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Parents struggling to help their son with homework

How parents can become English writing tutors

As English teachers, parents are constantly asking us how they can help develop their child’s writing skills at home.

They ask for resources, documentation, and tips on what they should be doing to support. These requests come when a student is lagging behind, missing significant school time, or simply aspiring to achieve more – and, so they should. 

The research is emphatic that student achievement soars when parents are actively engaged in their child’s schooling. 

However, while it is more feasible to take a punt on paragraph structure than a Math’s equation – challenges can arise when parents seek to grapple with the academic nuances and structures that the students are expected to follow. It is no way helpful to know that a parent can pass Year 10 English, and it can be very awkward when you need to give a parent a C+ for their work.

This is not a slight on the parent; it is to be expected. They weren't in my class. They do not understand the intricacies of the task, and the volume and variety of writing frameworks used by schools is comical. In one postcode alone, I am aware of five different models for text response essays. It is hard enough being a teacher moving between schools – let alone a parent trying to recall their high school essay experience from decades ago. 

It goes without saying that the playing field is never even, and a parent’s ability to be an English tutor is no exception. 

Educationally privileged students, with parents possessing academic backgrounds, have advantages.

Parents with such experience are typically better placed to help students with their writing – while those with less technical knowledge can be left feeling powerless, as their capacity to support is limited.  

One of the most effective methods I have seen came from a mother, Sue, who is the author of some very well-known novels. Novels that are actually in our school's library. Sue was a beautiful writer, and her Year 8 son also demonstrated some very impressive control over the English language.

Curious, I asked Sue during a parent-teacher interview whether she had played a significant role in his writing development. Sue told me that the pair would engage in collaborative drafting and editing sessions once a week: she would review his work, and he would review hers.

Not only was Sue exposing her son to model writing and encouraging him to critique it, the fact that it was her writing made him more open to receiving feedback on his. Genius.

Regardless of whether parents are professional writers or have not written an extended piece of text since school, one of my dreams for Mark My Words is to equip all parents with clarity on academic expectations so that they can become as "engaged" as Sue is with her son's schooling.

No matter how devoted the parent, the success of an at-home tutoring session relies on the willingness of the child. 

I have heard from many parents that their child (particularly the high school kind) refuses to accept help from them without a fight.

Perhaps they feel judged. Perhaps they believe their parents don’t understand. Perhaps they don’t understand. Whatever the cause, it makes at-home parent-support all the more difficult. 

So, here are some strategies that parents can use to increase their child's openness to receiving help.

1. Offer positive feedback

When parents consistently recognise and praise their child’s efforts and improvements, it can significantly boost the child's confidence and motivation. This approach focuses on what the child is doing right, rather than solely pointing out areas of improvement. For instance, highlighting a well-structured sentence or the correct use of vocabulary can encourage the child to keep trying and improve further. Positive feedback creates a supportive learning environment where the child feels valued and understood.

2. Offer constructive feedback

It's not just about offering feedback, but about offering the right kind of feedback. This means being specific, constructive, and helpful. Rather than vague compliments or generalised critiques, feedback should be targeted and actionable. For example, instead of saying “Your essay is good,” you could say, “Your introduction clearly outlines your arguments. Maybe you could provide more examples in the third paragraph to strengthen your supporting argument.” This kind of feedback guides the student towards specific areas for improvement and provides concrete steps for how to get there.

3. Be patient and understanding

It’s important for parents to recognise that learning is a process that comes with ups and downs. Showing patience in moments of difficulty and understanding when a child struggles can create a safe and supportive learning environment. This approach encourages the child to try without the fear of harsh judgment or criticism, making them more open to learning and less resistant to guidance. Patience also means giving the student time to think and respond without rushing them or showing frustration.

4. Do not write their essays for them

It can be tempting for parents to take over and write parts of an essay for their child, especially if they are struggling. However, this is counterproductive as it robs the student of the opportunity to learn and develop their own skills. Instead, guide them through the process of brainstorming, planning, and drafting their work. Encourage them to think critically and express their ideas. Offer suggestions and guidance, but let the final work be their own. This approach not only helps students develop essential skills but also instills a sense of achievement and independence.

5. Encourage the student to communicate with their teacher

It's important for students to develop a line of communication with their teachers. Encourage your child to reach out to their teacher with questions, seek feedback on their work, or discuss any difficulties they are facing. This is particularly essential in the senior years of school, where a discussion with the teacher can students develop a more nuanced understanding of their performance. 

6. Let them critique your writing

Allowing children to critique their parent's work is a unique and effective strategy. It places the child in an active role, encouraging them to think critically and articulate their thoughts. This exercise can be empowering and enlightening for the child, as it reverses the usual dynamic and gives them a sense of responsibility and authority. Additionally, it helps the child develop a more analytical approach to writing and reading, as they learn to identify strengths and weaknesses not just in others’ work, but also in their own.

7. Consider deferring evaluation and critiquing to a third party

Sometimes, it can be beneficial to have a third party evaluate and critique the student’s work. It also removes any potential bias or emotional dynamics that might exist between a parent and a child. This approach can provide students with a different perspective on their work, positioning the parent as a guide rather than as the evaluator.

Our aim is to shift the burden of skill and knowledge transfer from parents to the software.

As a parent, it's important to provide instruction on topics you are confident about. Misleading or incorrect information can confuse the student and even provide them with a false sense of security. 

When you are unsure about a subject or a topic, it's better to admit it and then seek the correct information together with your child. This not only assists the student as they complete the task, but it also models good research practices and shows the student that it's okay not to know everything and to actively seek new knowledge.

If you would like to be able to assist your child more confidently, contact your school to see whether they are using Mark My Words.