Entries Tagged 'Teaching Writing' ↓

How is a writer like a spelunker?

When you set a sheet of blank paper before your child and tell him to write, you might as well toss him into the absolute blackness of a yawning cavern without rope or flashlight and have him find his way out. Either way, he faces a slew of unknowns, and without the right tools to assist him, he’ll be lost.

Just as a spelunker, or caver, uses specific equipment to help him safely explore a cave, every student needs writing tools to help him feel more confident and successful.

So, how are writers like spelunkers? You’ll be surprised at the similarities!

They Need Clear Boundaries

Unless you’re on a tour, there are no handrails or paved walkways in a cave. A first-time cave explorer facing the unknowns of a dark cavern usually has no idea how to start, which direction to take, or how to get back at the end of the day.

That’s why novice cavers go with an experienced guide who can give direction and establish boundaries. When the boundaries are clear, the caver won’t worry about things like winding up in an endless passageway or falling into an underground stream. He also won’t huddle fearfully against a damp wall, paralyzed by the dark, unknown surroundings. Boundaries provide safety to explore.

Writers need boundaries too. It’s pretty intimidating to most kids to face a blank page and have absolutely no idea what they’re supposed to put on it. Students who lack skills and tools either hover anxiously over the page, unable to write at all, or they write in a disorganized, sidetracked manner.

To help your child feel more confident and secure, establish boundaries using some of these ideas:

  • Define the nature and purpose of the writing assignment, such as describe a food, explain a process, tell a personal story, or compare and contrast two novels.
  • Give specific requirements for length, such as number of words, paragraphs, or pages.
  • Provide topic options with the framework of the assignment. For instance, if the student must describe a food, give her several choices from which to pick, or let her come up with her own. When she’s interested in the subject matter and has a say in the topic, her confidence rises.
  • Give clear instructions so the student knows exactly what’s expected.

They Need Supervision, Structure, and a Plan

To practice caving safety, novice cavers need a leader with experience to oversee the expedition. He has a plan, makes sure everyone follows directions, and is responsible for bringing his group of explorers back on time.

Students also need an overseer—a parent or teacher—to ensure their writing success. Even if you establish boundaries for the assignment, your child can still get lost, delayed, or overwhelmed without direct supervision. 

  • Break the assignment into parts to ward off procrastination, dread, and hyperventilation. Just as a caver wears a head lamp to help light the way, your student needs to know where he’s going with his writing assignment too. Illuminate his path by showing him the steps of the writing process. They include prewriting, brainstorming, writing, editing, and revising.
  • Give a deadline for the finished piece—and stick to it.
  • Create a schedule or plan to promote timeliness. Ask your student to turn in each part of the writing assignment on its proper due date along the bigger timeline.
  • Monitor progress. Supervision and follow-through are key to his success. If you don’t check your child’s work each step of the way, you may impede his progress. He’s waiting for your OK before he moves on to the next part of the assignment; failing to follow up with him only encourages procrastination.

They Need the Right Equipment

Unlike a newbie, a seasoned caver would never dream of entering a cave with nothing but the clothes on his back and a pocket flashlight from the Dollar Tree. He knows that as he meets various obstacles during his adventure, the right equipment will serve him well: proper clothing, a good helmet, a helmet-mounted light, spare batteries and bulbs, food and water, and basic survival supplies.

On the other hand, novice writers think nothing of approaching a cavernous writing assignment equipped with nothing but pen and paper, when in truth, they need a well-stocked chest of writing tools.

It may take some time to fill that toolbox, but eventually they’ll have a wide assortment of proper tools to help them write with confidence and skill.

  • Graphic organizers and brainstorming worksheets for planning and sorting ideas
  • Stylistic tools, such as transition words to connect ideas and paragraphs and sentence variations to add interest to the writing
  • A good thesaurus to help them choose strong, accurate words.
  • Checklists or rubrics that remind them what to look for when proofreading and self-editing.

They Need to Develop Their Skills 

Much of what a person learns about cave exploration comes through . . . cave exploration! He can study caving techniques day and night, but until he enters his first cave and starts scrambling over rocks, traversing ledges, and crawling through narrow passageways, all the book learning in the world won’t make much sense.

Writers also learn by doing. As they discover new techniques and skills and put them into practice, they’ll gain confidence in their ability to write—and they’ll show noticeable improvement. Here are five important skills your writers will need to develop:

  • Teachability. They must be willing to take instruction and receive feedback.
  • Observation. Excellent writing samples and parent or teacher modeling can provide positive examples for students to follow.
  • Concreteness. Students need to avoid dull, vague writing by learning to choose strong, vivid words.
  • Conciseness. They also need to learn the art of using fewer words to make their point.
  • Practice with different kinds of writing. Finally, they need a variety of writing lessons so they can learn to describe, inform, persuade, argue, write poetry, tell stories, etc.

Simple tips and tools like these can set your student on the path toward success. And when you provide your child with boundaries, guidance, writing tools, and useful skills, he’ll be better equipped to conquer that once-terrifying abyss of a blank page.

Copyright 2010 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

From the mouths of babes: Pre-literacy writing

Alexis Bonari is joining me today as a guest blogger here at In Our Write Minds. I know you’ll enjoy trying this activity with your pre-writers.

On the path to inspiring our children to love reading and writing, we often overlook the fact that there was a time when stories were generated as oral traditions.

Stories were created and then passed down through the generations without the use of written language. Our modern writing and story-telling techniques were inspired by these traditions.

Even before our children are of an age to read or write, they have stories to tell. They often regale us with tales of how their day was spent, or will imagine elaborate adventures starring their favorite fictional character or stuffed animal.

Tap into that creative energy and follow these simple steps to help them develop their own fictional work.

What you’ll need

  • An audio recorder
  • A variety of art materials: construction paper, glue, markers, magazines with pictures and scissors to cut them out, etc.

Steps to creating a masterpiece

1. Brainstorm.

Tell them that you’re going to help them author their own book. Then, help them brainstorm ideas for a story. Write the ideas down on a piece of paper. Help them develop a rudimentary outline. Don’t direct too much. Let them develop their own concept.

2. Write the book.

Get out the recorder and record them telling their new story. Play it back once and let them make any changes they want. Then, get out the construction paper, separate the story into sections, and copy it onto the paper. (Discuss ahead of time what type of pictures they might want for each section so you can organize the book as you go. If they want to add more pictures or change things up, go with it.)

3. Decorate and design!

Help them use the art supplies to draw/paste pictures into the book. Design a cover or chapters if you want. Pretty much anything goes.

If you encourage your children to develop their story-telling skills early, writing will come easily to them. Writing is really about conveying information in a clear manner. Learning this process can be a fun experience for everyone!

Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Using questions, prompts, and dialogues

When my children were young, I participated actively with them during writing time. I found that asking questions was a wonderful way to help them come up with ideas and choose stronger vocabulary words. 

Try it with your own kiddos. This exercise works with both reluctant and articulate writers of all skill levels—it’s a great way for them to develop the ability to learn, think, and explain.

1.  Ask specific questions about your child’s writing.

  • How did that happen?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • Can you tell me more about…?
  • What are some other words you could use to describe…?
  • Where were you?
  • Who else came to the picnic?

2.  Draw out responses.

Take advantage of dialoguing with your child to draw out information and story details. This time of questions and answers is especially helpful when he can’t think of what to say. 

As he responds to your initial questions, you can then rephrase and extend your child’s words, ask a clarifying question, or model more complex vocabulary or sentence structure.

3.  Ask open-ended questions.

Try not to ask questions that require a one-word answer or a yes or no response. If you ask your child, “Was he wearing a hat?” the conversational exchange is over and done with when he says yes or no. Instead, try asking an open-ended question: “What was he wearing? What else can you tell me about that?”

Here’s a sample dialogue* to give you an idea of how to encourage more response:

You:     I like your idea about Sabrina Sea Bass and the kelp beds. How could we start the story?
Child:   Sabrina Sea Bass went to the kelp beds.
You:     Yes, she did. But before she got there, she had a problem. What was the problem?
Child:   She got lost trying to find the kelp beds.
You:     Why did she get lost?
Child:   Because it was her first time going by herself and she went the wrong way.
You:     That IS a problem! How could we use that information to start the story?
Child:   It was Sabrina Sea Bass’s first time to go to the kelp beds all by herself.
You:     Let’s write down that sentence.
You:     Now you can start to tell about the problem. What went wrong?
Child:   Well, instead of turning left at the coral reef, she turned right.
You:     Good way to introduce the problem! Let’s write down that sentence.
You:     Then what happened?
Child:   Soon she swam into a dark, dark cave.
You:     Ooh, that’s good! Let’s write that down. Soon she swam into a dark, dark cave.
You:     How did she get out?
Child:   She asked a friendly octopus which way is out.
You:     That’s a good question, but maybe it would be better if she told him where exactly she wanted to go. She asked a friendly octopus . . . what?
Child:   She asked a friendly octopus, “Which way are the kelp beds?”

Keep your questions and dialogue going like this until your child has organized or written his story. Eventually, he will learn to ask himself similar questions on his own.

. . . . .

*This sample dialogue comes from WriteShop Primary Book B, Lesson 8 (Problem and Solution). All WriteShop Primary books contain loads of practical, age-appropriate prompts and dialogue samples that will help you promote stronger writing skills in your younger children.

WriteShop and the 6 Traits of Effective Writing

From time to time, parents ask us whether WriteShop aligns with the Six Traits of Effective Writing.

6 + 1® Trait Writing is a model for teaching and assessing writing. Originally, it was intended less as a teaching tool and more as an evaluation tool to help teachers identify student strengths and weaknesses.

Although WriteShop wasn’t developed according to the Six Traits model, our products do offer comparable tools to teach, edit, and evaluate your children’s writing. After all, our goal is to help you become a more effective teacher, and these skills and tools just make sense—no matter what name they go by!

Creating Good Writers

Students become good writers through modeling, discussion, and plenty of practice. But most parents—even those who are intuitive writers—need specific guidelines and rubrics to help them teach writing systematically and effectively, including:

  • Explicit instruction for how to teach the writing process (along with specific writing skills).
  • Guided writing (modeling) and discussion. 
  • Step-by-step student directions.
  • Practical application of grammar and spelling to writing.
  • Checklists, rubrics, and other tools to help edit and evaluate writing.

WriteShop and the Six Traits

Though our products may not fully align with the Six Traits model, both WriteShop I & II and WriteShop Primary give you the instruction and guidance you need to teach writing with confidence!

However, two favorite WriteShop tools—the Writing Skills Checklists and the Composition Evaluation forms—do meet many criteria of the Six Traits model.

The elements of the Writing Skills Checklist allow you to give your junior high or high school student valuable suggestions and a chance to improve his or her paper. And the Composition Evaluation form provides a rubric for effective, accurate grading.

Each of the Six Traits (listed below) is followed by specific elements WriteShop I and II look for in a composition.


The main focus or purpose for writing

  • Did the student follow directions for the assignment?
  • Did he include lesson-specific content?
  • Did he support his ideas with details?


The internal structure of the writing

  • Did the student use appropriate topic and closing sentences?
  • Did he use transition words when necessary?
  • Did he communicate clearly?


The sense that the writer is speaking directly to the reader

  • Did he write in the correct narrative voice for the assignment?

Word Choice

The use of concrete, colorful, precise vocabulary to communicate meaning

  • Did the student use vivid, active, colorful words?
  • Did he avoid vague, repeated, or overused words?
  • Did the student limit use of passive voice (“to be” words)?

Sentence Fluency

The flow and readability of the text; effective use of sentence variations

  • Did the student communicate clearly and avoid awkwardness?
  • Did he use a number of interesting sentence variations?
  • Did he use his tenses properly?


The mechanical correctness, including spelling, punctuation, and grammar

  • Did the student adhere to conventions of form?
  • Did he correctly use punctuation, capitalization, and grammar?
  • Did he spell correctly?
  • Did he use correct sentence structure?

WriteShop Primary materials for kindergarten to third grade also align well with the Six Traits model, both for teaching and evaluating. For more information about WriteShop products, visit www.writeshop.com.

Intro to editing and evaluating writing

Ways to give your kids writing feedback, plus tips to help you overcome insecurity and doubt about editing and evaluating their writing lessons.

Grading and commenting on your kids’ writing is one of the most valuable elements of writing instruction. But it also gives the most grief to parents, who often feel unqualified to identify and evaluate written strengths and weaknesses.

Seeds of Doubt

A host of “ins” and “uns” seems to attack parents when it comes to writing, making us doubt our ability to edit and grade objectively. With regard to teaching or evaluating writing, do you ever use any of these words to describe yourself?

  • Insecure
  • Uncertain
  • Incompetent
  • Unsure
  • Inadequate
  • Unequipped

Many of us wear these monikers like millstones around our necks, allowing the weight of our insecurities to immobilize us. At worst, teaching and grading writing don’t happen at all, or at best we’re sporadic, leaving Mom feeling guilty and our children awash in frustration.

It’s not that we don’t think it’s important to give our children input. But don’t we all have excuses?

  • I’m afraid I’ll be too hard on my child.
  • I don’t know how to grade a paper—there’s too much guesswork.
  • What do I know about writing? I’m just a math-science person.

And heaven forbid Mom should set aside her worries and actually make a comment. The smallest hint of suggestion from you and the drama begins.

  • But I like it this way!
  • You’re always so critical.
  • You never like anything I write!

Myths about parent editing

As a parent, perhaps you simply don’t know how to give objective input. So either you don’t give feedback at all—and therefore see no improvement—or you offer suggestions that make your child feel picked on or rejected. To help you renew your perspective, let’s look at three myths about parent editing.

Myth #1 – Editing and grading writing are too subjective.

  • Fact: Learning to edit is a process for both student and parent.
  • Fact: Many aspects of a composition CAN be evaluated objectively.

Myth #2 – It’s too difficult to edit and grade writing.

  • Fact: The more you edit and revise, the easier it will become.
  • Fact: Familiarity produces recognition—you will catch on!
  • Fact: There are tools (rubrics and checklists) to help you.
  • Fact: You don’t have to find every mistake. Even addressing just a few errors can help your child’s writing begin to change course.

Myth #3 – Editing and grading writing is for professionals.

  • Fact: Many parents cannot find mistakes in their children’s writing—but you can improve your skills! If you feel weak in a particular area such as grammar or spelling, take a “crash course” to refresh yourself. Buy a second student workbook and study the subject alongside your kids.  Or, consider a resource like The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation to help you brush up on key rules.
  • Fact: You CAN learn to edit and grade. Programs like WriteShop Primary, WriteShop Junior, and WriteShop I are good examples of homeschooling products that guide and direct parents through the writing and editing process.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll not only gain tips and tools to make editing and grading easier for you, you’ll also learn ways to help your children participate in the process through self-editing and revising.

We’ll start next week with tips for Editing and Evaluating Writing: Grades K-3.

I also know that parents tend to panic more as junior high and high school draw near. So if you have older kids, you’ll be happy to know I’ve got you covered as well. Stay tuned!

Copyright 2010 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Photo courtesy of stock.xchng

Ideas for expanding writing vocabulary

This morning I presented a jam-packed workshop at the Schoolhouse Expo, a virtual homeschool conference sponsored by The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. The hour whizzed by as I shared tons of ideas for ways to creatively introduce and expand your children’s writing vocabulary. Here are just a handful of suggestions from today’s session.

Be a Writing Role Model 

You’ve heard that if you want your children to become readers, they need to see you reading. Likewise, to raise writers, you must make sure they see you writing. When your child writes, think about stopping to write as well.

  • Draw attention to your writing. Point out times that you use writing to communicate with others.
  • Talk about writing opportunities. Explain the purpose for each kind of writing and the target audience, handwriting vs. computer, etc.
  • Let your child see you prepare for a Bible study, keep a prayer journal, or take notes during church.
  • Have your child help you write letters, even such routine ones as ordering items from an advertisement or writing a letter of praise or complaint to a company. This helps the child to see firsthand that writing is important to adults and truly useful.
  • Take time to write in your journals together.

Assign Copywork

Copywork has so many benefits, including providing students with excellent writing models. You can use various copywork passages as opportunities to look up unfamiliar words, which is a great way to naturally expand your children’s vocabulary.

You can purchase resources specifically intended for the purpose of copying. Or simply encourage copying Bible verses, hymns, favorite poems, passages of literature, or famous quotations.

Suggest Making Lists

Making lists is an effective writing tool for all ages. Most children like to create lists anyway, but writing out lists—from the mundane to the meaningful—also helps them become more organized. Taken a step further, when list-making is used as a brainstorming tool, it can even help students plan the elements of an essay or story. And it also helps build context-specific vocabulary.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Show them how you keep a calendar, make grocery lists, write daily to-do lists, add to an ongoing list of projects, etc. Then your kids can make their own lists of schoolwork, dates for soccer practice and games, family birthdays, etc.
  • They can inventory furniture in a room or items in a junk drawer, jewelry box, or medicine cabinet. Talk about different ways to name common objects.
  • Likewise, they might make lists of their various personal possessions such as baseball cards, stuffed animals, shoes, or CDs. Collections, such as seashells or Matchbox cars, often have specific or specialized names. Learning these helps contribute to vocabulary growth.
  • Another suggestion is to create word lists: Your child can begin a list with a word that describes a texture such as rough or slippery, or a character quality such as gentle, brave, or faithful. Then have him use a thesaurus to look up synonyms for that word to expand the list.

. . . . .

If you missed it, you can still get an Expo to Go ticket that will give you access to all the MP3 audios beginning May 31, 2010. It’s been a wonderful event, and I highly encourage you to grab a ticket so that you can take advantage of the encouragement and ideas that each outstanding speaker has offered. At $19.95, it’s an outstanding deal! Just click the Expo to Go image to the right. >>>

My homeschooling days are well behind me, but I still gleaned so much from the excellent sessions. Hope you take advantage of “Expo to Go”!

Photo courtesy of StockXchg.

Describing a food: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Describing a Food: Teach kids to use vivid words to describe tasty or yucky foods

The Good

I love the deliciousness of certain words—the way something as ordinary as chocolate can take on an entire new personality when dressed up with adjectives like warm, rich, thick, gooey, chilled, creamy, or frothy. 

Such descriptive words bring everyday foods to life.

Magazine writers, cookbook editors, food bloggers, and restaurant reviewers are experts at describing a food. They definitely know the value of a well-turned phrase! Using appetizing words like simmering, hearty, robust, browned, and spicy, they tempt the reader to try a new recipe or visit an out-of-the-way cafe with enticing offerings like these:

The cake looked like a homespun masterpiece.  It was fluffy as a pillow, toasty brown, and shot through with plum-colored swirls. Serious Eats

This cream of mushroom soup hasn’t lost one jot of its butter-laden, cognac-kissed suavity. “Soup” is too prosaic a term for the pungent, earthy silkiness in every bowlful. Fungi beg for the honor of giving their lives this way. 239 Best Dishes to Eat in Philly

Plump shrimp, sautéed with chile flakes and served with a salad of oyster mushrooms, cucumber and corn, turned out to be everything I wanted on a Saturday morning: fresh, vibrant and crunchy, with just enough spicy zing to wake me up. Salma Abdelnour, Best Restaurant Dishes of 2007

Broiling a nice juicy steak until it spatters and hisses and crusts up in all the right places is wonderful. Roasting a chicken and seeing the skin crisp up in the oven while the meat goes tender beneath is lovely, too. And most of the ills in the world can be cured with a few savory pork-stuffed dumplings, dripping broth and juice. The Wednesday Chef

I could marinate in these all day. Pun intended.

The Bad

Teach kids to use vivid words to describe foods that are both appetizing and yuckyAh, but it’s also possible to describe a food—even one you normally like—in a way that totally robs the joy of eating it. Or to describe “iffy” foods like okra, black licorice, or liver and onions that are popular enough with some folks, but we just can’t abide ‘em.

Yucky Foods Worth a Second Taste” tells why some people don’t like—among other foods—tomatoes. Given the description, I can understand why! To me, a good tomato is ripe, sweet, and juicy. But as the article explains, the “slimy, jellylike substance around the seeds, thin skin, [and] grainy pulp” send some people running from this salad staple.

Whoa. Almost had the same effect on me.

And last week, a friend’s Facebook status lamented the horrors of a recent fast food experience. She complained:

Just had the worst breakfast [I have] *ever* had. Ever. I love Sausage Teach kids to use vivid words to describe tasty...or even yucky...foods!McMuffins and went for Burger King’s knock off. Imagine an English muffin soaked in artificial butter oil, toasted, assembled with a spongy egg-like substance, cheese whiz or something, and a sausage puck. Now, wait a few hours, microwave until completely indestructible, and serve to an unsuspecting consumer. It was malevolently bad.

Melanie’s description has had its effect. Off to BK, anyone?

And this description of how to eat raw oysters, though intended to set the novice at ease, sure doesn’t inspire me to rush out to my nearest oyster bar!

Stay calm when faced with a half-dozen to a dozen barnacled, irregular and slimy oysters set on your party’s table. If you’re an oyster eating novice, attempt to suppress the look of horror at not only the aesthetics of the shellfish, but how you’re going to manage extracting the oysters from their watery home.

And the Ugly

Describing a Food: Teach kids to use vivid vocabulary to describe appetizing foods as well as yucky, moldy ones!Then there’s just plain ugly food. You know the kind I’m talking about: Undercooked. Overcooked. Burned. Mystery meat lurking in an old margarine tub at the back of the fridge. An unnamed vegetable weeping at the bottom of the crisper. The leftover cup of grayish, congealed gravy. Things sprouting fur and fuzz.

The stuff no one wants to—or should ever—eat.

Some people are experts at describing a food that’s ugly. In children’s literature, Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl pretty much top the list. Silverstein’s poem “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” contains some of the very best of “worst food” descriptions you’ll find! Adjectives like grisly, gloppy, withered, rubbery, curdled, and moldy perfectly describe a food that, to put it kindly, is beyond its prime. Here’s an excerpt:

. . . Prune pits, peach pits, orange peels,
Gloppy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans, and tangerines,
Crusts of black-burned buttered toast,
Grisly bits of beefy roast.
The garbage rolled on down the halls,
It raised the roof, it broke the walls,
I mean, greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Blobs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from old bologna,
Rubbery, blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk, and crusts of pie,
Rotting melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat. . .

It’s a fun poem! Hope you’re inspired to read the whole thing.

So there you have it—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of describing a food. Have I whetted your appetite for descriptive writing? If so, I challenge you and your kiddos to grab a food from the refrigerator, study it carefully, and come up with a list of words to describe it—for better or for worse. And if you’re brave enough, leave a comment sharing your lists with us. We’re hungry to read them!

. . . . .

If you’re looking for curriculum to help your students write more descriptively, consider WriteShop Primary Book C for grades 2-3, WriteShop Junior Book D for grades 3-4 (or even grade 5) and WriteShop I for grades 6-10. WriteShop I has a great lesson on describing a food, but each of these levels offers several lessons on concrete description that will draw out the best in your young writers and make their writing sparkle with interesting, colorful vocabulary.  

Teaching writing conventions

Teaching writing conventions--generally accepted standards for written English and grammar--will help kids' writing look and sound its best.

When your student begins to protest: “But I like it this way!” or “It looks okay to me,” it’s high time to introduce the concept of writing conventions.

Defining Conventions

We can define conventions as a set of generally accepted standards for written English. We use conventions to make our writing more readable. In other words, we do things in a certain way so the reader can figure out what we’re trying to say.

Conventions include spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and sentence structure. Students should:

  • Apply spelling rules correctly.
  • Use correct punctuation to smoothly guide the reader through the paper.
  • Use verb tenses correctly.
  • Write sentences that express complete thoughts.
  • Demonstrate paragraph organization and use smooth transitions.

In addition, each kind of writing has its own conventions. For instance:

  • Narrative writing must have characters, setting, and plot.
  • Descriptive writing must appeal to the senses through use of vivid, colorful, precise vocabulary.
  • Expository writing must inform, clarify, explain, define, or instruct.
  • Persuasive writing must present an argument based on facts and logic, and attempt to sway the reader’s opinion.

Teaching Conventions

As a rule, you probably won’t teach a lesson on “conventions,” per se. There are just too many conventions, so it’s better to deal with them independently. Besides, individual concepts stick better when students can apply them in a practical way.

For example, it’s just natural to introduce character, setting, plot, and conflict when you’re teaching your children to write a narrative. You wouldn’t teach these as isolated elements and not have your kids actually write a narrative; the instruction and application makes sense because they’re including these elements in their story.

Similarly, instead of teaching grammar in isolation, make sure you’re providing an immediate way for students to apply their grammar lessons to a writing assignment. If your grammar program is introducing appositives, for instance, require your child to include an appositive in the history report he’s working on.

Reinforcing Conventions

Diligently reinforce concepts by making sure your children are following conventions in their writing.

As they get older, there should be no more excuse for things like comma splices, incomplete sentences, and homophone confusion.

These are the problems you must nip in the bud now, because they’re the very issues that will identify your students as poor writers later on—both in college and on the job. Therefore, give recurring problems focused attention.

Here on the blog, you’ll find lots of help with grammar and punctuation. Other available resources include The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and All About Homophones, both of which can help you teach and reinforce basic but important grammar and spelling conventions. Check them out!

Photo: Erwin Fisser, courtesy of Creative Commons

5 tips for writing concisely

These tips for writing concisely will help teens express as much as possible without using unnecessary words or details.

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Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

~William Strunk, The Elements of Style

Conciseness boils down to this: expressing as much as possible without using unnecessary words or details. Concise writing is brief and precise, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull and dry. Help your children apply some of these tips for more concise writing.

1. Stay on track

Staying on topic is a surefire way to encourage writing concisely. When your student takes tangents and rabbit trails, he loses his focus and ends up with cumbersome, awkward, or disjointed writing. Help him create an outline before he begins writing so that he’s less likely to wander off the path.

2.  Be precise

The more concrete the word choice, the clearer the writing. Your child can be wordy and say “the shaggy gray dog with the long hair hanging in his eyes,” or he can simply say “the gray sheepdog.”

3. Use plain English

Many students mistakenly think that big words impress. In truth, effective writing uses simple, straightforward language. While a handful of mature, well-placed vocabulary words can raise the level of a story or essay, using too many can make a piece of writing seem verbose, over the top, and just plain hard to read. Unless you’re writing for a scholarly audience, don’t overdo the vocabulary.

4. Avoid super-long sentences

To train children to be concise, attach a word limit or try restricting the number of paragraphs and sentences they can use. This will help them say what they need to say in the space allotted.

When kids are first learning to write descriptively and use a thesaurus, the pendulum can swing wildly from three-word sentences to 20 or 30-word sentences. It’s okay to give them the freedom to play with words; they’ll find their center over time. Just know that you may need to gently correct if their zeal begins creating log jams in their writing.

5.  Don’t be redundant

Redundancy refers to extra words or phrases that should be cut out. Your student’s ability to write concisely will always trump filling a page with unnecessary text.

It’s not uncommon for beginning writers to repeat themselves. But such repetition bogs down the writing and makes the reader work too hard. Here are two ways to eliminate redundancy:

  • Add concrete details, facts, or examples instead of rehashing the same point.
  • Slash unnecessary words and phrases. Remember: when two words will do the trick, why use a dozen? Encourage your student to read each sentence and paragraph to see if he can cut out any words. His point will be clearer, stronger, and easier to identify.

Encourage your kids to try some of these tips for writing concisely. They may be amazed to discover how sharp and crisp their writing can be!

Photo: Pete, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Concrete writing: A descriptive feast for the senses

“One of the cornerstones of powerful writing is the use of concrete details that can tell your story for you. I don’t care if you’re writing a sales letter, a blog post or a short story for The New Yorker, you need details.” ~Sonia Simone, Copyblogger.com

Using concrete writing, middle and high school students can add sensory, descriptive details that hold readers’ attention with strong mental images.

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Concreteness transports us into a story like nothing else. It’s the key that unlocks the door of the reader’s imagination.

If your teen’s paper is vague and sketchy, what happens? She loses her readers and they come away without a clear understanding of the characters, setting, or event. Instead, her writing should contain specific, concrete details to hold her readers’ attention and give them a mental picture of the topics she’s discussing.

Choose Words Wisely

Concrete writing engages the senses. Your student’s descriptive and narrative writing should employ strong, colorful word choices that allow readers to experience an object, setting or situation through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Robust nouns and active verbs always pack more punch than weak ones that are simply preceded by a string of adjectives or adverbs. Not to say they don’t have their place, but adjectives and adverbs should boost—rather than define—the words they modify.

Search for Word Pictures

It’s fun to ask your students to search for descriptive, concrete passages in the books they’re reading, such as this excerpt from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Down the face of the precipice, sheer and almost smooth it seemed in the pale moonlight, a small black shape was moving with its thin limbs splayed out. Maybe its soft clinging hands and toes were finding crevices and holds that no hobbit could ever have seen or used, but it looked as if it was just creeping down on sticky pads, like some large prowling thing of insect-kind. And it was coming down head first, as if it was smelling its way. Now and again it lifted its head slowly, turning it right back on its long skinny neck, and the hobbits caught a glimpse of the two small pale gleaming lights, its eyes that blinked at the moon for a moment and then were quickly lidded again.

Notice how Tolkien paints a haunting image of Gollum as he makes his wily approach. Can’t you just imagine that scene in your mind’s eye? Can you see the thin padded fingers and toes and feel the cool smoothness of the rocks in the weak moonlight? Can you picture the secretive, insect-like prowler with the luminous eyes?

This passage from The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith describes a different scene altogether:

Two days passed—two days in which more rain fell, great cloudbursts of rain, drenching the length and breadth of Botswana. People held their breath in gratitude, hardly daring to speak of the deluge, lest it should suddenly stop and the dryness return. The rivers, for long months little more than dusty beds of rust-coloured sand, appeared again, filled to overflowing in some cases, twisting snakes of mud-brown water moving across the plains…. The bush, a dessicated brown before the storms, turned green overnight, as the shoots of dormant plants thrust their way through the soil. Flowers followed, tiny yellow flowers, spreading like a dusting of gold across the land.

Powerful verbs—drenching, thrust, spreading—propel this passage along. Imagery of the river as a snake and flowers as gold dust appeal to the senses. The reader feels the quench of thirst and drought. Such is the power of concrete writing.

Your teens can learn to write more vividly too. For starters, encourage them to:

  • Recognize the importance of using specific vocabulary.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Add more description.
  • Replace tired, vague words.

Introduce the Thesaurus

A thesaurus is a writer’s best friend (my all-time favorite is The Synonym Finder by Rodale). A thesaurus will help your kids find synonyms for repeated words that keep cropping up in the writing. It can also help them find more specific words to replace dull words that contribute to boring prose.

WriteShop I And if you’re looking for curriculum to help them write more descriptively, consider WriteShop I for grades 6-10. It offers many lessons on concrete description that will draw out the best in your teen writers and make their prose sparkle with interesting, colorful vocabulary!

Photo: Liz West, courtesy of Creative Commons

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