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Learning to show not tell

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Shabnam Minwalla

It’s about painting vivid pictures without a brush. Building precise structures without bricks. Creating a catchy rhythm without a keyboard.

For an agile writer can snatch flimsy words out of the ether and use them to capture a thought, convey a message, tell a compelling story. Indeed, to create a whole new world—a Hundred Acres Wood in which Pooh and Piglet can encounter Heffalumps. A Hogwarts in which young wizards make friends and fight bitter battles.

The ability to write effectively is a marvellous gift. But most children are so busy hurtling from school to art class to tennis that they are rarely given the time and space to experiment with words. And often, when they do retreat into a quiet corner with a blunt pencil and a creative thought, they are greeted with dampening words. “What on earth are you doing writing a poem about grumpy elephants! That too on a day when you have to complete your math worksheets.”

Which is really sad, because learning to write is about much more than attending a five-day workshop. It is about pottering about and feeling bored. It is about finding new words and falling in love with them. It is about having the confidence to express yourself. It is about spending half a day (not wasted, not wasted) trying to find a word that rhymes with “elephant”.

Here are a few simple ways in which children can be encouraged to write, and to write well:

Read, read, read: When children read the wonderful books written by others, they intuitively begin to understand what goes into a story. So expose your children to a wide array of genres and writers. If you want to lead them to a favourite writer—but one they consider old-fashioned or difficult—then start by reading a few chapters aloud.

For example, as a little girl I adored the adventures of William, that naughty, messy schoolboy who never washes his hands and is such a trial to his family. When I reread the books as an adult I was amazed by the ironic style and astounding vocabulary. But my three daughters were in a girlie-fairy phase and turned up their nose at scruffy William.

So for a couple of weeks, I read out William short stories at dinner. Never have we all laughed so much. And now my threesome is happy to tackle the long sentences and unfamiliar words, just to follow William on his madcap missions.

Look, look, look: Before putting pen to paper, children have to learn to observe the world around them. To spot the rain clouds rolling in from the sea. To identify different trees and cars and pastries and birds. To watch the drama constantly unfolding on the streets.

After all, if they spend all their free moments staring at a screen, they won’t really have much to write about. So encourage them to look out of the window during tedious journeys and talk to them about the changing city. Identify interesting people on the road and encourage curiosity and make-believe. For example: “Look at that pretty teenager in the shiny dress. Where do you think she’s going?”

Don’t tell me, show me: This is the mantra that all writing teachers chant—and it works. Interesting writing is always packed with examples and illustrations.

So if your child writes “Mrs Kapoor was a bad-tempered woman”, ask him to flesh it out. How do you know she’s bad tempered? What does she do that proves this trait?

By the end of it he may come up with: “The entire neighbourhood knew that Mrs Kapoor had a very bad temper. When she was angry, she shouted so loudly that even the family on the sixth floor trembled.”

Words, words, words: Introduce children to the beauty of words—to frippery and impudent and gluttony and slither and moxie and lambent.

Urge children to avoid empty words like nice, good and thing. Instead, come up with evocative words that pack an extra punch. For example, babble or whisper or mutter or shout instead of just “say”.

Word games like Scrabble are a great way to take children to the world of words. Also, you can use long car rides to come up with interesting similes. Maybe, “This road is as bumpy as…” or “These biscuits are as stale as…”

Encourage in little ways: Provide an attractive diary in which your child can jot down story ideas.

Once a story or poem is done, show the child that you value it. If your child writes a story, encourage her to design a cover page and add a couple of illustrations. You can then staple or spiral-bind the story and drawings and make a little book.

My eight-year-old daughter often makes storybooks that she gives as gifts to beloved teachers or friends. My 10-year-old daughter enjoys writing poems that she then takes to school for “Show and Tell” and submits to the school yearbook.

Also remember, while spellings and grammar are important, they are not the focus of creative writing. So enjoy the spark of creativity and humour in the writing rather than just getting snagged on spellings.

Why don’t you write a short story?: When your children complain that they are bored or have nothing to read, casually suggest that they write a story. Don’t force it, but mention that you would love to know more about Tilly’s next adventure or the grumpy elephant. And then be genuinely interested when the masterpiece lands on your lap a few hours later.

Shabnam Minwalla is the author of The Six Spellmakers Of Dorabji Street, an adventure book for children that recently won the RivoKids’ Parents and Kids Choice Award for Indian books. She is now busy wrapping up her next book, set in a Mumbai school.

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