How to Teach Writing: A Soccer Coach Handed Me the Key

I believe that kids who learn to write well will obtain more career opportunities and find more open doors than those who neglect this vital skill.

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Saddleback Mountain 1981, Monterrey, Mexico. Photo credit: Ed Newman

Like many American boys, I grew up playing baseball, football and basketball. We had pickup games throughout the year and intra-murals at school. Many of us even earned our varsity letters in one sport or another.

With the exception of California there were few, if any, varsity soccer teams that I knew of when I was growing up. So it was an intriguing experience to become a soccer coach when my son took an interest in this exhilarating sport at age six or seven. His first attraction was the international character of the soccer cards. Soccer cards not only depict players and their colorful uniforms, they also include the corresponding flags of their various nations.

Though I had only a modest relationship with soccer, I accepted the responsibilities of coaching and determined to excel at it. To do this I did what I usually do: I visited our local library and found books on the game. I studied the drills and exercises to develop my players’ skills. And I learned the rules.

I also attended a clinic for coaches led by Buzz Lagos, head coach of the Minnesota Thunder professional soccer team. It was from Mr. Lagos, or “Coach” as he preferred to be called, that I learned what I consider to be a most important principle for writing teachers.

Coach Lagos and several players from the Thunder conducted the clinic. During the clinic we spent most of our time playing various games designed to teach soccer skills and develop our awareness of key principles. At the end of the evening we then gathered for a question-and-answer period.

During this Q&A one of my fellow coaches asked a question that was undoubtedly a burning issue for a number of us. “Sir, what skill level should my kids be at when they are 10-years-old?” Here it was. What are the benchmarks that our boys and girls should aspire to as they advance in age? How deft should their ball handling be? How strong and true should they be kicking? How skilled in passing and receiving? How effective their ball control and other maneuvers?

Coach Lagos stunned me with his reply. He said, “Don’t even think about it. Only one thing is important, that they enjoy the game.”

Interesting answer.

A couple years later my wife Susie and I made a decision to begin homeschooling our son and daughter. Though Susie was doing the heavy lifting, I remained involved in their education by creating tests based on everything they were studying. I also taught writing. As a professional writer, and strong believer in the importance of the written word, it made sense to take on this role. I also used it as an opportunity to develop a strategy for getting my son and daughter to actually enjoy it. This is where the advice from Coach Lagos spoke to me.

The key to success in any endeavor is motivation. And that’s how our young people are going to become great writers, not by being forced to write but by learning to enjoy it.

Your student or child will write more if she enjoys it rather than hates it. Think about it. The more they write, the more sentences and words you’ll have to edit. You’ll also gain insights into your child’s thinking. You’ll receive glimpses of who your students and children really are.

Equally important in my teaching approach, though, was the manner in which I graded their work. I, for one, know what it feels like to be handed a paper full of corrections. Those red marks leap from the page. Even before you read them you can feel discouraged, especially if you believed your paper was particularly creative or powerful.

For this reason, I not only score the spelling and punctuation, I give points for creativity, originality and effort. I assume that the student’s intentions are to tell his or her story the best way possible. I assume they do not want the reader, or teacher, to stumble over misspelled words or misplaced modifiers. So I sit beside them, not over them. We work through it together to see if there are better ways to word this sentence or re-structure that paragraph to capture the effect they were going for.

My starting point, though, was producing exercises that they would enjoy tackling. (Example: Imagine that you are one inch tall. Now go to one of the rooms in our house and describe everything you see from this new perspective.) The exercises simultaneously taught principles of good writing, such as how to capture and keep a reader’s interest, or how to pace a story.

After our children had grown and were off at college, my wife suggested that I turn these writing exercises into a book. So I did. It’s called Writing Exercises: How to Teach Writing and Prepare Your Favorite Students for College, Life and Everything Else. The book aims to not only help students write clear sentences, but also learn how to use techniques professional writers use to create interesting sentences. Good writing is more than simply writing technically correct sentences with proper verb tense, spelling and punctuation. Good writing is writing that engages readers.

I strongly believe that learning how to communicate by means of the written word is a key component of any successful career. Kids who write well will obtain more career opportunities and find more open doors than those who neglect this vital skill.

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Ed Newman is a writer, artist, harmonica player, blogger and author of Writing Exercises: How to Teach Writing and Prepare Your Favorite Students for College, Life and Everything Else

EdNote: I would be remiss not to mention that this is being published here in the early stages of the 2018 World Cup. Good luck to all, wherever you are from.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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