories and more …
Getting your child to read can be a matter of simply putting engaging material in front of them. My personal strategy is to pre-read books with my son’s taste in mind, then put only the best books in front of him. Not only does this ensure my tween has compelling (and appropriate) reading material, but it also gives us plenty of things to talk about around the dinner table. Consider trying out lit in many forms — graphic novels, Kindle books and good old fashioned paperbacks.
Here’s an intriguing roundup of everything from end-of-the-world tales to mysteries to nonfiction. You just might find a title that will entice your middle school child to start turning pages (whether paper or electronic) immediately!
Dystopian or Post-Apocalyptic Books for Middle Schoolers
Dystopian literature is a popular Young Adult genre that is typified by a society unlike our own with unsettling or unpleasant living conditions that must be overcome. Post-apocalyptic novels are set in a period after a world-changing cataclysm. Here are a few in this category to consider if your tween likes games and TV shows that are a little darker.
Matched by Ally Condie
In a world rigidly controlled by the “Society,” young people at age 17 are matched (by the powers that be) to their life partner. Cassia is matched with her best friend, Xander, but sees that an outcast named Ky was a discarded possibility. This sends her on a journey to question the choices made for them and how little control they have over their futures. It’s the first in a three-book series that Disney purchased for future film production.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
Teen Thomas wakes in a service elevator being lifted into a harsh world populated only by other boys his age. They have to survive within a courtyard surrounded by a maze with walls 50 feet high and dodge the monsters that lurk in it. When they don’t progress fast enough, the stakes get higher. This has been made into a hit movie and is the first of a trilogy, so there’s plenty of reading available.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
The setting: an alternate world where everyone grows up looking average until they get mandatory life-changing cosmetic surgery when they reach age 16. But physical perfection comes at a mind-numbing cost. A band of rebels fights against the ruling overlords to be who they are no matter how they look. This is a great book for pre-pubescent kids already feeling the pressure to look a certain way. It’s the first in a series of four novels.
This isn’t your mother or father’s sci-fi. Today’s futuristic YA novels are more complex and look beyond simple travel to (or life on) another planet. Or they look to the future of our own Earth, where new technologies craft our societies and how we live. If your tween is all about high-tech stuff and enjoys movies like Ender’s Game, this is a category of fiction that encourages them to explore their imaginations.
Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans
Michael and a group of teens were born in a hospital while a new medical devices were being tested — and now they all have superpowers. Vey can manipulate electricity. He has Tourette’s and is being raised by a single mom while on the run from the corporation trying to collect the kids. He makes friends with more super kids and they confront the evil Dr Hatch. Four books have been released of this gripping seven-novel series.
Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith
The sci-fi Escape from Furnace series borders on horror and is perfect for tweens who dig The Walking Dead and Attack on Titan. In the distant future, Furnace Penitentiary, a fictional highly secure London prison for troubled teens, is buried a mile beneath the earth and is guarded by creatures in gas masks and deformed howling beasts. Chills ensue as the teens try to escape unjust sentences and monsters.
Feed by MT Anderson
This science fiction novel falls under the new class of cyberpunk. Set in the near future, people have brain implants called a “feed” that is a pipeline to an advanced and aggressive Internet. Corporate ads, social media, and online chats consume the brain while corporations run America. Teens enjoying Spring Break on the moon begin to question the system and try to break free of the feed.
Fantasy Books for Middle Schoolers
For tweens who have an interest in supernatural shows and movies, YA fantasy covers a wide swath of subjects. From vampires to werewolves, fairies to witches, angels to ghosts, there is a wide array of books and authors to choose from — and best of all, many come in a series that will keep them reading.
The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
Set in New York City, this series starts with City of Bones. It’s considered urban fantasy and involves a set of young teens. Demons have invaded the world, and part-angel part-human Nephilim, called Shadowhunters, hunt them down and protect the world. Fifteen-year-old Clary doesn’t know she’s a Shadowhunter, but soon finds out and discovers her world has werewolves and vampires as well. It is a gripping series.
The Secret Watchers by Lauren Klever
A rare YA fantasy with a male protagonist, this series starts with Visions where 14-year-old Owen Ryer visits a pawn shop and happens upon an old watch that unlocks a gift to sense dark energy and evil. Now he has to figure out how to support the greater good while dealing with homework, bullies, and other challenges that high schoolers face. Owen is an unintentional hero that will inspire your teen reader.
Echo’s Revenge by Sean Austin
Everyone likes a good video game, and 14-year-old Reggie draws the admiration of fellow teen gamer Claire. A new game monster ECHO-7 is released into the real world by game developers, and this fantastical creature is now going after the top gamers and taking them out. Reggie has to learn to apply his online gaming skills into real-world adventures to keep his fellow gamers safe. Great for gamers that hate to read!
This may be one of the easiest ways to lure your tween into reading: Get them to investigate their favorite movie in book form. While a number of the above have been adapted into movies, most of those listed below became popular after they hit the big screen. Leverage your kids’ interest in the characters to get them reading.
Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins
If your tween ever wondered exactly how Katniss came to be so good with that bow, the trilogy of books offers lot more back-story on her (and Peeta’s and Gale’s) childhood in District 12. There’s a lot more story than even four movies can show, and these books are great reads.
Divergent Series by Veronica Roth
The Divergent movie didn’t have enough screen time to truly explore the strange and dangerous world Tris grew up in, the books do so quite nicely. And once your tween hits the halfway point of book two, they will be shocked to find out the real story of how Chicago came to be the land of factions and what waits beyond Amity and that imposing fence. This is one you may enjoy reading along with them!
Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan
The Percy Jackson movies were fun, but the books may help your tween pick up knowledge to ace a class on mythology. There’s enough story there to keep them reading all summer long. Riordan wrote seven primary novels about Jackson and his pals, plus five supplementary books and three graphic novels. The cast of characters suits male and female readers alike.
Mysteries for Middle Schoolers
If your tween is a fan of the shows Sherlock and Elementary or could never stop solving Blue’s Clues as a toddler, mystery may be a great genre to unveil for them. Some of these mysteries are whodunits where crime takes a darker and more lethal turn, while other books involve less deadly crimes. A good mystery can be quite the page-turner to keep your tween reading and engaged.
Heist Society Seriesby Ally Carter
This one is fun because the female heroine is both criminal and crime solver. Katarina was raised in a family of highly skilled cat burglars, but then she chooses to leave the family business. When her dad is suspected of stealing a painting from a dangerous mobster, his life is on the line. Katarina and her crew of teen accomplices must find the painting to save her dad. There are three novels and counting.
Young Sherlock Holmes Series by Andrew Lane
Picture Sherlock as a teen in Victorian England solving crimes as a young rogue. The series begins with 14-year-old Holmes investigating mysterious deaths. The second installment has him investigating whether John Wilkes Booth is alive and well in England. Intrigue and adventure accompany the teen prodigy as he develops his investigative skills across the UK, Russia and even China.
Echo Falls Mystery series by Peter Abrahams
A YA series by a best-selling writer of crime novels for adults, these books are genuinely thrilling and perfect for tweens. Ingrid is a busy girl and a big fan of mysteries, but when her shoes are left at a murder scene, she has to retrieve them without implicating herself. Ingrid must solve the murder of the town’s resident loon while sorting out the strange undercurrents she never noticed in her small town. You may want to read it too.
Nonfiction Books for Middle Schoolers
Not every kid digs fiction, and that’s okay. There are a ton of great reads on the nonfiction shelves, from biographies to how-to’s to historical accounts of great events. This is a genre to experiment with, so explore your local library’s generous nonfiction section. Below are a few suggestions to get you thinking about what true-life things your tween may like.
We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist
This memoir by a Paralympian who lost a leg at age 9 to Ewing’s Sarcoma is surprisingly hilarious. He’s been unlucky in love since middle school and goes back to talk to each of his former girlfriends to find out why he’s so clueless and where he went wrong. In addition to being a compelling coming-of-age story, this book explores Josh’s cancer struggle, what it’s like to have lost a limb, and how he found the courage to compete as a Paralympian.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L Swanson
This slice of American history vividly describes the race to capture John Wilkes Booth. Swanson used rare manuscripts, as well as interviews with those who pursued Booth, to explore the 12-day manhunt that ran from the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., across Maryland and into Virginia before they caught Lincoln’s assassin. Your tween will impress their Social Studies teacher with knowledge gleaned from this book.
I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust by Livia Bitton-Jackson
This is a survivor’s account of life in a concentration camp. The author was 13 when her family was sent by Nazis to the Jewish ghetto and then to Auschwitz. She details living at the camp, wearing the yellow star, and being forced into labor, as well as how her experience strengthened her faith. Bitton-Jackson’s survival tale is moving and poignant, and it brings to life this terrible and important chapter of history.
Whether reading entertaining novels, visiting museums or attending academics-focused summer camps, make sure your tween makes the most of summer by keeping their brain active!
Those of you located in the Bay Area should look into Journey Across Time’s Marco Polo Camp in Palo Alto. Children are taken on a 10-week journey through time as they read and learn about art, culture, languages, and history through a unique, hands-on, role-playing summer camp experience for kids ages 8 to 13. Storytelling and role-playing historic events are a great way to immerse your children in reading historical literature, while also keeping them entertained all summer long!