Teaching Children To Write

Writing is possibly one of the most difficult subjects to teach, both in the early years as well as the high school years. It is subjective. It can nearly always be improved. It can be a huge source of stress in the home school.

For some children, writing comes easily. They are verbose and it shows in their writing in the form of too many words! These children write with the false assumption that more must be better, failing to see that often they’ve said a lot of nothing. Other children struggle with subject material. They stare at a blank page and no words seem to come to mind. Both types of writers need direction. If you are a mom to more than one child, especially if  they happen to be a girl and a boy, you will most likely experience the stresses and frustrations of guiding one child to “get to the point” and the other to “get something on the paper!”

I majored in elementary education and had the privilege of teaching young children writing skills for several years after receiving my teaching degree. However, most of what I have learned about teaching writing has come from home schooling my six children over the past 9 years. I have learned that there is help for all types of writers. There are absolutely wonderful materials out there to help with all the difficulties associated with teaching this subject. (More info on my favorites to follow). While I don’t have all the answers, I have discovered some wonderful tips that take some of the stress out of writing class.

Readiness:

Don’t push your children to write too early. Some children will be wanting to write as soon as or even before they “crack the code.” Others will be reluctant. Much of this is personality related. One of my daughters, who is very creative, had no reservations about “sounding out” and attempting to write at a very young age. She didn’t ask me how to spell anything because her writing was a “work of art” and “perfect” (in her mind!) just the way she wrote it. Another daughter, being a perfectionist, would not even think of writing anything unless her words were spelled perfectly. She didn’t write until about second grade while her sister began publishing her great works at the age of 5. Both daughters, now 13 and 14, are excellent writers.

Once your children are writing, do not focus on handwriting too early or excessively. It is completely normal for children to form their letters incorrectly. Forming letters backwards will correct. When children begin writing, let them and gradually teach correct letter formation. Once you’ve taught the letter, make sure they do it correctly during handwriting lessons. If you see they are not forming the letter correctly when writing Grandma in their free time, leave them alone! I am talking about young children here – preschool through maybe second grade. Correcting every letter will kill their enthusiasm. Keep up with the handwriting lessons. Over time, you will see correct letter formation even during their non-lesson writing sessions.

Spelling:

Is “invented” spelling ok? Yes, and no. As with handwriting, there is a time for correct spelling and a time for creativity. Expect published works to be perfect. If it stresses a child to “sound it out,” don’t make him. However, if you see your child happily writing away without a care in the world, let him “invent” all he wants!

Always be willing to spell for your young children. This is a huge advantage of homeschooling. A class room teacher can not spell all the words a typical second grade class will ask in a 45 minute period. A home school mom, however, can certainly do this! Keep a dictionary of common words for children 3rd grade and under. One notebook page per letter should be sufficient. When asked how to spell a word, put it in the notebook dictionary. Teach your children to look up words you’ve spelled for them in the past.

Handwriting / Dictation:

Do not be afraid to create your own handwriting curriculum. You may find, as I did, that handwriting curriculum sold as a part of a language arts package is often lacking in several ways.  Startwrite takes care of this problem. With Startwrite, you can create your own handwriting pages using any style you prefer (ball and stick, modern, d’nelian, etc). In about a minute, you can design your child’s handwriting practice with any size lines, print or cursive, broken lines to trace over or starting “balls” in which to place the pencil. This is truly the only handwriting curriculum you need for children in preschool all the way through high school. I use it for my second grader for beginning cursive as well as my teens for long passages of dictation!

Do dictation exercises. I combine this with copywork. Every Monday, I give each of my children a passage to copy (using Startwrite.) I generally take the passage out of their science or history text. Young children copy a sentence or two from their readers. Older children copy whole pages of text. On Wed., they write as I call out the passage. They then correct anything they copied incorrectly. This is an excellent way to learn basic grammar as well as spelling. It’s important for children to copy what is “right” as opposed to grammar books where they find mistakes and correct them. In the early years, children don’t know what is correct. However, the more “good writing” they copy, the more they will recognize what is well written. By late elementary or jr. high an “edit this” grammar book works well. This year with my older children I am using a wonderful resource called Fix It! I just don’t recommend showing young children incorrect writing with expectation that they will know how to improve it.

Editing and Grading:

Be your child’s editor. In the early years, one paragraph may take a whole week to write. That is ok. Take your time so writing doesn’t become too stressful. Do a rough draft, revise, rewrite… but not all in the same day! In the early years, I do dictation two days a week and a writing assignment (just 1) the other three days.

It is not necessary to edit everything your children write. Leave their creative endeavors alone. Let them know your are proud of them for choosing to write with their free time. Praise them and do not criticize!

When grading papers, focus on style and structure but leave content alone. This doesn’t mean you accept a paper that makes no sense. It does mean that as long as your child meets writing requirements, they are allowed freedom with the content. Of course, you may give a topic for a report. However, your child then has the liberty to write what interests him about the topic. Grading with a checklist is immensely helpful. A checklist for a fourth grade student may contain the following requirements for a one paragraph assignment: sentences are complete; contains topic sentence; contains concluding sentence; has an “ly” adverb; spelling is correct; paper is double spaced; title is underlined; contains a sentence with a prepositional opener; contains a strong verb. My observation is that if students know what is expected, they will try their best to meet expectations.

Require assignments be completed. I know this seems like an obvious suggestion. However, I have found that when mom takes on the teacher role, it is easy to accept incomplete writing assignments. I’ve thought, “Well, it’s not their best and could use some editing, but at least she did it.” This year I have raised my expectations. I have sent my children back for revisions until their papers are excellent. This has meant loss of privilege a time or two. However, my children now know that they are capable of truly outstanding work. They are very proud of the papers they’ve written this year and now have higher expectations of themselves.

Other Teaching Ideas:

Be a scribe. When children are very young, they often have wonderful stories in their minds but do not possess the ability to write them. Have them dictate their stories to you while you write for them. They will be so proud of “their” work and aspire to have the ability to one day write such works themselves.

Assign your children practical writing assignments: copy recipes, lists, thank you notes, etc.

Scrap booking is a fun venue for creative children to practice writing skills.

Write your children letters. They will cherish them and they may just write you back!

Encourage children to learn typing as early as possible. This will come in very handy in later elementary school years when those writing assignments become more complex. It’s much less stressful to revise a paper on the computer than by hand!

With supervision and monitoring, a blog can be a wonderfully creative writing outlet for children. Having an audience is inspiring and gives purpose to their effort. Encourage your children to post their creative writing assignments. Sometimes having Grandma comment on a blog is more motivating than a paper handed back with an A+.

Work to find an audience for your child’s writing assignments. Let your children hear you read their papers to grandparents. Encourage them to submit their writing to contests. Have them write poems or  stories to be read at special family gatherings. Display their home-made cards.

Modeling:

Model writing. Yes, write yourself!

Know that writing absolutely can not be a “read and do” assignment. You must be willing to teach, edit and model good writing for your children. Even children blessed with natural writing ability need direction. Children who are reluctant need much encouragement. Set writing assignments during a time when you can help.

Write with your children. Yes, that means do the same assignments as you assign them! I know busy moms have a tendency to send children off to write. Often, we have to! However, it is so important to occasionally write right alongside your children. This has made a huge difference in the enthusiasm my children have toward their assignments. They love it when they come up with a better simile/alliterative sentence/strong verb than I when writing a report. They also love the samples I provide for them and are inspired by them.

Curriculum Suggestions:

For young children who like to draw, motivate them with Draw Write Now. This is a wonderful set of books that incorporates art, science or history and writing. After writing a few sentences about a subject, award them with pretty pencils and time to do the drawing portion of the lesson.

My experience is that most literary or classical curricula assumes you know how to teach your children to write. Young children may be instructed to do a simple pre-writing exercise and then write a report from the exercise. My experience is that too much is expected of  younger children who are developmentally not ready to tackle complex assignments. Often, once students reach jr. high age, writing lessons are incorporated into the history lessons with little writing instruction as a subject in and of itself. Ironically, in my opinion, it is during the dialectic years that students benefit most by being taught writing structure. They are old enough to understand it and yet not too busy to study it. Once students reach high school, they often have little time to take composition classes. Writing assignments are given but often instruction on how to format these writing assignments is not offered. In our home school we  use a wonderful Classical curriculum, but I found that we needed a more comprehensive writing program. This leads to my next point…

Learn to teach your children to write! The Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) has a set of DVD’s called Teaching Writing With Structure and Style. The DVD’s cover about 10 hours of writing instruction for the teacher. They have revolutionized our home school! How I wish I had such instruction from the very beginning! How I wish I’d been taught the structure and style elements that this program offers when I was in school! How thankful I am that my children have the opportunity to learn valuable writing techniques and have knowledge of structural models now! I can not in this post write a complete review of IEW’s material. Browse their website and you will learn much. However, I will say that it is an outstanding incremental writing curriculum. Skills are taught and then required. Checklists are provided for all assignments. For example, once a child is taught adverbs, they must include one adverb in each paragraph and this requirement is part of their checklist. IEW covers 9 units of structure including: key word outlines, narrative stories, reports from one source, reports from multi-sources, essays, critiques, and the 5 paragraph model. Sprinkled throughout the units, stylistic techniques are taught including various sentence openers, strong verbs, quality adjectives, adverbial clauses, adjectival clauses and adverbs. Metaphors, similes, quotes, questions, and other advanced writing techniques are also taught and gradually required. Grammar and vocabulary are learned in the context of writing. There is an emphasis on “banned” words which encourages students to use a thesaurus to make their writing more interesting.

After learning the methodology, you can incorporate IEW concepts into any curriculum. When you see “write a report” in the teacher’s guide, your child and you will know exactly how to go about doing so!

In the early years, do not stress about formal structure. Just write daily and do dictation exercises. Stay positive. IEW instruction can be used for 2nd graders and up. However, I did not begin using their materials until this year with two 5th graders, a 7th grader and an 8th grader. I have found the later elementary years to be a perfect time to begin formal writing instruction. Of course you may begin earlier; especially if you have a precocious young child who wants to do work like her big siblings!

Miscellaneous Tips:

Expose your children to great writing. Read to them. Good readers don’t make good writers but reading certainly does help. When reading aloud to your children, occasionally stop to discuss excellent literary techniques.

Expose your children to excellent writing of other children their own ages. This is not to discourage them but rather to inspire them. This year I have taught a writing course using IEW materials and I believe the most advantageous aspect of this class is the inspiration that the students have given one another. Each week I read papers or portions of papers that demonstrate excellent use of the techniques we are learning. It’s amazing to see these students work hard and encourage and learn from one another! My two oldest daughters are taking my class and my 5th grade twins, while doing IEW lessons at home, are begging me to teach it again next year so they can enjoy the group benefits!

Expect awkwardness. I have a two year old who just learned the word “actually” and it pops into nearly every conversation I have with her. The thought of telling her she is overusing the word has never crossed my mind. When your child learns alliteration or adverbs or other stylistic techniques, it’s likely he may overuse them. This is  natural. He is experimenting and most likely his efforts will initially come across inelegantly. As he gains proficiency at implementing new concepts, proper usage also will be learned. Meanwhile, praise him for his effort!

Be Patient!

Have fun and be patient with yourself and with your children. Remain enthusiastic. Cheer for them as you did when they first began to speak. Then, they may have had a lisp or jumbled their words awkwardly when forming sentences. It didn’t matter to you because they were trying! Writing is the same way. It is developmental in nature. There is not a “rule” for what they should write when just as there is not a scope and sequence for what order a toddler will learn new phrases. In the early stages of language development, you praised them. Eventually they learned to read and you most likely invested in a few resources to help them with this new skill. Writing is similar. Just keep writing and keep encouraging your young writers. As they mature, find tried and true resources to help you instruct them. Keep at it and you will be amazed at the progress your children make as they mature in their language and put word to paper!

www.tina.thejobes.com

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7 Responses to “Teaching Children To Write”

  1. Alison Moretz Says:

    Tina,
    As always, this was helpful & encouraging. Thank you! ~Alison

  2. Kristi from NC Says:

    Tina, this post was great! Thank you! I cannot wait to go back and read it again and look at the links you mentioned. Have I mentioned how excited I am that you now have a blog?!

  3. Daphne Petrey Says:

    Great and encouraging post! I was actually going to e-mail you this week to ask what the handwriting program was (StartWrite) – thanks for putting all of this valuable information together to share!

  4. Tina Says:

    Thanks, girls!

  5. Julie Says:

    Hello Tina,

    So glad you have found IEW products to be helpful. Thank you for your kind words.

    I should also mention that Andrew Pudewa of IEW has been using copywork with his son, who is profoundly dyslexic, and I truly mean “with”! They both copy pages from Scripture which is feeding their minds, soul, and penmanship abilities.

    Me? I graduated from homeschooling 3 years ago, along with my son. Sigh. To have had all this great advice many years ago.

    Blessing to you and your readers, of which I am now one of them.

    Julie Walker
    Marketing Director, Institute for Excellence in Writing

  6. Tina Says:

    Julie,

    Thank you so very much for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yes, I am definitely an IEW fan! I’ve been asked to consider teaching the challenge program at our local Classical Conversations group. This year I taught a general class through our home school co-op (not CC) where I just taught through the units, using IEW supplementary material I’ve purchased from the website as well as incorporating the curriculum into my own lesson plans. It’s been a delightful experience and one I hope to continue. I’m quite eager to learn more about utilizing IEW both in my home school and co-op/CC classes.

    I did not know that Andrew Pudewa did copywork with his son. I think that is just wonderful. There definitely in no better book to copy than God’s word!

    Blessings!

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