Entries Tagged 'Teaching Writing' ↓

Noun and pronoun variation

pronoun variation, avoid repetiion

Many writers, young and old, often allow their style to suffer from the pitfalls of overly repeated words. That’s one reason  WriteShop I teaches students to avoid unnecessary repetition. Today, let’s talk about ways to make sure proper names don’t become dreaded repeated words in stories and essays.

Using the same pronouns over and over again, such as he, she, he, she, can be just as boring as repeating a proper name. One of my favorite examples of an overused pronoun is found in Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903). Young Rebecca attempts to add “a refined and elegant touch” to her essay on “Solitude,” and the result is this entertaining writing mishap:

It would be false to say that one could ever be alone when one has one’s lovely thoughts to comfort one. One sits by one’s self, it is true, but one thinks; one opens one’s favorite book and reads one’s favorite story; one speaks to one’s aunt or one’s brother, fondles one’s cat, or looks at one’s photograph album. There is one’s work also: what a joy it is to one, if one happens to like work….

You can help your children avoid this kind of redundancy. Teach them these three strategies for writing with proper names, and watch boring reports become compelling narratives!

Noun and Pronoun Variation

Imagine you are writing a paragraph about your dad for Father’s Day. You wouldn’t want to start the first three sentences with “My dad,” and refer to him in last three sentences as “he.” Use pronouns with intention, and be mindful of noun and pronoun variation. Try using “Dad” in the first sentence, “my father” in the second sentence, “he” in the third sentence, and so on.

Remember: if you need to use a name multiple times, mix it up with pronouns so your readers never even notice when repeated words are there.

Proper Name Variations

If you are writing a paragraph about President Lincoln, try using different variations of his name.

  • President Abraham Lincoln is appropriate for the introduction and conclusion.
  • His title alone (the President) will fit well in a sentence about his political duties.
  • You might use his first and last name only (Abraham Lincoln) in a sentence about his personal life or religious convictions.
  • When other options are exhausted, his last name alone (Lincoln) can be used effectively to break up sentences with longer versions of his name.

Again, bear in mind that using a person’s name in every single sentence is also a form of repetition, so you would want to include the pronoun he several times as well.

The Sky’s the Limit with Descriptive Names

What if you are writing an essay about your siblings? Suppose that one paragraph describes your little sister Katie. Instead of just repeating “Katie,” “my sister,” and “she,” think of other ways to describe this special person in your life.

  • Is she the kind of girl who never sits still? Use a nickname like “our busy monkey” in a sentence about her personality.
  • Does she love clothes? Call her “our fashion queen” in a sentence about her appearance.
  • Is she the person who brightens your life? Try a term of endearment like “my little sunshine” or “Daddy’s princess” instead of a simple pronoun.

Repeated words are for lazy writing. When it comes time to write about other people, don’t use proper names over and over again! Try different versions of a person’s name, include noun and pronoun variation, and be creative with descriptive names and terms of endearment. I guarantee your writing will become more engaging and enjoyable.

Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.wordpress.com.

Photo: DVIDSHUB, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Helping your child write thank you notes

interesting thank-you notes, writing center, avoiding procrastination

THE PARTY is over. Balloons have popped, streamers are down, and birthday presents spill out of gift bags across the floor. Do you and your child find yourselves dreading what comes next? Perhaps you whisper the words and cringe: thank-you notes.

Why Does It Matter?

Writing sincere, thoughtful thank-you notes is a valuable habit. As any college graduate or young bride knows, this skill is still highly relevant in our electronic age. My mother, my grandmother, and even my first employer taught me that nothing replaces the personal touch of a hand-written note. Remind your children that just as they enjoy receiving mail, their friends and family do, too! Oh, and don’t forget that April is National Card and Letter Writing Month. That should be enough of a reason right there.

When to Send Thank-you Notes

It’s tempting to forget about mailing notes when time and energy are limited. I can’t claim a perfect track record, but I’ve loosely adopted this rule of thumb:

  • If the gift-giving is mutual (a friend and I exchange presents at a Christmas party), thank-you notes are optional.
  • If the gift giving is one-sided (a relative sends me a check for graduation), thank-you notes are mandatory. Gifts for elementary children are usually one-sided, so your kids should probably be writing a lot of notes.

Avoid the Procrastination Bug

Most kids would rather do almost anything than write their thank-you notes. There are ways parents can avoid turning these little notes into power struggles. Try these tips, and the grandparents and great aunts will happily receive their notes in the mail long before next Christmas.

Set Up a Writing Center

Nothing beats distraction and procrastination like a well-stocked writing center. You can transform any corner of your house into a writing center with a few simple steps:

  • Make sure the area is well-lit.
  • Arrange the seating and writing surface in a comfortable way that encourages good posture.
  • Keep thank-you note supplies in easy reach (colorful stationery, pencils, stamps, address book, etc.) Let your child know that everything is ready to go.

Make It a Family Activity

Write thank-you notes alongside your children. Youngsters want to be part of mom and dad’s activities, and they will remember what you do long after they forget what you say. If a friend sends you a surprise package, or your neighbors bring a meal when you’re sick, sit down next to you children and write a thank-you note.

Decide on Standards Ahead of Time

Decide ahead of time if you’re going to correct grammar and spelling. Inventive spelling is cute when a child is six, but you may not be ready for every relative in town to critique your 10-year-old daughter’s writing skills.

Just remember that writing two drafts of the same note by hand can be overwhelming for a young child. If your son is not a strong speller, perhaps you can let him dictate the rough draft. Then, allow him to rewrite it in his own handwriting.

Tips for Writing Interesting Notes

When it comes to creating a personal touch, our words are just as important as careful handwriting and a first-class stamp. Teach your children simple ways to make thank-you notes fun to write and entertaining to read.

  • Include interesting verbs to tell how I used the gift or how I plan to use it.
  • Include a surprising fact about the gift, such as I’ve always wanted a butterfly net, because I want to be an entomologist when I grow up.
  • Include a personal reflection about the gift-giver, such as You always choose the perfect gifts for me, and I really appreciate your thoughtfulness.

What tips would you like to share about writing thank-you notes? What ideas have worked for your family?

Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.wordpress.com.

Photo: Kate Hiscock courtesy of Creative Commons.

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.


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.

Are you turning your child off to writing?

Your child hates writing! Do you expect too much independence? Give open-ended assignments? Focus on mistakes? These tips will encourage you!

“My child hates writing!” 

Know what? I can 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 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.

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Photo: Meagan Wooley, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Modeling writing through conversation

Modeling writing and editing through questions and conversation trains children to be stronger writers who will one day gain their own voice.

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my full disclosure policy.

WHEN apprentices work with a master craftsman or artist, they copy their master’s work. Consider the famous painters whose pieces we admire in museums and books. Most of them began as apprentices, but they became famous in their own right for their unique styles and methods.

Think about how we all learned cursive: we followed the model that we were taught in school. Yet, do you know anyone who still writes the same way we were taught? Probably not! Most people have pretty different penmanship styles, even though the original model was similar.

So when you get to the editing part of a writing project, don’t be concerned that you’re helping too much or offering too many stylistic suggestions. Your editing tips, whether broad or specific, serve as a model to the student. In time, he’ll gain his own style and voice.

Modeling Writing Through Conversation

Start with the first draft.

Since this is the sloppy copy, your student should be responsible to self-edit his own paper. It’s his job to take care of some of these problems before he ever turns the paper in to you. You can work on it with him, if necessary, but see if he can do it alone first.

You’ll have the opportunity to give suggestions after he’s gone through his paper by himself and revised it. Over time, students learn that the more time they invest in self-editing, the less “red-penciling” they’ll see from Mom.

Among the things he must look for:

  • Overly repeated words. This is a new concept for most students. It helps to use word banks or a thesaurus to think of different ways to avoid repetition.
  • Sentence limit. He will need to combine sentences, remove sentences, or blend information from two or three sentences into one in order to stay within the confines of a short paragraph of, say, 5-7 sentences.

Help him identify problems that might not be apparent to him.

I found it helpful when working with my own son to ask questions that allowed him to answer without making him feel like the ideas were all mine. Give options and choices. Here’s an example of a dialogue that helps a student hone a paragraph about a favorite stuffed animal.

You:  You used lots of great description in your paragraph, but now I’d like you to tell me some things about Rocket that don’t have anything to do with his appearance. Where did you get him? What is he?

Son:  I got Rocket for my birthday. He’s a stuffed blue jay.

You:  How could you combine some of that information into a topic sentence that doesn’t describe Rocket yet?

Son: (probably with help from you) I got a stuffed blue jay for my birthday.


You:  What do his eyes do?

Son:  Well, they’re shiny. They sort of sparkle.

You:  Those are good words to describe his eyes. What color are they?

Son:  Black.

You:  OK, so…His shiny black eyes (do what?)

Son: His shiny black eyes sparkle.

You:  Where are his eyes located?

Son:  On each side of his beak.

You:  If you combine all that information, you’ll have a great sentence!

Son:  His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his beak.

You:  Great! Now that you have the basic sentence, it’s easy to make simple improvements. For example, tell me about his beak.

Son: It’s black and it’s made of vinyl.

You:  How can you incorporate that information into your sentence?

Son: His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak.

You:  See how much clearer this is? Each time you add a description, it helps your reader picture Rocket even better! Now, do you notice a repeated word?

Son:  Black.

You:  Yup! You have some options. You can use your thesaurus and replace one “black” with a synonym; you can remove one use of the word “black” altogether; or you can use a different descriptive word that isn’t a color word at all.

Son: His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his ebony vinyl beak.  (Or, His shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak. Or, His shiny black eyes sparkle on each side of his vinyl beak.)

You:  One last thing. Since you’ve used the word “his” several times in your paragraph, it might be good to use a synonym here and there. You can use his name or a different synonym for your bird.

Son:  Rocket’s shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak. (Or, My bird’s shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of his black vinyl beak. Or, Shiny button eyes sparkle on each side of my blue jay’s black vinyl beak.)

Modeling writing through conversation can take place anywhere along the way, whether it’s during your teaching time or while helping your child revise his story. Even if you don’t always feel secure about your own writing abilities, it’s amazing how much confidence these conversational times can instill in your young writer.

Give it a try!

Photo courtesy of Stockxchng.

Writing ideas for the unstructured homeschool classroom

profondeur des champs / depth of fields

WHENEVER I talk to parents who homeschool, I’m surprised at how many still treat the experience as if their children were in a traditional, structured classroom.

As a homeschooled child myself, I remember my folks being pretty adamant about making the process one of fairly unstructured personal and academic discovery. In terms of writing, my mother took full advantage of the fact that we didn’t have to be glued to our desks while attending class!

No matter your homeschool style, try these four dynamic writing prompts to inspire your kids as they learn the basics of writing and expressing themselves in a perhaps less-than-traditional way:

Have your child pretend she’s a reporter by interviewing people in the community.

It’s important for children to learn early on that the process of writing is deeply connected not just with their own thoughts, but with the opinions of other people. The best way to learn this is by talking to others about a specific topic or issue.

For example, ask your students to interview older neighbors about what life was like when they were children, or talk with a community worker about his or her job, and them compile these interviews into an article, story, or essay.

Go on an outdoor adventure, and then have children write a descriptive essay about what they saw and felt.

Inexperienced writers can forget to include descriptions of scene and setting in their work, often because they’re stuck indoors where they must rely on their own imagination.

To ameliorate this problem, consider taking them to a local park, zoo, or wildlife sanctuary. Have them take notes about their surroundings, and then later write a short essay or story containing details about what they saw, smell, heard, and felt.

Allow kids to choose their own books and write reports or reviews about them.

Too often, kids become disenchanted with writing because they can’t really pick what they’d like to write about. The same goes for reading. While most standard reading curricula are well intentioned, they can’t account for young readers’ diverse tastes.

Qiqi EGR Public Library December 31, 20097Put the ball in their court by encouraging them to pick their own books and write summaries, reviews, or book reports about their selections. If a particular child needs boundaries, you might give him three books from which to choose the one he wants.

Invite children to write a short play and perform it together.

Whether they’re young or old, it can be very difficult for writers to master an ear for spoken language. To improve this specific skill in a fun way, have your kids write and act out a short, five- or ten-minute play.

When they can hear out loud what they’ve written on paper, they start to understand how to make their writing sound more natural and conversational. It’s a great way to improve your students’ speaking abilities as well.

When you aren’t stuck in a traditional classroom, the sky is the limit as far as learning goes. Take advantage of the opportunities afforded by homeschooling, and think of as many different, off-the-beaten-path learning methods as you can!

This guest post is contributed by Barbara Jolie, who enjoys writing about trends in the academic world. Even when she’s not blogging, Barbara is always contemplating and considering issues concerning education and modern society. You can reach her at barbara.jolie876@gmail.com.

Photos: Olivier Bacquet and Steven Depolo, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Using our senses: A descriptive writing lesson

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

ONE OF THE most difficult aspects of writing is perfecting the art of description—the thing that really brings a scene, image, character, or feeling alive within a piece of writing.

While younger children often love using imaginative language, many struggle to find the most appropriate and engaging words to put down on paper. One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

Try out this fun and simple lesson to help your students experiment with descriptive language that is unique and full of life and movement.

1. Discuss the Senses

It is through our five senses that we experience the world around us. Discuss with your students what the senses are and how they work. List the five senses and invite them to come up with examples of descriptive words within each sense category.

  • Talk about sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
  • Collect words from your students that fall within each category. They will likely suggest that something can look pretty or ugly, sound loud or quiet, feel hard or soft, smell good or bad, taste yummy or nasty.
  • This is a great way to help them identify weak, unimaginative descriptions.

Talk about why it is difficult to come up with sensory words in this manner: Writing with your senses means you have to really take the time to see, hear, feel, smell, or taste what you are trying to write about. If you can’t experience the subject at hand with all your senses when you are writing about it, then your readers certainly won’t be able to either.

2. Experience the Senses

This is where the lesson gets interesting and fun. Gather objects your students can experience with each of their senses:

    • Sweet, salty, sour, or bitter foods for them to taste
    • Objects that are interesting to touch
    • Noise-making items to listen to
    • Fragrant or aromatic things to smell
    • Objects that are colorful and interesting to look at

Let’s say you gathered some Silly Putty, a fork, and a sharp rock to help them experience their sense of touch. Hide the items in a bag or box. Have your children take turns closing their eyes, reaching into the bag, and feeling an item. Remind them to focus on only one sense at a time (in this case, touch).

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

It’s important that they only describe how the object feels (hard, sharp, pointed, cold, smooth), not what it is used for (you stab food with it). This will help focus their senses on the subject, and it will narrow their descriptive language to really pinpoint the attributes of that item. If extra help is needed, they may use word banks or a thesaurus.

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

Next, hide a bell, rattle, squeaky cat toy, or other noisemaking objects in a box or bag. Have students close their eyes as you produce each sound, and then make a list together of specific words to describe it.

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

Repeat this exercise with the other items you’ve collected to help them explore the other senses. Help them really zero in on one sense at a time. You and your students will be surprised and excited by the descriptive language they come up with for each of the senses, such as fluffy, icy, pliable, jagged, papery, leathery, or slick.

3. Use Descriptive Language in Writing

Once your students have recorded all of their sensory words and phrases, have them compare this list with the list they made at the very beginning.

Open up a conversation about why the second collection of words contains stronger, more descriptive language. Your students will surely explain that they were able to actually feel, see, or smell the thing they were writing about, so it was easier to come up with more concrete, specific words like downy or silky instead of just plain soft.

Stop And Smell The Flowers

This is the lesson: If you can’t picture what you are describing in your writing, neither can your reader.

Now that the students have a collection of interesting, concrete words to draw from, invite them to create a poem or story containing descriptive language. What a fun and engaging way to help students “feel” their writing to create more illuminating poetry or prose!

Thanks to Alvina Lopez for joining us as a guest blogger. Alvina is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She welcomes your comments by email at alvina.lopez@gmail.com.  

Photos: Gustaff Prins (cat), Charles Barilleaux (listening), Dan Zen (ice cream cone), and Paul De Los Reyes (rose), courtesy of Creative Commons

Book report sandwich

Banish boring book reports with afun book  report sandwich! Each "ingredient" helps kids summarize and describe plot, characters, and setting.

ARE YOUR kids tired of the typcial, ho-hum, “this book is about” book report?

Here’s a fun variation to try: A book report sandwich.

Preparing the Ingredients

First, make templates for the various sandwich ingredients. Using similar dimensions for each item, draw the following elements on plain white paper. Then, photocopy as many as you need onto colored paper.

  • Bread slice (2) – brown or tan
  • Lunch meat – pink
  • Cheese – orange or yellow
  • Tomato – red
  • Lettuce – green
  • Mayonnaise – white

Creating the Book Report

Each “ingredient” represents one element of of the book. After reading a book, write the different parts of the report on the various sandwich fixin’s—much more fun than writing out a traditional book report on lined paper!

  • Top bread slice: Write the book title and author.
  • Lettuce: Summarize the plot.
  • Tomato slice: Tell some interesting facts and details about the main character.
  • Mayonnaise layer: Describe the book’s setting.
  • Cheese slice: Describe your favorite part of the story.
  • Lunch meat: Give your opinion of the book.
  • Bottom bread slice: Draw a favorite scene from the book.

When finished, staple your sandwich together into a mini book you can sink your teeth into!

What are some of your favorite creative book report ideas?


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