Entries from June 2008 ↓

What’s in the bag?


When Debbie and I taught junior high and high school writing classes, we made sure that part of each class was spent in play. No one is too old for games! Besides, pre-writing activities help to prime the writing pump and get those creative juices bubbling! So we played word games, sentence-building games, and games that built vocabulary or taught writing skills.

Not all writing games require pencil and paper. One of our favorites is “What’s in the Bag?” It’s a guessing game that fits many levels of sophistication, so it’s adaptable to all ages, and it’s great for reinforcing the concept of concrete or descriptive writing. Here’s how to play:

Advance Prep

Gather together several paper lunch bags, each containing a common object. Vary the textures and shapes of the objects.


  1. Give your student one of the paper bags and have her put her hand inside it. 
  2. The student must describe the object by its properties, not its function. So tell her: “Feel the object and describe it using adjectives or other phrases to describe its characteristics. Don’t tell me where to find it or how to use it.”  (If the object is a fork, the student might say, “It’s hard, cold, made of metal, sharp, one end has four prongs, it’s long and thin,” etc. She may NOT say, “You eat with it, you stab food with it, it’s in the silverware drawer,” etc.)
  3. You and your other kids can take turns trying to guess the object.
  4. Since students of all ages can play this game, involve your whole family or class. They’ll enjoy taking turns guessing and describing.

Hints and Tips 

  • If you only have one student, it’s harder to play along if you already know what’s in the bags. So ask your spouse to put some bags together the night before so that you’ll be surprised along with your child.
  • If your child is young or unable to articulate very well, you can help him get started by showing him 10-15 household objects such as a wire whisk, grater, can, roll of tape, small stuffed animal, camera, comb, or toothbrush and helping him think of descriptive terms for each one. The next day, use some of these items in the feely bags. Now that he is familiar with descriptive words for each item, it will be easier for him to play the game.

Copyright © 2008 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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“What’s in the Bag?” is one of many pre-writing activities and writing games tucked into the pages of WriteShop and WriteShop Primary.

Simple words…

Baby's breathLife is fragile. Loss runs deep.

An email this morning from my son-in-law’s sister reminded me of this as she reflected on what would have been her little boy’s first birthday.

Stillborn, Brayden entered this world a year ago today. His short life has deeply impacted Sarah and her husband along with countless others who have grieved with them this past year. And though the Lord blessed them with another son just a month ago, they still feel Brayden’s death keenly.

Sarah asked family and friends to send her an email with a message she and Johnny could attach to the balloons they planned to release at Brayden’s resting place. This is what came into my mind as soon as my fingers touched the keyboard:

    B orn lifeless, yet we
    R emember you as if you have
    A lways been here with us.
    Y our name brings both sadness and
    D elight, and today we bless your memory.
    E ach day grows easier, yet we will
    N ever, ever forget you.

Fabulous poetry? Not really. Meaningful? Without a doubt.

Writing can be whimsical, funny, serious. It can take up pages and pages or just a line or two. The written word can inspire, encourage, or pay tribute. Think of the meaningful sentiments on those especially touching greeting cards. Sometimes all that’s needed is a simple little phrase that expresses a heartful of thoughts.

So don’t let your mind hold you hostage with lies that you dont have anything important to say. You do. Don’t believe for a moment that anything worth writing must be long or profound. This morning, Sarah’s note of thanks reminded me that my few humble words could bring healing and life.

Perhaps you have a few words to share with someone. A simple acrostic poem might be all you need to express your appreciation, love, sympathy, or congratulations.

Give it a try, you and your children . . . and please come back to leave a comment sharing your poem or other sentiment. 


Jane’s grammar nugget: Bits and pieces

Jane StrausJane Straus, author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, is back as a guest at our blog.

Today, Jane covers more ground as she helps us make sense of three more grammar bugs!

Jane says many people have been taught incorrectly, so hopefully she can help us unlearn our bad grammar habits!

Plural or possessive titles?

Is it Mother’s Club? Mothers’ Club? Mothers’ Club?

In a title, you may think of the noun as a plural or as a plural possessive. So Mothers Club or Mothers’ Club would both be correct.

Apostrophes with words ending in s

Is it class’ opinion or class’s opinion or classes’ opinion?

If you mean one class, it should be class’s opinion. If you mean more than one class, it should be classes’ opinion(s).

Rule 2 of Apostrophes from The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation says: Place the apostrophe before the s to show singular possession.

    Examples: one class’s opinion; one girl’s opinion; Ms. Jones’s opinion; Mr. Cross’s opinion.

Rule 3 says: To show plural possession, make the noun plural first. Then use the apostrophe.

    Example: The classes’ opinions were predicatable according to their grade levels.
    Example: The girls’ opinions differed.
    Example: The Joneses’ house survived the flood.
    Example: The Crosses’ house survived the flood.

Quoting a Question within a Question

When quoting a question within a question, where does the question mark go? Is the following correct?

Didn’t she say, “How did you do that?”?

In The Blue Book of Grammar and PunctuationRule 3 of Quotation Marks says: When you have a question outside quoted material AND inside quoted material, use only one question mark and place it inside the quotation mark.

    Example: Did she say, “May I go?”
    Example: Didn’t she say, “How did you do that?”

Reprinted by permission of Jane Straus, author of the bestselling The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, from her free Grammarbook.com e-newsletters and blogs.

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From Kim

Thanks again to Jane for sharing from her wealth of knowledge!

We love The Blue Book so much that we’ve been carrying it for years in the WriteShop store. We also include it in the WriteShop Starter Pack. It’s a combination reference book and workbook, oh so easy to use, and handy for home or office. Jane’s examples are short, simple, and practical. We know you’ll love it too! Want to read some reviews? Just click here. And to read more of Jane’s Grammar Nuggets, type “Jane” in the search box above.

7 tips for writing clearly

pen and notebookWriters’ handbooks—written by more knowledgeable folks than I—abound. But certain principles for clear writing are just plain universal, and I’d like to share a few with you.

Write simply.

Many readers can’t read difficult writing. Others just won’t bother. Unless your writing must contain specialized vocabulary for your field, know that brief, clear writing is what will draw and hold your reader. You’ve hooked him when he can read your words with interest and joy!

Start off with a working title.

Brief titles and subtitles help you organize your material and stay on track as you subdivide it into more manageable pieces. Your title should do its job by giving the reader a clue about what’s coming.

Use short sentences.

It’s fun to incorporate colorful, interesting words. And we definitely want to encourage this in our kids so they can grow and mature their writing vocabulary! But sometimes the best of us can get carried away with 30- or 40-word sentences! A sentence should be long enough to do its job yet short enough to be dynamic and purposeful.

Choose shorter words.

Of course, there will always be exceptions, but as a rule, long words are often more formal—even dull. On the other hand, short words tend to have force and directness. And as language gets more direct, clarity improves. It’s interesting to note that short, familiar words—typically words with fewer syllables—are more easily understood than their longer counterparts. For example:

    usefulness – value
    procedure – method
    unadorned – plain
    persnickety – fussy
    subsequent to – after

Use active instead of passive verbs.

Active verbs help us deliver our ideas more forcefully. For example:

    Passive: The beauty of our landscape is considered spoiled because the roads are lined with trash.
    Active: We hate the trash that lines the roads and spoils the beauty of our landscape.

Use transition words.

They direct and guide the reader so he can follow your ideas. Words like besides, in addition to, and furthermore tell him you have more to say about the subject or more examples to present. Terms such as however, on the other hand, and conversely tell him you’re going to make a U-turn and offer some opposing points of view. First, second, next, last, and finally offer points in sequence, keeping both writer and reader focused.


Editing helps make your message clear to the reader. We all try to improve grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice. But don’t forget to look for ways to make even the most complex ideas clear and simple to grasp.

Copyright © 2008 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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Parents: If you’re looking for ways to teach your teens to write effectively, take a look at WriteShop. The principles of concrete, concise, organized writing will help your students gain confidence and skill!

Learning disabilities & writing, Part 2

2008-06-23 Learning Disabilities Part 2 (2)

In Part 1 of Learning Disabilities and Writing, I broadly defined three particular learning challenges: ADHD, dysgraphia, and dyslexia, specifically identifying how each affects a student’s writing.

Well, it’s one thing to put your finger on the problem, but quite another to find a working solution! We often get the question, “Does WriteShop work for children with learning disabilities?” For many older students with ADHD, dysgraphia, and dyslexia, WriteShop does seem to be an excellent fit.

“WriteShop’s lessons tend to work well for many types of learning-disabled children because of their explicit instructions and requirements.” – Nancy, learning specialist

Below I’d like to share ways that WriteShop can help students who learn with difficulty. Bear in mind that WriteShop I and II are written for 6th grade and above. But the following tips may help you overcome writing hurdles no matter what writing program you choose. 

Struggling learners benefit from specific instruction

  • WriteShop instructions are written directly to the student in an orderly, step-by-step fashion. They not only include writing ideas and clear directions, but many lessons also tell the student what NOT to write about or include in the composition. Furthermore, the Teacher’s Manual includes tips for the parent so that you can anticipate the most common kinds of errors your child might make.
  • Students do better when they can use graphic organizers such as mind-maps (clustering), charts, lists, or diagrams to help them outline and plan their work. WriteShop lessons provide many such opportunities for students to brainstorm and prepare for writing assignments.
  • Students who are easily distracted or who spell poorly benefit from word banks. WriteShop’s comprehensive, topical word lists help students make better vocabulary choices because new words (and their spellings) are readily available.
  • Checklists are vital to the struggling learner. It’s important for him to be able to mark his progress. WriteShop provides a lesson-specific Writing Skills Checklist for every writing assignment to help the student with his self-editing. A visually-overwhelmed student can use a plain sheet of paper to help him track each line of the checklist.

Struggling learners need reinforcement and repetition.

  • WriteShop lessons build on previously-learned skills.
  • Checklists help students apply these skills regularly.

Struggling learners benefit from alternative methods.

  • HugsThe physical act of writing may be too challenging. Instead of making your student write by hand, allow her to dictate to you while you write or type. Usually a student will use more complex vocabulary and sentence structure when speaking, but if asked to write the same information, she will often choose shorter words and sentences. Allowing her to dictate to you helps ease her stress about writing.
  • Perhaps she can edit and revise the draft you write and can recopy her own revision.
  • Or allow her to use the computer, including the spell check function.

Struggling learners do better with strict parameters.

  • They flounder when assignments are open-ended.
  • WriteShop gives specific requirements for each lesson, from brainstorming to writing. Students always know what they need to do.
  • WriteShop also restricts the number of paragraphs (usually just one) and paragraph length (at first 5-7 sentences but never more than 10 sentences in WriteShop I).

Struggling learners need bite-sized assignments.

  • WriteShop’s lesson schedules spread out assignments to allow for paragraphs to rest between drafts.
  • Assignments begin with prewriting activities and brainstorming exercises that narrow and focus in on the topic.
  • Lesson instructions are written in a step-by-step manner.

Dyslexic/dysgraphic learners benefit from projects that build writing skills.

  • Have them write letters, keep a diary, and make projects that use writing but are not writing-intensive, such as posters, mobiles, brochures, and cartoons.
  • WriteShop’s Teacher’s Manual has a wonderful supplemental appendix that is filled with ideas you can use with students of all ages.

Parent Testimonial

          “Our son is a junior in high school, and writing has always been rather a nightmare for him. He has ADHD and getting thoughts and words on paper is a difficult and long, drawn-out process for him. BUT your curriculum so quickly gave him the tools to help him to put descriptive, concrete thoughts on paper that I am truly amazed at what he can write after only Lesson 4. I know of at least one other home schooling family that has a son with special learning needs, and they rave about your writing program as well.” –Laurie, NY

To learn more, visit writeshop.com or download a sample lesson from WriteShop I.

Photo: Patrick Bell, courtesy of Creative Commons.


How to write a cento poem: Patchwork poetry

Teach children how to write a cento poem (also called "patchwork poetry" because it's pieced together from lines of other poems).

Cen·to: an original poem made using lines from the works of various poets.

In recent posts I’ve shared ideas on teaching children to write cinquain poems and poems of comparison. Let’s have some fun today with cento poetry!

Cento, sometimes called “patchwork poetry,” is well named because of the way the poem is assembled. (The term cento actually comes from the Latin word for patchwork.) As a quilt is pieced together from assorted patches of fabric, the cento poem is put together with lines from other sources.

To make a patchwork poem, each line must be taken from a different poem. When the lines are put together, they must make sense. The poem doesn’t have to rhyme, but rhyming adds a nice touch.

An Example of Cento Poetry

Here’s a rhyming cento by one of my former students, Rachel:

Round paradise is such a wall, (Monro)

And, hearing fairy voices call, (Webb)

And the streams run golden, (Lee)

Where there is no grass at all. (Stephens)


Harold Monro, “Real Property
Mary Webb, “Green Rain
Laurie Lee, “Day of These Days
James Stephens, “White Fields

How to Write a Cento

  1. Read some poems. Take time to look through a few poetry books or explore some poetry online. Enjoy the poems. Anthologies, which contain many poems, make the search easier.
  2. Get started. Find a line you especially like, and make that the first line of your patchwork poem. Write the poet’s last name in parentheses at the end of the line, as in Rachel’s example above.
  3. Add more lines. Select lines 2, 3, and 4 in the same way. Choose your lines carefully—your poem must make sense.
  4. Take the challenge!
    • Can you make your poem rhyme? It’s not necessary, but it can be a fun challenge.
    • Try to make the beats sound right.
    • Tenses should agree.
    • Person should agree. In other words, pick lines that have been written either all in first person or all in third person.
  5. Give credit. At the end, list each poet’s full name. Include the name of the poem in quotes.

One More Example

Here’s a cento about spring. This poem doesn’t rhyme.

Speak gently, Spring, and make no sudden sound, (Lew Sarett)

I’d much rather sit there in the sun. (Krauss)

The golden crocus reaches up, (Crane)

And everywhere the great green smell, (Worth)

A coat of clover cloaks the hills. (Prelutsky)

The wind is passing through, (Rossetti)

Stirs the dancing daffodil  (Coleridge)

Deep in their long-stemmed world. (Brown)


Lew Sarett, “Four Little Foxes
Ruth Krauss, “Song”
Walter Crane, “The Crocus
Kathryn Worth, “Smells
Jack Prelutsky, “The Four Seasons
Christina Rossetti, “Who Has Seen the Wind?”
Sara Coleridge, “The Months
Margaret Wise Brown, “Green Stems”

Are you ready to try writing your own cento poem?

Copyright © 2008 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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Photo: Cindy Funk, courtesy of Creative Commons

Risky business

Risky business!

Writing a business letter

As students enter junior high and high school, it’s time for them to practice writing business letters. Whether writing to a company to offer praise for a product or addressing a city councilman about a neighborhood eyesore, using a  more formal business-letter format adds credibility to the sender’s request, position, or opinion.

In WriteShop II, we teach students how to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. The example composition in the student workbook urges the governor, by way of a letter to the editor, to take action on a bill. With a few word changes, the letter could just as easily address the governor himself.

The point of the lesson, of course, is to help students articulate a concern and seek or suggest action. The audience can be a member of any political, social, or commercial group as long as the student is learning how to address such a person with polite conviction.

Who’s the Audience? 

But if your children need an audience for their letters, and the daily newspaper isn’t the outlet that seems to work for them, you might suggest a different audience. Some ideas that spring to mind:

  • City council member
  • State legislator
  • State representative
  • Governor
  • Owner or developer of a property (eyesore, maintenance issues, health and safety concerns, etc.)
  • Owner of a local business
  • President or CEO of a corporation
  • College or university admissions department
  • Chamber of Commerce (to request brochures or travel information)

If you shift away from the letter to the editor and instead have your student address her letter to one of the above-suggested recipients, consider teaching her how to format a business letter. Since WriteShop doesn’t teach business-letter structure, this would be an added tool in her writing belt.

When to Write a Business Letter

  • To praise a product, service supplier, or staff person
  • To compliment a speaker
  • To compliment or praise an author
  • To praise someone for an achievement
  • To complain about poor product quality or poor service
  • To ask for political or social action or change
  • To write a letter of recommendation
  • To request information

Would you like to teach the business letter to your kids? Here’s a link to a site that models several kinds: WriteExpress.com (Business Letters)

WriteShop IIWriteShop II teaches advanced descriptive narration, persuasion, and beginning essay writing (including timed essays). To learn more about WriteShop II for your high schooler, visit our website at www.writeshop.com.

Learning disabilities and writing | Part 1

Learning Disabilities and Writing | Part 1

Part 1: The Problem

My son is a brain. What can I say? He’s in England right now finishing up his master’s degree in philosophical theology. I can’t read most of his papers, but not because they’re illegible. His vocabulary simply surpassed mine years ago.

He was a smart child, too, assembling complicated Lego creations with the skill of a trained artisan and the patience of Job. And he was a verbal little guy who could spin stories around the campfire that kept us glued to our logs!

We were grateful for those glimpses into his bright young mind because academically, that boy struggled at every turn. He had an ear for literature and knew all sorts of historical facts and details. But the three Rs eluded him. He finally learned to read (sort of) at age 7, but couldn’t manage chapter books till he was 11 or 12. And writing? Forget it! His hand and shoulders tensed and cramped as he gripped his pencil in a stranglehold.

Illegible handwriting. Horrible spelling. Letters and words that ran together like ink in the rain. And an overall aversion to anything having to do with pencil and paper.

Although Ben wasn’t diagnosed with a specific learning disability, he did have a kinesthetic deficit (and perhaps some sensory processing issues) that created learning challenges and caused him to exhibit symptoms of dysgraphia.

I’m no expert in the area of special needs, but let me give a brief overview of three common learning difficulties, including dysgraphia, that can affect the writing process.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity and can lead to a variety of academic problems. The ADHD writer’s symptoms often include:

  • disorganization
  • lack of focus and general distractability
  • difficulty paying attention to detail
  • making careless errors
  • having trouble finishing assignments
  • avoiding writing projects that require the student to stay mentally focused


Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that can produce its own set of writing difficulties. The dysgraphic writer’s symptoms include:

  • poor or illegible handwriting
  • holding his pencil in a death grip
  • avoiding writing at all cost
  • using the shortest words instead of the best words
  • strong oral/verbal skills but difficulty communicating ideas in writing
  • problems forming letters
  • poor word and line spacing


Dyslexia, though a reading disorder, can affect the learning process in writing and spelling as well. Dyslexic students usually show a big gap between their ability to tell you something and their ability to write it down. In addition, the dyslexic student’s symptoms can include:

  • avoiding writing whenever possible
  • laborious, often illegible handwriting
  • problems with sentence structure
  • long run-on sentences
  • incomplete sentences
  • poor spelling
  • poor word and line spacing
  • difficulty proofreading his own work (or appearing careless) because he can’t see his errors.

No doubt about it, writing is a tough subject for most of us to teach. But if our kids have been diagnosed with a learning disability, the challenge is magnified. I want to encourage you that there’s hope for teaching your own learning-challenged child.

Though I tried to teach Ben to write using the conventional methods that worked with his sisters, something just wasn’t clicking. Bursting with ideas, he couldn’t manage to transfer his thoughts to paper.

So how did that boy make the leap from struggling student to academic A-list? Honestly, I can’t pin it on any one thing. Rather, a number of factors contributed to his turnaround, including the teachings of the late Dr. Raymond Moore, high school involvement in homeschool speech and debate, and WriteShop.

What worked for us may not work for you, though I’m sure you already know that. Still, there are some universal principles that might help you over the hurdle. I encourage you to check back next Monday for Part 2 in our series on Learning Disabilities and Writing. I promise to share all sorts of tips and solutions for helping your struggling writer.

Copyright © 2008 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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A real proof copy. Really!


I’m beginning to think someone has let a gremlin loose between the pages of WriteShop Primary.

Maybe that cute little tiger has secretly gone undercover to wreak havoc moving bullet points and misspelling words.

In the last week alone, David has sent me four—yes, four—“this-really-is-the-final” versions of Book A. And every time I think I’ve found all the bugs, I spot something else.

  • A title that didn’t get underlined.
  • An activity that needs to be italicized.
  • Yet ANOTHER misspelled word.
  • An index reference that takes you to…um…the index.
  • A schedule chart that’s missing half the activities.
  • Text that’s “leaking” out of its text box.

Mind you, this is after five pairs of eyes have scoured the pages of this book. I laugh as I email David, that patient saint, for the zillionth time: “How DO we keep missing this stuff?”

It just never ends! :) But we knew that at some point we would simply have to say: No more. Done. Finished. 

So yesterday we closed Book A, sent the PDF file off to the printer, and ordered three proofs. My copy sits before me now, ready for the last sweep of the red pen. Ready for the final list of tweaks.

Yep, yesterday was huge for us. And today I can announce with great excitement that I now have a real proof copy of WriteShop Primary Book A in my hands. Really!

Pinch me. We’re almost there!

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