We had a wonderful time this past weekend at our special Homeschooling Mom Weekend Event! I hope and pray you were as blessed as I was by our time together. It is always a pleasure meeting and fellowshipping with moms who are also on this homeschooling journey.
Our last session on Saturday was “Building Hearts and Home (Schools) For Christ.” Using the analogy of our actual homes, we discussed different ways to secure our foundations, build relationships with our Savior and with our family members, create meaningful traditions and cherished memories, as well as how to whet our appetites for God-honoring and Christ-centered entertainment. While “inspecting” our actual “school room or study,” we focused more on our attitudes while teaching (and learning) since we covered the “how to’s” and “curriculum choices” in a previous Coffee with Carrie post. (Click here to read.) I promised in our “Building Hearts and Home (Schools)” session and in our previous post, I would share an entire post on how to teach writing! So here it is as promised!
While writing this post on “writing,” I was painfully reminded of the number one reason kids have trouble writing (or in some cases hate to write)! Even as a published author, I share the same issues many of your children have with writing: Writer’s Block! Often times it is extremely hard to just get started!
Type A personalities like myself, insist on perfection from the beginning of a project. With that kind of pressure, it is hard to even begin when we struggle to find the best way to start! We want to “hook” the audience right away! Additionally, Perfectionist might get started but stall along the way as they obsess over every misspelled word or incorrect punctuation in their first draft. With Type B personalities, it may not be procrastination or a heart issue, it might just simply be the wrong writing curriculum is being used.
Older students may not know what to write about (or don’t particularly feel motivated to write about the prompt given). Younger students simply haven’t lived long enough to have much to write about or enough experiences to draw from. Struggling students may have a limited vocabulary, writer’s fatigue with the act of physically writing, and/or dysgraphia (a form of dyslexia).
Let’s first discuss WHY we want our children to be excellent (or at least proficient) writers and good communicators. The most important reason is to help our student share her faith, express her beliefs, and explain the Gospel. Especially in the age of texting and tweets, Facebook and Instagram, blogs and vlogs, and news and fake news, this generation more than any other generation in the past, need the ability to express themselves and defend their faith in a powerful and effective manner. Is our aim to raise the next C.S. Lewis or Charles Spurgeon? No! But do we want our children to be able to express themselves in spoken and written language to impact their friends, family, and strangers for the kingdom of God? Yes! So if our primary goal is NOT to raise the next Mark Twain or to earn a perfect score on the SAT, then your writing instruction should be simple, stress-free and fruitful.
Is there a perfect writing curriculum? As a certified and registered IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing) writing instructor, I humbly say “No”! Just like there is not one perfect math curriculum or reading curriculum, there is no such thing as the perfect writing curriculum. It is always best to start with your student’s learning style, strengths and weaknesses in mind as you decide which writing curriculum (if any) you will use. Yes, it is easier to use the same curriculum for all students if you have a large family, however like math, your students will probably be at different writing levels and have different writing and spelling abilities. Writing is one of those subjects that may have to be individualized. So let’s talk about options so you don’t go crazy teaching from multiple curriculums each and every day.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. You really do NOT need to purchase and use an expensive, boxed curriculum. There, I said it! While Sonlight, Growing with Grammar, Shurley Grammar, Beautiful Feet, and other similar boxed curriculums are all-in-one and great resources, you CAN teach writing, punctuation, and grammar without a boxed curriculum, and you can do it without breaking your budget!
After teaching 25 plus years, writing books and devotionals, and homeschooling my own, I have found there are basically SIX essentials to teaching writing and instilling a love of writing in any student: (1) Read great books, (2) copy great writers, (3) write something every day, (4) integrate writing, grammar and spelling, (5) practice editing, and (6) play with words!
FIRST, the best writing curriculum is simple: Read, read, read! When you think your student has read enough, then read more to them! The best writing teacher is a great book! There is a great debate about whether or not to let your child read “dwadle.” If your goal is to instill a love of reading, let your child read the books he enjoys. In the meantime, read great books aloud to him to build his vocabulary, whet his appetite for great storylines, and to introduce him to many beloved characters. As he reads independently, he is seeing how words are used and spelled and how correct punctuation and grammar rules are applied. As you read aloud to him, he will learn new vocabulary and appreciate timeless themes and intricate conflicts. Reading will also spark his imagination and give him tons of writing ideas.
After reading together, discuss, discuss, discuss! Have meaningful conversations about the choices made by the characters, the descriptions used by the author, and your child’s opinion of the story. Don’t take out a list of reading comprehension questions. Instead, ask your child to narrate the story, to give his version of the story, or to dictate to you what he enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy). Narration, paraphrasing and dictating are actually your student’s first draft to any writing assignment! It is the best way to remove writer’s block. Just simply ask your child to tell you about the story or about his favorite part. Ask him to predict what might happen next or what he would have done instead. This exercise in organizing his thoughts and opinions is actually the first step in organizing and writing a paragraph. Don’t skip discussions, narrations and dictations. They are the most important part of any writing “program” and the first step to excellent writing.
SECOND, copy great writers and copy great works. Although copywork is often seen as an exercise for young students, it’s a classic tool that is useful for almost anything you want to learn to do well. Artists copy the works of great masters in order to study their techniques, musicians play the works of great composers, and writers copy masterworks they hope to learn from. With younger students, give them short items to copy word for word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark, capital by capital. Give them Bible verses you want them to commit to memory, famous quotes you want them to know, or verses of poetry you want them to read. By using copywork, they are learning the rules of grammar and punctuation while also learning great proverbs, quotes, and poetry. (It is also a great way to practice handwriting in a painless way!)
In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin relates how he taught himself to write more elegantly and expressively. He copied great writing. Franklin only had two formal years of schooling so he relied on the library and the books on the shelves to be his writing teacher. In his own words, this is how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write:
“About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.
With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come hand.
Then I compared my Spectator with the original. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.”
In a nutshell, Franklin did the following:
- Read an article or passage from a book.
- Wrote short hints about each sentence (or a keyword outline) and then set it aside for a while.
- Using these short hints, he recalled what the article was about and then rewrote the article in his own words.
- Compared his work with the original.
- Revised and improved his writing.
This technique can be used with younger as well as older students. If it worked for America’s greatest writer, publisher, and diplomat, it will certainly work for your youngster or teen. Start with a paragraph he read for science. Have him write keywords or “hints” from each sentence. Ask him to narrate the paragraph back to you using his “hints.” Then put it aside for a day or two. (This is very important in the life of an author. We need time to percolate our thoughts. We need time to let the words marinate in our mind. We need time to chew on our ideas. Putting a piece aside for a day or time is essential in the writing and editing process!) In a few days, ask him to narrate or dictate in his own words what the science paragraph was about. Have him read it aloud. (This is also an important part of the writing process. Writers hear and see mistakes when they read it aloud.) Then tell him to compare his version of the science paragraph with the original article. Compare the punctuation, capitals, and spelling as well. This is also great practice in summarizing information and paraphrasing. In today’s technology world, it is too easy and tempting to just “cut and paste” when writing an essay or report. Using this method helps students avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism.
For younger students, use the same method but with shorter paragraphs or with picture books. They can retell and rewrite their favorite stories.
THIRD, write every day! Yes, have your student write something every day! It isn’t as hard as it may sound. There are tons of opportunities throughout the day and the week to write. Not all writing needs to be informative or creative; it just needs to be purposefully! Ask your youngster to jot down a “to do list,” make a birthday card, create signs for a yard sale, respond to an email, write a letter to grandma, record a recipe, write a wish list, share prayer requests, or copy (and memorize) a Bible verse. I think you get the idea.
Incorporate journaling into your writing program. At the beginning of the year, spend a little extra money and let your student pick out a nice notebook or journal. Make sure you get one for yourself too! Every day (or at least a few times a week), give your student a journal prompt. Ask a question such as what is your favorite season and why or would you recommend the book we just finished and why? Ask her to describe the family pet or her best friend. The prompts can be silly or serious. How was your day? What are three things you are thankful for? If it really rained cats and dogs, what would that look like? The prompts could be story titles such as “My Alien Teacher” or “The Forbidden Stone.” She then writes a story that matches the title given. If you are not feeling creative enough to come up with writing prompts each week, there are great (and free) resources online. Make sure YOU write too! Whatever prompt you give your student, make sure you write about it as well. Half the fun is sharing your ideas of a perfect day or your description of your best friend as well as listening to your child’s. If your child is older, she may just want to journal her thoughts each day like a traditional diary.
Bring the journal or writing notebooks with you whenever you visit a museum or go on a nature hike. At an art museum, ask your student to draw their favorite painting and then write a story about what is happening in the picture. If you are at a science or history museum, ask her to write 2-3 things she learned about ____________. You fill in the blank. When on a nature hike, stop and smell the roses or at least to listen to the birds and watch the clouds move. Ask your teen to pick something to draw. She can either write something about the object right then and there, or she can find some information about the animal, plant, or rock when she gets home to write underneath her drawing. If she is younger, you can simply give her the name of the object and a short sentence description to copy underneath her drawing. The idea is to keep it simple but purposefully.
FOURTH, Connect writing, spelling, and grammar as much as possible. Never correct with pen the spelling and grammar mistakes in your child’s journal. This will stifle their creativity in future writing prompts if they know you will red slash their entire story or description. However, do use their writing to point out a few things they can change the next time they write. “Did you know you always capitalize the letter ‘I’ when it is referring to a person? “I loved your story about the hare but I noticed you used ‘hair’ instead of “hare.” This would be a very funny story if the main character was a strand of ‘hair” and not a bunny ‘hare’! Let’s write about that too!” “I noticed you listed some of my favorite ice cream flavors too. Make sure you put a comma in between them if you have three or more. Otherwise, it can sound confusing to someone else if they read it. It might sound like it is one flavor, strawberry banana butter pecan, instead of three separate flavors, strawberry, banana, and butter pecan.” You can point out a few things each week and then look at their writings to make sure they are applying what you taught them.
Don’t circle or cross out misspelled words in your child’s journal but write them on a separate sheet of paper or in a different notebook. You will notice your student has certain works he always misspells. Use the words he uses in his journal as his personal spelling list. My son always spelled “very” as “vary” and “friends” as “fiends.” Since these were words he used all of the time, I made sure he learned how to spell them correctly. Use his writing to teach those pesky homophones: their/there/they’re, its/it’s, your/you’re, and two/too/to.
DO correct and mark up formal writing reports or paragraphs. If the paper is littered with mistakes, don’t worry about explaining each and every one. Pick one or two recurring mistakes to tackle. Find a grammar or punctuation error you haven’t had a chance to teach him. Use his own writing to explain why you use a semicolon instead of a comma or which words are capitalized in a title and which words are not.
I highly recommend using the book Primary Language Lessons by Emma Serl to teach and review important yet basic grammar, punctuation and spelling rules in a gentle and simple way. We used the hardcover edition so all writing and copy work assignments had to be written in a separate composition notebook and all narrations and descriptions could easily be done orally. However there is now a consumable, workbook version. Using this version allows moms with multiple ages and abilities to do the same assignments but at different levels. We loved this resource so much we used it for several years and then used the Intermediate Language Book as my kids grew. Take your time with the lessons. Some lessons take just a few minutes and some take a few days. Some assignments are copy work, some are poetry memorization, some are fill in the blanks and some even ask the child to describe famous piece of artwork. Use the lessons to teach grammar and language skills. The goal is to finish the book well not to rush through it!
Integrate spelling, writing, and grammar as much as possible. Unless your student has learning issues that require using a specialized spelling program, it makes more sense (and takes less time and planning) to teach spelling and grammar within the context of writing lessons. You really don’t need a different workbook for grammar and spelling for each child. Parts of speech can be so dry is it easier to teach them in a fun way. Use the timeless School House Rock videos and jingles to memorize the eight parts of speech and how each are used. Yes, sing your way through grammar! Use the good old fashion Mad Lib Series to review parts of speech and how they are used. If you are using Primary Language Lessons by Emma Serl, then your youngster will also receive short and simple instruction on parts of speech, punctuation, and grammar. With older students, the best way to learn English grammar is to learn a different language. As teens learn to conjugate a verb, parse a sentence and add declensions to nouns, they will not only be learning Spanish (or Latin or Italian or French, etc), they will also be learning about direct objects, prepositions, articles, and so much more in the English language.
SIXTH, practice editing and do daily editing exercises. No matter how young or old your student is, short, simple lessons are your the best usage of time. There is no need for pages and pages of punctuation exercises. Our favorite resource is the Daily Grams series by Wanda Philips or the Daily Language Review series by Evan Moor. Both series start in Grade 3 (which no formal grammar or writing instruction should begin anyway) and both go all the way up to high school level. There are 180 lessons in each book, one for each day. Each lesson is a page long with several questions about parts of speech, a few sentences to correct, several punctuation exercises, a few sentences to combine, and a few vocabulary and/or spelling questions. We used them as review. When my daughter got a question wrong, I used it as a way to reinforce something she forgot, or I used it as a short teaching lesson on something I haven’t had a chance to teach her yet. There really is no need to spend an entire day on direct objects or an entire lesson fragments vs. clauses. Use short and simple editing exercises to teach, reinforce and review grammar and punctuation rules.
Don’t forget! Your student is also reading, reading, reading so she is also seeing punctuation and capitals being used properly! Students are also revising their written work after it has been proofread, edited and corrected by you. While discussing her latest story or report, take the opportunity to explain to your child why a conjunction was needed or why a period was needed in a particular sentence.
FINALLY, play with words! Incorporate vocabulary, spelling and writing games into your curriculum or weekly lessons as much as possible. If you use the “Morning Basket,” add a word game in it. Scrabble and Boggle never go out of style! Introduce these games to your youngster as soon as they start putting letters and sounds together. Since I was a kid, tons of other great word games have been created and are worthy of your time and investment: Bananagrams (spelling), Blurt! (vocabulary), Sentence Says (parts of speech and sentence formation), Wordical (spelling), Scattagories (vocabulary), You’ve Been Sentenced (parts of speech and sentence formation), and Parts of Speech Challenge (hard to find but worth the search!)
Don’t be afraid to use technology to help a struggling student or to aid a high schooler. There are tons of great word game apps worth a few minutes of play time. Also, dyslexic and/or dysgraphia students should have access to the “dictation” capabilities of Word and Pages. It allows the student to narrate or dictate his story or paragraph while the computer types. Using this capability is also great for editing practice. It often uses the wrong word (i.e there for their, etc) and it often leaves out important capitals and possible commas. Your son can then print his dictation, proofread it, correct it, and then revise it on his computer. Spell check is a wonderful thing! Consider using Grammarly.com as well. It highlights and underlines words, phrases, and sentences that need to be checked and/or corrected as a student types.
What do you do if you absolutely NEED or WANT a curriculum to guide you? I highly recommend the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW). If you do have a large family with multiple ages and grade levels and you want to use ONE curriculum for ease and scheduling purposes, I suggest you use one of IEW’s Level A resources. No matter how old your eldest is, you can use an IEW Level A curriculum at least for the first year. All Level A resources explain how to create outlines before writing, which words to avoid, how to dress up a paragraph, and how to vary the types of sentences used. Each Level A book teaches the basic paragraph format, which can then be expanded for older students into essays and reports. Level A also gives younger students topics to write about if they don’t have their own ideas, gives older students master writers to imitate, and gives struggling writers the step-by-step, back-to-the-basics- instruction they need. Depending on which Level A resource you choose, you can also incorporate the study of history or science into your writing lessons! At the end of this post, I recommended my favorite IEW Level A books that you can use to get you started or to use as stepping stones.
The most important thing to remember is if you can read, understand, and evaluate this article on the “perfect” writing curriculum, then you are capable and qualified to teach your child how to write and how to write well!
May God richly bless your teaching and writing for His glory,
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IEW Level A Complete Writing Course: This package comes with teaching videos for the student and parent to watch as well as all writing assignments and teacher answer keys.
IEW Level A Intensive Continuation Writing Course: This is great for the second year and with any grade level, even older students. It is always best to start at the beginning and keep it simple.
All Things FUN and Fascinating: Writing Lessons: This consumable workbook is a year-long beginning course filled with a variety of fables, creative writing, “book reports” and writing assignments in both science and history. There are no DVD instruction videos with this resource but it is self-explanatory.
Ancient History-Based Writing Lessons: This consumable workbook is a year-long beginning course filled with info and writing activities for Ancient History. It is a great way to learn history and writing at the same time. It also recommends historical fictions that can be read and used with the writing activities. There are no DVD instruction videos with this resource but it is self-explanatory. ***IEW does have other history-based writing curriculums, but I highly recommend if you are new to IEW, start with Ancient History. Their Medieval Times, American History and World History resources assume the student is an advanced writer and an experienced IEW student. They are harder to use if you are brand new to IEW**