Entries from October 2012 ↓

Grammar skills your kids must learn

Want people to take your kids' writing more seriously? Teach these important grammar and punctuation skills!DID YOU know that emus can’t walk backward or that an iguana can stay underwater for nearly 30 minutes?

Did you know that The Battle of Bunker Hill was actually fought at neighboring Breed’s Hill or that the state of Maryland has no natural lakes?

While these bits of trivia are interesting (and fun to learn during studies of science, history, or geography), they don’t need to take up permanent residence in your kids’ brain cells.

On the other hand, certain concepts should be so ingrained in your children’s minds that there’s no way they’ll misuse or forget them—including important rules of writing mechanics. Why? Because better grammar contributes to better writing!

Let’s look at three areas of grammar and punctuation every child must master.

Apostrophes, Possessives, and Plurals

Everywhere I look, it seems, random apostrophes are turning up incorrectly in words meant to be plural, not possessive:

No dog’s allowed
Closed Sunday’s and Monday’s
Wanted: Chef’s and Cook’s
No shoe’s, no shirt, no service

Other times, they’re just misused altogether:

Ladie’s Apparel Sale
Life at it’s best

The correct use of plural and possessive forms may seem like a minor issue. Among educated persons, however, incorrect forms, especially misuses of apostrophes, stand out like red flags. One area executive has said he will not hire an applicant whose letter or résumé includes such an error.” ~Meredith College Grammar Review

Teach your children to use apostrophes correctly. A quick Google search will yield pages of helpful rules, tips, and practice exercises—as well as many humorous examples of apostrophe abuse. Here are a few links to get you started:

Homophones

Homophones are words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same—and confusion among them contributes to all sorts of writing problems. Common sets of homophones such as except/accept, peek/peak/pique, and principal/principle can trip up both kids and adults. Worse, spell-check won’t catch tricky errors because it’s about meaning, not spelling.

While some people may not care whether a Facebook friend types your instead of you’re, it’s definitely a problem when it comes between a student and an “A” paper or a job applicant and the position he’s applying for.

Like apostrophe misuse, homophone mix-ups can cause the writer to seem uneducated or ignorant, so it’s important to begin teaching children when they’re young to distinguish between these confusing words.

Comma Splices, Run-ons, and Fragments

Commas can be tricky. They’re either overused, underused, or just plain misused! One of the worst culprits is the comma splice, in which the writer sticks a comma instead of a period between independent clauses.

I’m tired of all this rain, I wish the sun would come out again.

Run-ons (also called fused sentences) are “comma splices without the commas.”

I ate deep-fried pickles and Twinkies at the fair they were both delicious.

Sentence fragments are also known as incomplete sentences. Fragments are missing a verb, a subject, or both.

On the other hand, leafy green vegetables.
Running all the way to the wall without stopping.

If your children have trouble with comma splices, run-ons, or sentence fragments, follow these links for helpful rules, games, and tips:

It’s All about Practice!

These are among the most important grammar skills kids must learn. Don’t turn a blind eye to your children’s mistakes. They need to hear these rules over and over again, and they need much practice to reinforce proper usage and develop new habits. Why not pick one problem area, such as comma splices or its vs. it’s, and work on it regularly until your child experiences frequent success? You’ll put her one step closer to becoming a more confident writer.

YOUR TURN: Which of these common errors seems to give your child the most trouble?

Copyright 2012 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

It just gets punnier!

Laughing dog

I’M ALWAYS on the lookout for writing humor to brighten your week. Are you ready for your daily chuckle?

  • They told me I had type A blood, but it was a type-O.
  • Why were the Indians here first? They had reservations.
  • Field trip to the Coca-Cola factory—I hope there’s no pop quiz.
  • Broken pencils are pointless.
  • Did you hear the Energizer Bunny got arrested? Charged with battery.
  • I didn’t like my beard at first. Then it grew on me.
  • Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?
  • What does a clock do when it’s hungry? It goes back four seconds.
  • I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me!
  • I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.

These puns may be real groaners, but I see that smile! Do you have a favorite pun to share?

Photo: Rachael, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Are you turning your child off to writing?

DO YOUR KIDS hate writing? I totally empathize with you—my son was the poster boy for reluctant writers!

These children approach a blank sheet of paper with emotions ranging from boredom to fear. Each attempt produces frenzied erasures, gray smudges, or tears of frustration.

They don’t get why writing is so hard (or worse, why they’re so bad at it), and they wallow in a whole heap of failure.

Homeschooling mamas want to create an atmosphere that fosters a love of writing. We want our kids to feel comfortable around paper and pencil—to know how to organize a brainful of lively thoughts and express them in written form. But sometimes we get in the way of our own goals.

YOU MAY BE TURNING YOUR KIDS OFF TO WRITING IF …

> You expect too much independence.

Younger students may not be ready to write on their own. After all, there’s a lot involved in getting an idea from brain to paper! By the time a child wrestles with spelling or punctuation or a cramped hand, he’s completely lost his grip on that “great” idea, and it vanishes into thin air.

So how much help should you give? As much as your child needs to feel successful.

While our girls were comfortable with writing at a young age, Ben had a terrible time forming words—let alone writing entire stories—even at age 10. Instead of squishing the life out of his creative thoughts, I let him dictate his stories to me as I wrote them down. In time, as he gained confidence and skill, he took over more and more of the writing until he was able to work independently.

> Writing assignments are too vague.

Want to sound the death knell for your child? Tell him to write about anything he wants!

While some children have the confidence, creativity, and interest to embrace this freedom, most just stare glumly at their paper as anxiety mounts:

I can’t think of anything to write about!
How long does it have to be?
What if I do it wrong?

A good assignment always includes clear goals; you’re establishing boundaries for your children when you provide specific guidelines.

1. Define the nature of the assignment

  • Write a book report.
  • Describe a place.
  • Explain how to do a task.

2. Explain the assignment’s purpose.

  • Is it an exercise designed to build skills, or will it follow the writing process and become a polished final draft?
  • Will this become a report to accompany a science project, or is it simply an explanation of a concept to demonstrate his understanding?

3. Make sure tasks are specific and clear.

  • Write one 5- to 7-sentence paragraph.
  • Include a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Using all five senses, describe your favorite dessert.

4. Break the assignment into bite-size steps.

  • Give mini due dates along the way.
  • Check your child’s work so you can offer encouragement and suggestions.

> You consider games and crafts “fluff.”

Most children learn best through hands-on activities, which help your child associate writing with fun! So rather than look at pre-writing activities as busy work, think of them as vital teaching aids. Let them play Mad Libs® or other word games to improve vocabulary, boost creativity, and teach skills.

Start here to find loads of writing activities for different ages.

> You focus on their mistakes.

As you edit your child’s paper, resist the inclination to draw blood from it by attacking every error with your red pen. Yes, you will be distracted by spelling errors, run-on sentences, and misused apostrophes, but don’t let them prevent you from getting to the heart of your child’s message.

Whether or not writing comes easily and naturally, your child has a great emotional attachment to his words. If you criticize his writing, he feels personally attacked.

Instead, search for the good!

  • Identify areas of growth.
  • Offer encouraging comments.
  • Point out places that show improvement over earlier assignments.
  • Highlight examples of strong word choice or proper sentence structure.

Writing is definitely a fluid process—and it can be taught many different ways. But with a few adjustments in attitude and approach, you can help your reluctant writers turn the corner. Where will you begin?

Photo credit: stevendepolo via photopin cc

Why active verbs trump “to be” words

Using lively, concrete verbs helps students achieve their goal of painting a vivid word picture in the reader's mind

FREQUENT USE of “to be” verbs typically results in weak or passive writing, while active writing draws readers in and keeps them interested. Using lively, concrete verbs helps students achieve their goal of painting a vivid word picture in the reader’s mind.

Your child might write a sentence like this:

My dogs were fast.

While true, it certainly doesn’t conjure up a concrete image. Notice how much more descriptively your child could express his dogs’ speed by using active verbs:

My dogs tore around the field.
My dogs flew like the wind.
My dogs raced across the grass.

What a difference! Coupled with a descriptive prepositional phrase, active verbs lend precise meaning to a once-vague sentence.

You’ll never hear me say it’s wrong or bad to use “to be” verbs; I use them myself! Just help your children become aware of how often they use words like “is” and “was,” and train them not to use these words in excess.

What Are “To Be” Words?

Every student should memorize this short list:

  • is
  • am
  • are
  • was
  • were
  • be
  • being
  • been

Ways to Avoid “To Be” Verbs

Teach your kids to choose active, descriptive verbs. Sometimes a writer can simply replace a “to be” verb with a more specific verb. Other times, he must rearrange the sentence in order for his writing to still make sense. The more sentence variations a student has in his tool kit, the easier it becomes for him to rearrange sentences.

Students should avoid “to be” words when:

  1. Another verb will make the point more clearly.
  2. They find they have already used too many “to be” words.
  3. The writing lacks action.

Weak: Vegetables were being sold by farmers at the produce stand.
Active: Farmers sold vegetables at the produce stand

Weak: A glass of orange juice was refreshing to Monroe.
Active: Monroe drank a refreshing glass of orange juice.

Weak: The first step is to get soap, a bucket, and some old rags.
Active: First, gather soap, a bucket, and some old rags.

Weak: Being lazy and sloppy, Mark never makes his bed.
Active: Lazy and sloppy, Mark never makes his bed.

Weak: Rowan is much taller than Seth.
Active: Rowan towers over Seth.

Weak: Janna is a disciplined, hardworking pitcher for the Rockets.
Active: Hardworking and disciplined, Janna pitches for the Rockets.

Weak: My bike was hit by a car which was being driven by an elderly lady who was in an old sedan.
Active: An elderly lady driving an old sedan struck my bike.

Should We Ban Them?

“To be” verbs play an important role in our language. However, unless you train your child to watch for, avoid, and judiciously replace these words, they will dominate his writing.

Active verbs speak powerfully, while weak verbs say little. {via WriteShop}WriteShop doesn’t forbid their use, but early on in WriteShop I, assignments begin to limit the number of “to be” words a student may use in each composition. To help students avoid “to be” words, WriteShop I encourages them to expand their vocabulary and use sentence variations.

Strong verb use doesn’t stop when a child graduates from high school. Several years ago, a friend took an English class at our local community college. My friend said the instructor only allowed his college students one form of “to be” per typed page!

It’s not that these words should be forever banned; it’s just that active verbs speak powerfully, while weak verbs say little. Limiting students’ use of “to be” verbs forces them to think about their sentence structure and choose their words more wisely.

Your Turn!

  1. Give your children the list of weak sentences only (above). See if they can come up with ways to replace the “to be” word in each. Share a few of their new sentences in the comments!
  2. Have students read through a story or report they wrote recently. Instruct them to use a red pencil to circle every “to be” verb they find (sometimes it helps to read the writing piece backwards, starting from the last word). Now ask them to rewrite one or two of these sentences, using strong, active verbs instead of “to be” words.

Copyright 2012 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Photo: Meagan Wooley, courtesy of Creative Commons.

WriteShop Junior Book D – Review and Giveaway

IT’S REVIEW and giveaway time over at Confessions of a Homeschooler!

Even after combing a publisher’s website, it’s still nice to hear what real moms think about homeschool products, don’t you agree? Erica is a long-time WriteShop fan, and she’s sharing her review of WriteShop Junior Book D. Not only that, she’s giving away free curriculum—and the winner could be YOU!

Head on over for a chance to win your choice of WriteShop Primary Book A, B, or C or WriteShop Junior Book D. Hurry! Entries close October 12, 2012 at midnight EDT.

BONUS: You’ll also find a coupon code for 15% off your purchase in the WriteShop store.

 

3 reasons teens should read before writing

Teens need to read differently for different assignments. Here are three ways reading can help students prepare for essays and reports.

AT ANY AGE, prewriting activities help your kids warm up, think about their topic, and consider the purpose and audience. Simply, prewriting gets them ready to write!

When working with teens, prewriting activities guide them toward shaping and developing their essays and reports. Prewriting can include any or all of these:

  • Focusing and narrowing topics
  • Determining the direction the paper will take
  • Researching and gathering information
  • Brainstorming, planning, and choosing details
  • Organizing and outlining

From time to time, teens will need to read differently for different assignments. Let’s look at three ways reading helps them prepare for writing.

1. Read for a Specific Writing Assignment

When a student is asked to summarize an article, respond to a piece of literature, or write a reflection essay on a book, she first must read the selection (not merely skim it, as she might for other assignments). Sometimes she’ll have a choice (“read a novel by Mark Twain”), and sometimes not (“read Huckleberry Finn”).

If she completes the task correctly, her written response will show that she both read and understood the material.

2. Read to Gather Background Information

Before choosing a topic for an essay or research paper, it’s important to start with general background information. Skimming through encyclopedia articles on two or three topics should provide a good overview. As your student fine-tunes her choices, she can follow up by reading a few articles or books on the subject.

General background reading will:

  • Give the student a feel for different topics.
  • Direct her toward one or two that especially interest her.
  • Help her narrow a broad topic to a more specific one.
  • Show how certain topics relate to other topics or issues.

3. Read for Research Purposes

Once your student has gathered background information and settled on a topic, it’s time for more in-depth reading and research. At this stage, she should start gathering facts, examples, and scholarly opinions to include in her paper. She’ll want to make use of various sources, including periodicals and other library resources, subject-specific articles, newspaper articles, and books on her topic.

Let’s look at three kinds of sources your teen might read in preparation for research:

Subject-specific Encyclopedias

While encyclopedias are great for general overviews, they’re usually not detailed enough for research purposes. However, libraries usually have a variety of subject-specific encyclopedias that are more focused, have longer entries, and go into greater detail. Examples include:

  • Encyclopedia of Food Science & Technology
  • Encyclopedia of the Holocaust
  • Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History
  • Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy

Online Sources

A website’s URL can provide a good clue as to its reliability as a source.

  • URLs ending in .edu are usually educational institutions and may be good sources for research.
  • URLs ending in .gov are most likely reliable government websites. Usually, these will provide fairly trustworthy and objective statistics and reports.
  • URLs ending in .org are often a non-profit organizations. Beware of any political agendas before citing such sources; an .org website may be a trustworthy research source—or it could be heavily biased.

When searching for online articles, discourage your teen from using Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information. Instead of using Wikipedia as a source, she can let it direct her to journal or newspaper articles, official web sites, and other more credible sources.

To get her started, here are some helpful links to online research sites that can supplement and improve your teen’s research efforts.

Books

In these modern times, students are quick to rely on the Internet to provide source materials for their research. However, it’s always helpful—and often required—to find scholarly books on the topic as well.

Once your own home library has been scoured, head for the library in search of biographies, historical texts, or other works. Without reading or skimming an entire book, a quick look at the table of contents and index will help your teen determine its potential usefulness.

If the idea of research is daunting (as it is to most students!), encourage your teen that she doesn’t have to read every bit of every book. A chapter—or even just a paragraph or two—may be all she needs to read from a particular book to gather a timely quote or an important fact.

Set your teen to reading! Each of these activities—specific assignments, general overviews, and detailed research—is an important prewriting activity that will help pave the way for a solid essay or research paper.

Photo: Will Ockenden, courtesy of Creative Commons
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