In a classroom in Tucson, Ariz., Jennifer Ward perches on a stool and tells a classroom of wide-eyed fourth-graders how her love of writing changed her life. She explains why they should love the written word and find time to get lost in books. Her enthusiasm is contagious. The children hang onto her every word and end the session with dreams of penning their own tales and reading anything they can get their hands on.
Jennifer is the award-winning author of picture books and parenting books with more than 800,000 books in print. Most recently, she wrote "Mama Built a Little Nest" and "It's a Jungle Out There: 52 Nature Activities for City Kids." Before embarking on a career as a full-time author, Jennifer was an elementary school teacher, so she feels comfortable in classrooms, evangelizing the importance of literacy and developing as a writer.
"Literacy is the key that opens the door to a life of learning," she says. "Literacy comes in many forms: verbal, cognitive, written, visual, numerical, reading, technological. The higher the literacy level one can achieve, the higher the probability for one to fulfill personal potential."
Tip 1: Build children's strengths
With a resumé like Jennifer's, it might surprise some that she wasn't always the best reader. When Jennifer was in elementary school, she struggled, and she's grateful she wasn't shamed or compared to her classmates.
"I was completely under the radar with my teachers when it came to my reading and writing," Jennifer says. "My efforts didn't stand out in any significant way."
This might be the reason she suggests that parents and teachers refrain from shaming struggling readers and writers and encourages them to identify whether children need extra help and to find ways to develop their successes.
"The encouragement given to me by my parents was my greatest influence, hands down," Jennifer says. "I did a lot of writing as a child. My parents celebrated each piece I created and encouraged me to continue creating with words, even when my writing was riddled with misspelled words and run-on sentences.
Tip 2: Let kids explore literature
Jennifer's parents also did something that every parent can do: they filled their home with books and exposed her to all sorts of literature, varying from picture books and chapter books to poetry and beautifully illustrated coffee-table books.
"I loved reading as a child," she says. "Readers often make writers."
Tip 3: Let creativity, not perfection, rule
Instead of making literacy a dirty word, Jennifer suggests making it fun, especially when you read aloud to them. Let kids get lost in the stories. The learning will come when they connect with the words.
"Parents, allow your children to have fun with writing," she says. "It's important to appreciate that when a child writes at home, away from the classroom, the writing produced need not always be perfect. Mistakes are okay. The important thing is that writing is taking place."
Tip 4: Picture it
In the classroom, teachers can use picture-book texts as maps for emerging writers.
"Knowing where a written piece is going from beginning to end ... how the text will be organized is key for beginning and reluctant writers," Jennifer says. "It makes the writing process much less overwhelming."
Tip 5: Publish it
Once your little ones catch the writing bug, encourage them to write and even seek ways to publish their work.
"Send your work out to magazines and see what happens," she advises students. "Write for your school paper. Write just for fun. Writing is a life skill. Even if you choose to not be a professional writer, your life will benefit from becoming a skilled writer."