A Little Writing Lesson

I don’t often post about our homeschooling curriculum or routines. Because schooling is such an ordinary part of our day, it seems a little boring or un-postworthy. However, since I’ve had some folks ask me to post more about homeschooling, I thought I’d write about one of my favorite subjects – writing! The following transpired today – an opportunity to teach my  youngest school-aged child, who happens to be my only reluctant writer, a little about paragraph construction.

Sarah's inspiration!

This morning, after the mail arrived and before I could throw it in the recycling bin, Sarah enthusiastically grabbed the Spring American Girl catalog. “Oh, Mom, you MUST see the doll I want for my birthday!!!!” Now, Sarah’s birthday is 5 months away and there is no hope of her receiving such an expensive item before then, but I humored her and looked at this object of her longing. “Why do you want her?” I asked. Sarah then began reciting a list of qualities that made the doll, Elizabeth, exceptional… and I decided to make the most of her enthusiasm.

I asked Sarah to write a paragraph explaining why she wanted this doll. Normally, any writing assignment causes her to groan, but this time she willingly got right to it! (I think she thought perhaps she could convince me to get her doll a little early!) There was only one problem. Sarah really doesn’t know how to write a paragraph. She has done a fair amount of copy work but not much creative writing and so far no reports.

After about 5 minutes, Sarah handed me her paper and this is what it said:

I want Elizabeth because

1. She is so pritey.

2. I have wonted one forever.

3. Her hair is so, so, so pritey.

4. Her dress is pritey.

5. And last but not lest, her hat is pritey.

Yes, that was the “paragraph.” The misspelled words aren’t typos. That is exactly what she wrote.

In the past, the above would have caused me to panic. Other than correcting the spelling of “wonted,”  “pritey” and “lest,” I would be at a loss on how to go about editing. Thanks to two years of teaching concepts of IEW (The Institute for Excellence in Writing), I had fun with this! In about 15 minutes, Sarah had her first lesson on paragraph construction.

The first thing I did was asked her to brainstorm some synonyms for “pretty”. She easily came up with “lovely,” “beautiful” and “gorgeous.” Next I explained that she should not use “so” at all because it is boring. We talked about words to describe “pretty” and she thought of “exceptionally,” “very,” and “extremely.” I then asked Sarah if she could think of other words for “want” and she replied “desire” and “long for.” As Sarah said each word, I wrote them down.

Sarah's copy of her dictated paragraph. The cirlced words are the words we want to repeated/reflected in the topic and closing sentences.

After brainstorming better vocabulary, I asked her what she wished to communicate – the main idea. She easily answered, “I want Elizabeth!” I explained that needed to be her topic sentence and that the last sentence needed to repeat the main idea. “After all, if you don’t tell me again, I might forget and get you a pet frog,” I told her. After some giggles, we then wrote her list into a paragraph with her dictating and me writing. This is what she composed (with my suggestion to incorporate our vocabulary lists):

I hope to own Elizabeth, an American Girl doll, because she is lovely. All my life, I have longed for her. Not only is her hair beautiful , but her dress, which is adorned with flowers and ribbons, is gorgeous. I also like her hat. For my 9th birthday, I hope to receive Elizabeth.

I guided her with her verbs, explaining “receive” is better than “get,” and “adorned” better than “has.” We discussed in detail the importance of the topic and closing sentences and that key words in the topic must be reflected in the clincher – “own/receive” and “doll/Elizabeth.”

After I wrote the dictated paragraph, she copied it. Tomorrow, I will call out the paragraph, and she will write it from memory. (Great for spelling and punctuation.) Yes, hopefully after tomorrow she’ll know how to spell “pretty.” By the way, her mispelling it “pritey” was a great opportunity to review long vowel rules and how they don’t apply in this situation.

This lesson took about 15 minutes and taught many valuable beginning composition skills. We’ll practice this skill with many, many subjects over the coming months.

To review: Basically, brainstorm an outline for a paragraph. Write a topic sentence. Repeat the key words of the topic sentence in the closing sentence. Identify verbs. Make them stronger. Identify nouns and brainstorm adjectives. Can you think of an adverb? Later add clauses and vary sentence openers. (Sarah isn’t quite ready for that yet.) Write for the child a dictated paragraph. Have him copy it. The next day, dictate it to him as he writes. Review the topic/closing sentences. Review strong verbs, adjectives, adverbs or any other stylistic techniques learned.

I wish when my older children were young, I had IEW materials to guide me through the process of teaching writing. Starting with the simple concept of key word outlines (which basically is what Sarah made in her list), students are systematically taught structure and style. Every writing technique, once taught, is reviewed and required. Once you know the process of teaching through the various units, you can apply the concepts and take advantage of moments such as I had today.

A few years ago, I panicked as every curriculum seemed to instruct, “Have your child write a report…” and not only did my children have no idea how to go about doing so, I struggled to teach them. Now those same children are writing essays beautifully! Structure begins with good paragraphs. Children who can write  paragraphs well can write reports and essays, which are just collections of paragraphs. Students who can write essays, can then write research reports, which are simply essays strung together. Thus, good paragraph construction can not be over-emphasized. And, when children are beginning writers, they need not be left to themselves. Some of my children, at  very young ages, could write pages and pages of stories or letters. However, their writing, just because they filled space, really was no better than Sarah’s. All children need to be directed in being concise, choosing words carefully and following structure. I find, especially until about 6th grade, they do best if I set aside a few minutes and write with them. By junior high, they are able to be more independent.

I hope this might encourage some of you who may be stuck in stressed- out- about- teaching- writing land. I am just beginning with Sarah, but I have no doubt that with the systematic instruction of IEW materials, she will quickly be writing strong paragraphs.

Andrew Pudewa, founder of IEW, is my hero. I get to see him next week at the SouthEast Homeschool Convention and I just might ask for his autograph 🙂

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One Response to “A Little Writing Lesson”

  1. Christine Says:

    Oh, thank you, thank you! I need a writing curriculum! This sounds wonderful!

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