I played soccer growing up, and nothing released pure pandemonium on the practice field like the coach announcing a full-field scrimmage. All we wanted to do was play on the big goals, eleven vs. eleven like the professional did. However, I soon learned how disastrous shifting to the full-size game could be. Once I started playing under advanced coaches, when I was eight or nine, they refused to let us play on the big goals. Instead, we played Futsal, a Brazilian soccer adaptation played on a rubber surface with a slightly smaller, weighted ball. The “field” was also a fraction of what we saw the pros use week-in and week-out. Rather than a 120 by 60-yard sprawling surface, we practiced on a tiny 20 by a 30-yard rectangle. But why?
After our coach overheard us complaining about the new practice conditions, he solemnly announced, “too much space makes weakness look like strength.” These simple words from a Brazilian soccer coach who didn’t finish high school are a vital lesson for young writers and their teachers. In soccer, a massive field can hide technical deficiencies. A player might look like a world-class forward when he’s just fast. A goalkeeper might seem destined for greatness when she’s really just tall. Longer writing assignments have a similar effect. A student might find it easy to complete a five or six-page assignment because the urge to hit the page count keeps the words flowing, but reducing the length requirement of the essay flips the script. Just like a soccer player learning to play quickly in tight spaces improves his or her long-term potential, young writers learn how to write when they must think about the economy of words.
Teaching students to write a single paragraph well is no easy feat. A skillful teacher must guide students through the organizational, stylistic, and grammatical aspects of clear, compelling writing. Every word must be meticulously crafted. Every sentence must be placed intentionally to maintain the flow throughout the paragraph. In a short paragraph, writing deficiencies are easy to spot because there isn’t anywhere to hide. The driving force is quality, not quantity, forcing the student to draft, edit, and draft again. Quotations and other forms of evidence must be used sparingly and strategically, accompanied by an analysis that explains the evidence’s purpose. Concluding sentences must be cogent assessments of the broader significance of the topic at hand rather than a bland restatement of prior ideas.
Longer essays, on the other hand, are driven by quantity, not quality. Students are consciously or subconsciously encouraged to ramble, vying to hit the page count rather than express ideas with clarity. Shoddy writing can be obscured over six pages, as the paragraphs don’t need to fit perfectly together. Students need only express some ideas that link together to remain unscathed by the teacher’s red pen because anyone can hide a poorly-crafted sentence or five in 1200 words. In other words, the space masks the weaknesses.
As we have explained time and time again, writing well is vital to academic and overall success. In fact, writing a paragraph or an essay is perhaps the most significant intellectual challenge students face, not only from an academic standpoint but also from an executive function skills standpoint. To write well, students must create an idea, gather evidence to support it, find a starting point that makes the most sense, learn to overcome obstacles, know when to pause, know when to edit, sequence those steps properly, and ultimately, have the discipline to finish the task. It’s a perfect microcosm for executive function inside and outside the classroom, as the steps above apply to almost every other subject and area of life.
Learning how to write well improves executive function one paragraph at a time. So, please, encourage your students and their teachers to pursue shorter writing assignments more often. The executive function benefits will astound you.
So, as a parent, how can you help your child glean the writing (and overall communication) benefits of shorter assignments? After all, you can’t dictate the length of the papers your student’s English teacher assigns. The answer is to look for short “writing assignments” everywhere. Here are a few ideas:
At least a dozen times a year, a student must email his or her teacher, coach, or principal. Whether the student needs to reschedule a test because of a school absence or request for verification of enrollment for a learner’s permit, these are golden opportunities to practice short writing skills. Next time your child needs to email a school, have them draft something first, then revise it with you. Help them eliminate vague language, correct grammar, and manage tone—these tiny practice sessions compound to produce significant writing gains.
A few years ago, one of my students wanted a car for his sixteenth birthday. He brazenly made the request to his parents toward the end of one of our sessions, and the mother’s reaction was brilliant. The mom, a highly educated corporate lawyer, told her son to write his argument for a car in writing by the following Tuesday. She finished with, “He can help you edit it for writing practice once you’re done,” as she nodded in my direction. What a move! Students usually don’t get a taste for high-stakes persuasive writing until college or sometimes longer. This brilliant mom gave her son the ultimate short writing assignment, which combined a new writing style with a significant incentive.
Thank You Notes
Many parents require their children to write thank-you notes for every gift received. These short (often five sentences or fewer) writing assignments are the perfect way to practice tone and clarity. Is your child’s birthday coming up? Break out the stationary!
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