12 favorite posts from 2012

The words are on everyone’s lips: Where did 2012 go?

I wonder that too. What a full, busy, interesting year! As I look back at the blog over this past year, I thought it would be fun to highlight each month’s most popular post. Which was your favorite blog post during 2012?


10 Writing Truths for Teens


Editing Tools for Young Writers


Book Report Sandwich


Build Skills with Puzzles and Word Games


The Pain of Grading Writing


5 Summer Writing Activities from Pinterest



4 Things You’re {Already} Doing to Raise a Writer 


4 Tips for Writing College Application Essays


RMS Lusitania - Free Pictures at Historical Stock Photos.com

Creating a Historical Newspaper


Grammar Skills Your Kids Must Learn


Playing in the Grass by PatrickLim1996

10 Ways to Reduce Writing Stress


6 Christmas Journal Prompts

6 Christmas Journal Prompts That Make Writing Merrier

I’m looking forward to all that 2013 has in store. I  hope you’ll join me as together we inspire and motivate our young writers!

The magic of 3

Learning specialist Kendra Wagner joins us today as a guest blogger.

“The Magic of 3

Ask teachers what is meant by this phrase and they will likely answer: “The 3 body paragraphs of a 5-paragraph essay.”


I tell my students that the 5-part essay is designed to frame your thinking and make you a smarter person! It is a model of speaking or writing that is common across the professions of law, public speaking, journalism, and storytelling.

I make the analogy to football practice, with a warm-up, 3 main drills, and a cool-down. I also explain how, in the courtroom, TV and movie lawyers use 3 arguments with a short intro and their concluding statements. This wakes the kids up.

Ah, the power of what happens on a screen.


Notice I didn’t call it the “Rule of 3”  because there are many strategies to becoming a skilled writer, and many “right” ways to write.

Some kids find freedom in this, but others find it restricting: Why can’t writing be more like math? One correct answer. One correct way of constructing a sentence.

When these students beg to write only two body paragraphs, or a hefty four, I’ll let them if they make a good case for why a book character makes only two turning-point decisions in their novel, or for why the science museum might only have two interesting exhibits.

While the “Magic of 3” makes a great template to hang a child’s hat on, it should not be too rigidly enforced. Though a powerful paper can consist of two body paragraphs with compelling reasons or examples, these usually work best after establishing a comfort zone with the “Magic of 3.”

More Applications of the Magic of 3

The “Magic of 3” doesn’t stop with main points and paragraphs; it also applies to sentence building and word choice. I think you’ll find the following tips helpful as you guide your budding writers.

3 Topic Sentences

Here’s a good guideline: require students to come up with 3 options for a topic sentence (or thesis statement), and then choose one for their story or essay. This encourages prevention of topic sentence phobia, and reinforces the idea that there is no single right way to write.

3 Powerhouse Verbs and Adjectives

During the revising process, when students’ writing seems flat (or “wimpy,” as some of my middle schoolers call it), it is likely missing some powerhouse verbs and interesting adjectives.

Offer this guideline for powerhouse verbs: For every 3 long sentences, there should be at least 3 strong emotion or action verbs somewhere within those 3 sentences. (For 4th grade and above, a long sentence = 10-25 words.)

There should also be 3 adjectives, which can be as simple as color or number words.

These verbs and adjectives can be distributed in any way across the 3 sentences. Not every sentence needs one.

First try: We went to the water park. I liked the Geronimo slide best, but my brother was scared. It was hot and we all had fun and then went home.

Revision: We played all day at the water park and slid down ten slides. My favorite was a fast one called Geronimo, and it was the scariest, so my brother hung onto me as we skidded down. We beat the heat by staying in the water all day.

Verbs: played, slid, hung, skidded, beat, staying
Adjectives: ten, favorite, fast, scariest

3 Conjunctions

When kids are stuck at short, simple sentences, suggest using one of the 3 most common conjunctionsand, but, so—in the middle of the sentence, with a full sentence on either side of the conjunction. This is known as a compound sentence.

First try: I really like soccer. I get to do a lot of skill practice. It is all year round.
Revision: Soccer is a way to improve a lot of different skills, and you can practice and play year-round.

First try: There are many ways to use time wisely doing homework.
Revision: Homework is important, but students need to find ways to use their time wisely to get the most out of it.

3 Sentence Builders

When students need to improve word retrieval, sentence development, and ease with writing in a show, don’t tell style, provide the following drill practice. Have them create single, unrelated sentences using at least of the “5 Ws and How” in each sentence. For example:

After the long meeting, Lucy raced home in a flash to feed her dog, who was waiting on the porch.

  • when
  • who
  • how
  • why
  • where

Thanks to Kendra Wagner for guest blogging today! A learning specialist in Seattle, Kendra teaches children reading, writing, and thinking skills. Her specialty in ADD and dyslexia grew out of her work in schools as a reading specialist and consultant. She has a particular interest in written expression and helping unearth children’s voice. Visit Kendra’s websiteblog, and Facebook page.

Photos: lollyknit and rodimuspower, courtesy of Creative Commons.


6 Christmas journal prompts that make writing merrier!

6 Christmas journal prompts that make writing merrier!

During the holidays, it’s always fun to take a break from your regular writing assignments and let the children have some fun with writing prompts. Try these on for size!

1. A Doggone Exciting Christmas

Pretend that you are a wriggly, wiggly, roly-poly puppy, and you have been chosen as a Christmas present for a boy or girl.

  • First, tell how you feel saying good-bye to your family.
  • Then, describe being placed in a box under the tree.
  • Finally, write about what it’s like to meet your new friend and owner.

2. Elf Life

You are an elf who works at the North Pole. Write a paragraph describing a typical workday.

3. Extreme Makeover, Christmas-Style

6 Christmas journal prompts that make writing merrier!Your elderly neighbor’s holiday decorations always attract crowds. This year, unfortunately, she broke her leg and can’t decorate her house for Christmas. She has asked you to do it for her and has given you the cash you need to buy any supplies.

Decide on a theme, and describe what you will do to decorate her house.

4. How to Build a Snowman

Your pen pal in Hawaii has never seen snow. Write a letter to her explaining the steps to making a snowman.

5. Grounded!

Imagine that your family has made plans to visit relatives for the holidays. Write about what happens when flights are cancelled because of a blizzard, and you find yourselves stuck in the airport on Christmas Eve. Can your family make the best of a difficult situation?

6. It’s Traditional

6 Christmas journal prompts that make writing merrier!Most families have special Christmas traditions. Write about one tradition your family enjoys. Does your mom bake a certain kind of cookie each year? Do you assemble shoe boxes filled with gifts for needy children? Chop down your own Christmas tree? Sing Christmas carols at a retirement home?

Describe this tradition, and explain how it first started (you may have to ask a parent or grandparent). Include some descriptive details.

Photos: John Mayer,  Iryna Yeroshko, and Young Rok Chang, courtesy of Creative Commons.

10 tips to improve your child’s reading skills

Whether your child is falling behind or you want to give her a headstart in reading, here are some easy things you can do to improve reading skills.

YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD a dozen times that reading and writing often go hand-in-hand. So to raise kids who can write, it only makes sense that reading should be a big part of their lives!

Children develop at very different rates, so the speed at which they learn to read can vary widely. Whether you’re concerned that your child is falling behind, or you simply want to give her a head start in reading so she has the best possible chance in life, there are a number of easy things you can do to improve reading skills.

1. Read together every day

The best thing you can do is read daily with your child. If she is a reluctant reader, you could take turns reading pages or sentences, depending on her age. Remember that practice makes perfect, so set aside some reading time every day.

2. Make reading fun

Your child’s reading is not likely to improve rapidly if she sees it as a chore. Try to make it as fun as possible by being creative. For example, if your child loves to read mysteries, why not settle down together with a favorite spy book and read by flashlight?

3. Surround your child with reading material

Many children will read everything they see around them, so the more they see, the better. Keep books and magazines readily available, of course, but also think outside the box. For example, rather than putting the breakfast cereal away as soon as you’ve poured it, why not set it in front of them on the table and let them read the back panel? To help very early readers, put name labels on doors, windows, pieces of furniture to help them learn everyday words.

4. Use a wide variety of formats

If your child really enjoys using an e-reader or computer, allow him to do this for some of his daily reading time. New technologies can be quite educational as long as they don’t completely replace more traditional methods and formats.

5. Provide plenty of cross-curricular reading activities

Offer historical fiction and interesting nonfiction books on a history or geography topic your kids are currently studying. The reading materials will enhance and reinforce the subject matter, and the children won’t even be aware that the task is designed to help improve reading skills.

6. Try audiobooks

Let the kids listen to an audiobook in the car (or at night before they go to sleep). Audiobooks can motivate a reluctant reader, appeal to auditory learners, and foster a real love of books in any child. If they have some daily reading time alone, why not put on an audiobook and encourage them to follow the text with their eyes as they listen? This way, they will learn many new words.

7. Use learning games

Flashcards and other games are invaluable for learning individual words or word families, and you can play a variety of games with them, such as the Card Match Game or Flyswatter Game, both found at Ten Ways to Turn Lessons into Games. With younger children, use colorful picture flashcards to capture their imagination and keep them engaged.

8. Go to the library

The library can open up a whole new world for your children! Not only can they choose books from a wide range of topics and genres, but the skills they develop in searching for books by subject area or alphabetically by author’s name will be helpful to them in the future. Librarians can guide you toward books that are both fun and suitable for each child’s reading level.

9. Find a genre that they really enjoy

As your children get older, help them discover new genres. If they fall in love with fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, mysteries, or historical fiction, let them read from this genre to their heart’s content. This is not to restrict them to a genre, but to help them develop a real passion for reading.

10. Participate in reading contests

During school holidays, many libraries and community centers offer reading groups or reading and story-writing contests. Nothing will motivate your child to read as many books as possible over the summer like the possibility of winning prizes!

Photo: kthompsonstudios, originally made available on Flickr, courtesy of Creative Commons.


Christmas writing prompt…with a compassionate twist

Unique Christmas writing prompt gets kids thinking about what it would be like to receive a gift when you have nothing of your own

AT THIS time of year, my husband and I always look forward to poring through the gift catalogs that come in the mail.

Not the “gimmee” catalogs from Macy’s or Target or Pottery Barn, but the catalogs that come from such worthy organizations as World Vision, Compassion, and Samaritan’s Purse, offering us a chance to buy a really special, greatly appreciated gift for a child or family in need.

In the past, we’ve given chickens and ducks, a goat, and even the gift of clean drinking water for life.

Compassionate Giving

As a family, look through one of these online catalogs, and prayerfully consider giving a unique Christmas gift:

  • Domestic animals not only provide a steady stream of eggs or milk, but also bring a bit of income from selling the extras.
  • 5 fruit trees can give a poverty-stricken family a fresh start in fruit-tree farming.
  • A new soccer ball can replace the rounded wad of trash used as a makeshift ball by barefoot boys.
  • Just $35 can buy 10 times that amount in life-saving medicines.
  • Garden seeds will grow into a harvest that can sustain a family.

Compassionate Writing

As you look for ways to stir compassion in your children’s hearts, here’s a related writing activity to try. Whether or not you’re able to participate in compassionate giving, this Christmas writing prompt will get your kids thinking about what it would be like to receive a gift when you have little or nothing of your own.

  1. Visit the Compassion or World Vision website and read about several children who need sponsors. Choose one as the basis for your story.
  2. Browse through one of their online catalogs and choose a gift you think this child’s family would like to receive.
  3. Write two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, describe what daily life is like for this child in your own words. You may write in first person (imagining yourself to be the child) or in third person (as an outside observer or narrator).
  4. In the second paragraph, describe the child’s reaction to receiving their special gift.

The very best gift of all would be to actually sponsor one of these sweet children as a family! We’ve sponsored children both through Compassion and World Vision, and it has been a tremendous experience for us. Once you’ve become sponsors, you and your children can develop and foster a warm relationship with your sponsored child (and build important writing skills!) through regular letter-writing.

Do you already sponsor a child? Share your experience in the comments!

Photo: Erik Hersman, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Synonym bingo

GAMES ARE such a great way of teaching or practicing skills. When an activity is fun and engaging, learning happens more naturally. The best part? The kids don’t even realize they’re doing “schoolwork”!

To give your children practice with synonyms and help them better understand the subtlety of word meanings, play Synonym Bingo!


Printable bingo cards (blank or customizable)

Synonym word lists such as:

Bingo markers such as pennies or dried beans


  1. Choose 24 synonym pairs from one of your word lists. Circle one word from each pair. This will become your call list.
  2. If printing out blank bingo cards: Write the other word from each pair in a different square on the bingo cards. If several children are playing, scramble the order of the words so the cards are different from one another. Words on the card should not be synonyms of other words on the card. For example, write “large” or “big,” but not both.
  3. If using customizable cards: Type the words as directed by the website. It will generate the customized bingo cards and create a PDF for you to print.
  4. To play the game, call out one of the circled words on your list. Players then place a marker on the corresponding synonym. Play continues until a child covers five squares in a row either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.


  • Give a list of 24 words to your child (but not their synonyms). Let her think of a synonym for each word and write it in a square. Use the list as your call list.
  • Play the game using homophones or antonyms.

Free writing games! {and a WriteShop coupon}

IT’S BLACK FRIDAY weekend, and WriteShop has some goodies for you!

1. FREEBIE: Writing Games and Activities

First, we want to bless you with a special freebie to download and enjoy with your children!

They’ll love this assortment of writing activities, including:

  • “Where in the World” pre-writing game helps children plan an exciting setting for a story
  • 30 kid-friendly writing prompts for both older and younger children
  • A fun sentence-building game

Grab your download from the pop-up window by visiting WriteShop’s shop at Homeschool Block!

 2. WriteShop Coupon: Save 20%!

While many shoppers are fighting crowds, others prefer taking advantage of online specials from the comfort of home. How about you?

We love our customers, so we’re offering a rare 20% discount on WriteShop products, valid through December 2, 2012. If you’re looking for the next WriteShop level for the new semester, or you’re thinking ahead to next year, now’s your chance to get those books at a great price!

The coupon code is included in the free Writing Games download.


5 {fun} Thanksgiving writing prompts

5 Fun Thanksgiving Writing Prompts

IT CAN get pretty hectic around the house in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Instead of assigning your children their normal writing schoolwork, why not take a little break and let them choose one of these clever creative writing prompts? For added fun, have them read their stories after Thanksgiving dinner!

1. Gobble! Gobble! Tweet!

Imagine you are the Thanksgiving turkey. It is your good fortune to discover that the Farmer accidentally left the door to the house ajar. You sneak in unnoticed. Quickly, you find the computer and login to Twitter.

You have just enough time to type five tweets. What will you say to your followers in no more than 140 characters per tweet?

2. Invitation to Dinner

5 {fun} Thanksgiving writing prompts for kidsSuppose you can invite one special person, living or dead, to share your family’s Thanksgiving dinner this year. Would you choose a favorite relative who lives far away? A famous explorer you have studied in school? The Queen of England? Your best friend who moved away?

Think about who you would invite, and then write down 10 questions you would like to ask this person.

3. Thanksgiving Traditions

5 {fun} Thanksgiving writing prompts for kidsWhat does your family do for Thanksgiving? Do you host a big gathering at your house? Do you travel to another state to visit grandparents? Is Thanksgiving a small get-together, or is the house packed with friends and family? Who does the cooking? Does your family have traditions, such as playing games, watching football, or putting puzzles together?

Write about how you spend Thanksgiving, describing the sights, sounds, flavors, and aromas of the day. Use this Thanksgiving Word Bank if you need help thinking of strong, descriptive words.

4. Leaf Pile Adventure

5 {fun} Thanksgiving writing prompts for kidsAfter Thanksgiving dinner, you and your cousin decide to explore the neighborhood. At the end of the street, you notice a giant pile of leaves.

Together, you make a running start and leap right into the middle of the pile! Suddenly, the ground opens up beneath you, and you find yourselves sliding down a steep slide.

Write a story about what happens when you land at the bottom of the slide. Where are you? Include three different things that happen on your adventure, and conclude your story by telling how you and your cousin get back home.

5. A Feast of Favorites

5 {fun} Thanksgiving writing prompts for kids
At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and Indians ate foods such as wild turkey, venison, berries, squash, corn, roasted eels, and shellfish.

If you could go back in time to that historic event, what would you bring to share with your new friends? Make a list of 3-5 of your personal favorite Thanksgiving foods, and describe each one.

. . . . .

If you enjoyed these fun Thanksgiving writing prompts, be sure to check back each week for more Writing Prompt Wednesdays!

Photos: Mark DumontCliff, Kevin K, OakleyOriginals, and Steve Johnson courtesy of Creative Commons.

10 ways to reduce writing stress

Does writing stress out your kids and challenge you as a homeschool mom? Reduce writing stress by making simple adjustments to your teaching routine.

TEACHING WRITING can seem complicated and stressful—and for many homeschoolers, it’s the most challenging, stress-inducing subject you teach. But you can lighten the load with a few small, simple adjustments to your normal teaching attempts. Try these ten tips on for size!

1. Don’t let your child go it alone.

At every age, your child needs your involvement in the writing process, not just to give editing feedback, but to instruct and model. Like teaching your child to wash the car, crochet a hat, or clean the hamster cage, you’ll need to remain involved until she is confidently and successfully progressing.

2. Give guidelines for the assignment.

What’s one of the most frustrating assignments you can give a reluctant child? Believe it or not, just ask her to “write about whatever she wants.” While it seems that this should inspire her, it can actually shut down her creativity altogether. Why? Because without guidelines, she feels like she’s been tossed into a vast ocean and told to swim for shore!

Instead, provide clear instructions and lesson boundaries, which make her feel more secure.

3. Offer choices.

An unmotivated student may benefit from having choices, such as deciding between several writing topics or choosing whether to do his writing assignment at his desk or the kitchen table.

4. Plan before writing.

When a student goes off on rabbit trails, he loses his focus and ends up with writing that’s awkward or hard to follow. Help him create an outline or use a graphic organizer before he begins so he’s less likely to wander off the path. Work together, modeling the brainstorming process for your child.

5. Just write!

Though it’s tempting for your student to try to correct everything as he goes, have him finish his rough draft without wrestling with every word, phase, and sentence. That’s what revising is for!

6. Kick perfectionism to the curb.

Perfectionism—personal pressure to “get it right the first time”—is the mother of all stumbling blocks and the key contributor to writer’s block. Don’t get hung up on perfection. Your child can always improve the rough draft. Remember: the creative process isn’t always neat, tidy, and measured, and it’s certainly not perfect!

7. Give your teen frequent essay practice.

Regularly assign essays related to other subjects of study such as literature and history. Practicing often with essay writing of all types—including timed essays—will make college writing that much less stressful.

Read About It Later

8. Give deadlines.

Establish a due date for each writing assignment. When you don’t give a deadline, you imply that your child can put the task off indefinitely. Set a cut-off date and stick to it.

9. Use writing checklists.

Children should begin using a checklist as a guide to help them identify errors in content, style, and mechanics. A checklist makes self-editing more objective by offering specific expectations to meet.

10. Bless your student’s writing efforts.

Before you make a single correction on your student’s paper, affirm her by helping her discover what’s right about her story or report, not just what needs fixing.

Your Turn!

Be brave! Which of these 10 tips will you try this week? Share in the comment section below.

Photos: Patrick Lim, Caleb Roenigk, and Alena Navarro-Whyte courtesy of Creative Commons.

Writing distractions: That pesky “person from Porlock”

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Like superheroes, great pieces of writing often have an origin story. In the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous unfinished poem “Kubla Khan,” it’s a doozy.

Coleridge claims the poem came to him complete and entire, something like 300 lines’ worth, in a dream as he dozed off in his chair after taking laudanum (an aspect of the literary life best avoided when instructing young writers).

He set to work writing down his vision, but only got through about 30 lines before, Coleridge says, he became sidetracked by a “person on business from Porlock” who detained him for a full hour.

When the visitor finally left, Coleridge found he’d forgotten the rest of the poem.

Dealing with Writing Distractions

It has been disputed whether Coleridge’s explanation is an accurate account of “Kubla Khan’s” genesis, or might itself be merely a fancy, a fiction, meant to add even more mystery to his beautiful and enigmatic poem. Either way, the “person from Porlock” has become a literary icon:

He represents two equally important aspects of writing: the distractions and competing social obligations a writer faces in the real world, as well as our tendency to make excuses.

Shutting out the world when we write is both impossible and, to some extent, necessary. So what are we to do? The answer can be summed up in one word: boundaries. The act of writing should (generally) be taught as a purposefully solitary effort bounded with a beginning and an end.

Writing by the Clock

I highly recommend sticking to a disciplined timetable for any writing assignment. (If this is challenging for you or your older students, the free download The Pomodoro Technique might be worth a read.)

Taking your child’s age and skill level into account, set the alarm for 30 or 60 or 90 minutes, however long the project (or a good-enough-sized chunk of it) seems to require. Don’t set the timer for less than 15 minutes, though, as that’s too short to accomplish much. After all, your kids will just be getting warmed up! Nor should you set it for longer than 90 minutes at a time, as they’ll burn themselves out without scheduled breaks.

Say No to Interruptions

Finally, don’t feel guilty about shutting off any non-emergency contact during that time.

person from Porlock, writing distractions, writing focus

This part is getting a lot more difficult. Coleridge’s interrupter just happened to be walking around town. What chance do you (or your students) have in this Twitter age when distractions come by the microsecond?

If you want to give yourself to a piece of writing (and you’ll need to for it to be any good), the phone must be turned off.

Then, when you turn it back on, it feels like a reward.

Setting aside time and space for your creative work improves the rest of your day. Give yourself permission to be done after a while and return to normal life, where you can attend to the other million things on your mind or just do as you please. Don’t forget to pay some attention to your friends and family.

Even that person from Porlock.

. . . . .

Thanks to Lauren Bailey for her guest post. Lauren is a freelance blogger who loves writing about education, new technology, lifestyle and health. She welcomes comments and questions via email at blauren99@gmail.com.

Photos: alexderhead, courtesy of Creative Commons, and Stockxchng.
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