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 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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
Put 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 email@example.com.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
READING A STORY CAN BE LIKENED to climbing a mountain. You start by getting familiar with your setting. Next you begin the long, steady climb, with all its zigs, zags, and pitfalls. The most exciting moment comes as you finally arrive at the apex—and then you descend rapidly down the other side. Your journey ends with satisfaction when you reach the bottom.
How can a writer take her readers on such an adventure? Follow a traditional format for telling a good story.
Begin your story with a bit of background. Here’s where you establish the setting, introduce the protagonist, and lay out some key details to provide context for the story.
Conflict is crucial in a good story. The narrative begins to take shape when you introduce a conflict or obstacle. In storytelling, this is known as rising action, and there are several ways a writer can do this:
Man against himself is an internal conflict that arises when the character struggles against his or her conscience. The character may be wrestling with a decision, dealing with a bad habit, or fighting a temptation, for example.
Man against man is an external conflict between two characters. This conflict can be physical, such as a gunfight in the Old West, or it can be emotional, such as a false accusation by a trusted friend.
Man against forces greater than himself is an external conflict in which the character struggles with forces beyond his control. Examples include roaring rapids, a hurricane, a cholera epidemic, or an encounter with a fire-breathing dragon.
If a story were a mountain, the climax would be the peak. This is the turning point of the story. The action is the most exciting or intense, and the characters face the conflict and start to solve it. At the story’s climax, the meteor strikes the earth; the knight slays the dragon and rescues the princess; or the big battle scene occurs.
Once the climax has been reached and the problem resolved, it’s time for the characters to tie up loose ends and bring closure where needed. Known as falling action, examples can include rounding up the cattle after the big stampede; reuniting a man with his long-lost brother; or getting the injured child into the raft and riding the rapids to safety.
The wrap-up of a story is known as the dénouement (day-noo-mon‘). By this part of the story, everything has been resolved and the reader has closure. We see how the characters have changed over time, or how life returns to normal. For example, the bully learns the errors of his ways; the family home is rebuilt after a devastating fire; or wedding bells ring for a couple who have overcome many obstacles and found true love.
These are the five typical stages of storytelling. Clearly, there’s much more to writing a story, including character and plot development. Your first step, though, is understanding what lies ahead.
As holiday decorations come out and the tree or menorah takes center stage, children can become increasingly distracted, sidetracked, and fidgety in anticipation of upcoming seasonal celebrations.
Homeschooling doesn’t need to fall by the wayside during December! The holidays can be a great time to assign writing activities that focus on the festivities, allowing children to immerse themselves in the fun while encouraging productivity. This month, have your kids write a paragraph describing a holiday-themed process where they explain, in a step-by-step manner, how something is done.
Process Paragraph: Choosing a Topic
Help them pick a process that isn’t too involved or complicated. With younger or reluctant writers, it’s especially important to keep the number of steps to a minimum. Also, the more familiar children are with the process, the easier it will be to write about it.
Here are some ideas to get them started. They can explain how to:
Wrap a present
Decorate the tree
Bake gingerbread cookies
Build a snowman
Be a “Secret Santa”
Set the table for dinner
Create a handmade greeting card
Make a holiday craft project
Play the dreidel game
Make a paper “countdown” chain
Process Paragraph: Writing the Rough Draft
Once your kids have chosen a topic (and narrowed it down to a specific task, if necessary), walk them through a few simple steps to guide and direct them.
If possible, have them go through the process themselves before beginning to write. Take digital photos of them as they complete each step.
Provide a graphic organizer to help them break down the steps of the process and plan the composition. Here’s a simple one that’s especially good for elementary ages. Here’s one can be filled in on the computer. Or download a free lesson sample from WriteShop I (grades 6+) that includes a Process Planning Worksheet.
Next, have them begin to write the rough draft, explaining the most important stepsfirst.
Teach them to use transition words such as first, second, third, next, then, finally, or last.
If the paper isn’t too long, or if the steps are too vague, they can expand each step by adding sub-steps, more detail, or colorful description.
Process Paragraph: Making an Instruction Manual
Edit the rough draft together to ensure the steps are logical and easy to follow, and check for spelling and punctuation errors.
To publish their how-to composition in a fun way, have your children create an instruction manual. Here’s how:
Invite them to choose the photos they want to use to illustrate the process. They will need to print out 4-6 pictures. Let them tape or glue each picture to the top half of a sheet of notebook paper, using a separate sheet for each photo.
Next, have them copy their corrected composition onto the sheets of notebook paper, writing the sentence or sentences that each photo illustrates.
Finally, encourage them to design and decorate a colorful cover, including a catchy title. Assemble the instruction manual and share with family members.
Activities like this will keep your children happily writing, even during the busiest time of year!
Are you uncomfortable with the idea of teaching your kids to write? Maybe you think you can’t teach writing because you never really learned yourself. Or maybe you’re a confident writer, but you don’t have a clue how to pass that on to your kids.
One thing I do know: Regardless of skill or background, you can model and teach writing with confidence. Even though you may not believe it—you really do know more than your children.
Why Model and Teach Writing?
Simply, it’s unfair to expect our children to do something that hasn’t first been demonstrated.
Modeling writing in front of your children matters, but be encouraged that you don’t have to be perfect or have all the right answers. As homeschool parents, like it or not, our job is to teach and model the process until our children get it. They need to see and hear us thinking through our ideas. It’s good for them watch us struggle to come up with a topic sentence or find the words to make up the lines of a poem. Why? Because they struggle too!
But let’s step out of writing mode for a moment.
Students learn geometry because you show them over and over how to do it, right? They rarely get it the first time. Or the second time. Or even third.
Imagine saying, “OK, Ryan, find the hypotenuse of this triangle. I’m not going to teach you different strategies to solve the problem. Just get started . . . and good luck!”
We’d never dream of throwing our kids to the math lion, yet when it comes to writing, we want to assign a topic and say “Go!”
For whatever reason, we just expect them to write intuitively. It’s pretty silly, really, because there are many strategies and skills involved with writing a good paragraph or story.
Model and teach through Guided Writing Practice to provide your young child with a daily, predictable, shared writing experience. Together, write several short sentences about simple, familiar topics such as animals, friends, the weather, or upcoming events.
During this time, you’re modeling important writing skills such as:
Punctuation and capitalization
Most importantly, Guided Writing gives your child the freedom to put together ideas without the limitations and fear of having to write them down himself.
A simple way to introduce writing skills is through predictable sentence starters. Young children thrive on repetition, so they’ll enjoy the consistency and routine of using the same sentence starter all week. Just draw out a different response each day.
Hello, _________.(Mommy, Jamie, Mittens)
Today is _________. (Tuesday, Friday, my birthday)
It is _________. (sunny, cloudy, foggy)
We are going to _________. (bake with Grandma, play Legos)
I think _________. (we will have fun, I will build a tower)
As your child’s writing skills increase, use your Guided Writing times to gradually introduce new concepts such as beginning, middle, and end; writing a friendly letter; or thinking of a problem and solution for a story.
This is often the point where moms drop off the grid: You go from nurturing the writing process to feeling guilty that you’re getting in the way of your child’s progress or creativity. Ironically, this is when most kids come to hate writing!
Instead, recognize that this is the phase of writing where you and your child can work together to produce the final project. Model and teach writing skills through examples and prompts. Keep things moving by continuing to do most or all of the writing, but share in the process. Because some of the work is yours and some is your child’s, it’s a collaborative effort. Let this free you instead of tether you to your guilt!
Middle and High School
Even if your teen is now working quite independently, you should still be modeling new writing skills and methods. As you work together, modeling helps familiarize her with the lesson’s expectations.
On a white board, demonstrate and teach writing skills through dialogues, prompts, and questions, but also show examples of the targeted writing. You and student should both contribute to the paragraph.
Again, you’re not modeling a polished final draft, you’re modeling the thinking process. When your teen heads off to write her own paper, your time together will have set the stage.
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 make a bed, knit a scarf, or build a birdhouse, you remain involved until she is confidently and successfully progressing.
Collaborative writing takes time, too—to coax, encourage, ask questions, and discuss possibilities. Together, you and your child will grow comfortable with these writing sessions, and before you know it, you’ll watch her begin to apply the same thinking process when she works by herself.
So stay connected and involved. It’s crucial to your child’s writing success!
My kids have come such a long way in their skills using WriteShop, but they still don’t enjoy writing. It’s still “work” to them, and they’d rather be doing something else. ~Marisa, SD
Fun vs. Fruit
As parents, we toggle between wanting to use a curriculum our kids like (even if it’s less effective) and using something that’s more “work,” yet clearly produces results. For two of my own kids, math was our bugaboo. The “fun” program I used one time set them back a year, so it was back to Saxon for us, even though they didn’t especially like it.
Moment of Clarity
I love when homeschooling moms have an epiphany, that “Aha!” moment when they realize—and accept—that writing does need to be taught, and how this often means sitting with our kids and coaxing the writing out of them.
The wise parent makes the commitment to brainstorm one-on-one with her children as needed, asking leading questions and encouraging them in what they write down. She knows that their efforts would be half-hearted if she left them to work on their own.
Later, when it’s time to write the rough draft, she sometimes needs to go through the process with each one individually as well.
She sticks with her curriculum and holds her kids’ hands—not just for the sake of commitment, but because she sees fruit! Marisa adds:
Again, I worked with each of the kids individually to get their [brainstorming] done… Though it takes a little more time than I like, the end result is far more satisfying for all of us!
I too have walked in Marisa’s—and your—shoes. When my son finally began working independently in high school, all those hours and hours of side-by-side efforts paid off. I pray they will for you too.
My child is a high school freshman, and thus far, our homeschool experience has not gone well where writing is concerned. Every program we’ve tried seems to fall by the wayside by Christmas break. Normally, she’s an independent worker who does well with most self-directed assignments—except for writing. We just never finish.
Does this sound familiar? If so, let’s see if I can offer some advice to help you and your teen get back on track!
Parent Involvement vs. Student Independence
I’m all for fostering independence. As students enter the high school years, it’s especially wise to train them to become more and more responsible for their own schoolwork. This means teaching them to break assignments into chunks, work on multiple projects, and stick to deadlines.
But even if a self-directed child is successful in most academic subjects, she may still be floundering when it comes to self-directed writing assignments. This is largely because, for most students, writing must be taught. Good writing is the result of a partnership between a parent/teacher and the student.
A child who rarely finishes a writing assignment can’t be left to learn writing on her own; clearly this approach is failing her. If this is true of your child, you may need to step in and become more involved in teaching, guiding, editing, and grading her work. She may not appreciate your “interference,” but if she’s not succeeding on her own, something needs to change.
Begin by working closely with her to introduce, model, and teach new concepts. After that, let her work independently on her assignment. If she continues to struggle, misses deadlines, or fails to give her best effort, recognize that you’ll need to spend more one-on-one time together while she writes. As she throws herself more fully into her writing and gives effort to assignments, you can start backing off again.
Learning to Stick It Out
Sometimes a curriculum just isn’t working and you need to take a different approach. But if you keep abandoning ship—specifically where writing is concerned—it’s time to ask yourself why. This is especially important if you’ve tried several writing programs but find you never seem to finish any of them.
Is it a character issue—or an academic one?
Does your student:
Complain about other subjects, sports, music lessons, or chores—or just about writing?
Put up enough of a fight (about anything) that you toss up your hands in despair and give in to her complaints?
Make such a fuss over writing in particular that it’s easier to give up without finishing the program?
If this describes your home, consider working on the character qualities of diligence and perseverance. Students need to learn that sometimes, even though a curriculum is less than ideal, they can’t just quit as soon as it gets too hard.
In the real world, they won’t always have choices, but if they’ve gotten into the habit of abandoning something partway through when the going gets tough, it will be hard for them to practice stick-to-itiveness in the future. (For example, they’ll be more likely to drop a college class the minute it begins to get challenging.)
Even if this stop-start-stop-start habit only applies to writing, I would still encourage you to decide on a course of action and commit to seeing it through. You’ll probably agree it’s time to make follow-through a priority.
Taking a Different Tack
Perhaps you simply need a new approach to teaching writing. It’s a legitimate possibility that your child’s learning style just hasn’t meshed with other writing programs you’ve tried in the past. In this case, WriteShop might genuinely help you overcome the hurdles you’ve experienced.
For one, WriteShop expects parent involvement yet fosters independence. Furthermore, WriteShop promotes the writing process through:
Prewriting activities that set the stage for the writing assignment and get creative juices flowing.
Brainstorming worksheets that help students develop ideas before it’s time to write.
Step-by-step instructions for writing that never leave them wondering what, exactly, they’re supposed to do.
Short assignments (rarely longer than a paragraph) so that they can work on sentence and stylistic skills.
Activities and assignments that are broken up into bite-size portions over two weeks per writing lesson so as not to overwhelm a student.
Detailed, lesson-specific self-editing checklists that enable students to proofread their own work and make corrections before handing their paper in to you.
Parent checklists and grading keys that help you give objective feedback.
Have your student’s writing efforts fizzled? Past writing failures don’t have to be accurate predictors of future success. With a few adjustments in attitude and/or method, your teen can get back on track—and with time to spare.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to watch myself on video. For one thing, I had no idea I talk with my hands so much! If you can get past my fluffy hair and lack of lipstick, I think you’ll find some encouraging tips in this 20-minute Homeschool Spotlight!
My heart is to equip and inspire you to teach writing, even when it seems like an uphill battle. I invite you to poke around the blog, where you'll find teaching tips, writing activities, and hope for reluctant writers.
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