Writing with young adolescents

To begin, I want you to think of everything you have to do while writing:

  • finding the words for new thoughts
  • spelling the words
  • actually producing the written version of each word, forming each letter, or finding it on a keyboard
  • keeping the first part of the sentence in mind as you head for the later part
  • joining sentences in paragraphs that hold together
  • through all of this, creating a linear pathway through an understanding that may not be linear at all.

That’s not everything, of course; there’s also grammar, and punctuation, and resolving all the arguments in your head about anything that you start to think about.

Even for adults, writing is one of the most complicated things we do on a regular basis. So it has a big impact, in the evolution of young adolescent writers, that their brains are growing and changing dramatically, exploding with neural connections. That translates into new horsepower–but it’s pretty raw horsepower.

I want to focus on two interlocking ways young writers can begin to use that horsepower.

To an increasing degree, they can harness extra selves to the work of writing, by doing it in stages, across a stretch of time. For example, I’m a big fan of both editing for mechanics, and, beyond that, more fundamental revision, not so much for the sake of correctness, but because together those processes of editing and revision give us all at every age second and third and fourth chances to figure out what we really mean, and get it written down in a form that a reader can use.

Young adolescents have a new capacity for paying attention to their own products in these ways– but actually learning the component skills, and the necessary detachment, requires lots of modeling and mentoring; lots of practice; lots of encouragement towards confidence.

Second point: many of the benefits of revision involve extra chances to think about the experience of the reader.

A few kids can do all of that complicated stuff we do while we’re writing, and think about their readers, too, all at the same time, even in first drafts, at amazingly young ages. For some, just by luck, the physical production part of writing is unusually easy. Sometimes, for a particular kid, an unusually clear voice inside her head is perfectly synchronized with the pace at which she can produce written words, and that synchronization lets her lift her head and look around at the idea of an audience.

The experience of sharing writing in class, having actual readers, as they come up through Touchstone classes, helps kids develop this consciousness. But brain growth is a big part of it, too. (For some kinds of growth, it doesn’t matter what experiences kids have; they have to get to the place where they’re ready in a more basic way.) One way or another, for most kids, I watch them turn this corner toward more consciousness of their readers, somewhere in the journey from 10 to 12; and I often see it first in the process of revising an already existing draft.

[In the live version of this talk, this is where I show the sample piece of writing.]

So what does this new awareness of the reader let a young writer do?

It lets her make sense in new ways in longer strings of logic, with more of the supporting detail that a reader needs in order to understand, and with a clearer main idea for a reader to carry away.

It gives him new power to control audience reaction without having to stick to familiar gimmicks, familiar formats for funny stories, familiar imitations of what he’s read–in other words, it helps him combine effectiveness and authenticity.

It helps her understand the point of punctuation and capitalization and conventional spelling all those agreements between writers and readers to make the sharing of written language more efficient and reliable and expressive.

It lets the writing become more memorable and more useful to the writer herself because she’s being her own first reader, and learning from herself in the process.

Is there a downside to these new capacities for self-awareness and awareness of audience? Of course. Most of us who aren’t young children any more fall over ourselves at times. Life is full of potholes created by self-consciousness.

But that’s an inescapable part of being human–and working with their writing is a very effective, at times almost magical way to help kids accept those selves they see when they’re watching themselves. Sitting next to kids and looking at their work with them, I can model habits of self-forgiveness and self-encouragement. I love giving kids permission to appreciate their own writing. It’s been good for me, as a writer myself, watching young writers, to feel and share steadily increasing gratitude for our complex, rich, expressive language, and for its power to help us preserve and celebrate life.

Here’s a link to an interview with neuroscientist Jay Giedd about neurological development in young adolescents:


— Polly Brown, Touchstone Community School, Head Teacher for 10, 11 and 12 year olds