Writing Skills: more than putting pen to paper

Kenny breaking pencil

Rolled eyes. Sighs. Dropped shoulders. Sound anything like your student's response when you assign an essay or report?

Or perhaps they sit down with a good attitude, but after hours of focusing on their paper or computer screen, there are only a few vague lines of text?

Effective communication is essential to more than one's vocation. Every relationship, every task, depends on the clear communication and understanding of ideas. One of the ways we communicate is the written word. Whether we are using actual pen and paper or a keyboard, the same skills apply to the process.

The understanding and use of our language is a core skill. While a student may not love to write essays, or be the next Ernest Hemingway, they can develop competency in writing that isn't boring or painful.

The question isn't just about how we should teach writing in our homeschools, but how do kids gain the ability to write coherent, well-crafted essays and reports that reveal deeper thinking about the topic?

To start, we must lay a good foundation in language. Reading and writing go hand in hand. While it doesn't necessarily follow that a child who loves to read will also become a child who loves to write, reading good literature gives a child an 'ear' for language. They learn to recognize good sentence structure, discerning the meaning of words from the context, the organization of ideas, as well as the fun stuff of language- a play on words, figures of speech, colloquialisms and cliches. The more a child is familiar and comfortable with language, the less likely they will dread learning how to use it themselves.

Next, as children are learning to form letters on paper and navigate a keyboard, give them time to master penmanship and keyboarding before expecting their spelling and grammar to be up to par. Quite often children are more focused on the physical task itself than if the letters are in the right place. Don't stress them out with what to them is major multitasking. Allow their eye/hand, left brain/right brain coordination to mature to proficiency.

The mechanics of language - grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation - must also be taught. These are the building blocks of writing in the same way that phonics and phonemic awareness are to reading. We don't need to bog kids down in a pile of predicate nominatives, and infinity of infinitives, or a passel of participles, but they do need to know that English has a system and structure expressed in our rules of grammar and usage.

Finally, we must set aside an accumulation of customary classroom method stumblingblocks. Writing skills are often taught separately from other subjects, and not enough time is spent  practicing the craft of creating an organized paragraph, a logical argument, or articulate prose. Little depth of understanding of content is required for many writing assignments, resulting in a rather dull and strained narrative. Traditional textbooks often rely on multiple choice questions, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, or the student's memory of short highlighted quotes from the text to answer questions about the topic. This fails to engage the student in more than one way.

Original work, especially when creative license is given, assists in developing many areas necessary for good communication in writing:

  • Students must translate their own ideas into words.
  • Original work compels the student to organize their thoughts into words, sentences, and paragraphs.
  • Putting something in writing assumes that it will be read and assessed by someone else, thus increasing self-awareness of its substance.
  • They are continually practicing the mechanics of good grammar and sentence structure.
  • Students can be encouraged to find and develop their own voice or writing style.
  • During the editing process, the child can learn how to arrange and rearrange ideas to convey focus and emphasis.

There are a few simple ways to help our kids not only develop their writing skills, but enjoy the process and reap a sense of accomplishment.

Use reading material of high quality, and challenge their reading level. Don't let them stick with easy books in their age range - introduce them regularly to stories that contain advanced vocabulary and complex ideas. A great way to do this is scheduling regular oral reading time together. Don't hand them Arthur Conan Doyle or Jane Austen and send them to their rooms. Discover the classics together.

Copy work and dictation can also help students develop their ear for language. It also gives them more time to practice good penmanship without the pressure of creating the actual content. Use classic poetry and prose, as well as the Bible.

Use fill-in-the-blank worksheets to teach note-taking and outlining.

Skip fill-in-the-blank worksheets in favor of short essays.

Start with short paragraphs, using resources such as Create Better Writers to teach basic principles of composition.

Show them how to go beyond simple sentences. By beginning sentences with If, Unless, Although, and joining sentences with conjunctions like but, because, for, yet, or, and so, students are forced to more seriously consider how they can connect related and opposing thoughts. Don't let them stop with a few adjectives to add detail; use appositives to describe the subject.

Instead of the usual book reports, energize their creativity by asking them to analyze theme, write a character sketch, outline plot points on a chart, or rewrite a scene or an ending that is more to their liking, and be able to explain their choice.

Don't fall back on research and report writing to teach a subject. Teach - and then let the student express what they've learned in a research paper or report. It can be frustrating to try to write about a complex subject with limited information and perspective. Point out important aspects of the topic being studied, and then urge them to do more than summarize, but offer their own analysis and opinion. Let them use writing to ask "What if" questions about people, places, events, and ideas.

Use research and report writing to teach. Some topics lend themselves to self-directed learning. Not only can they research with typical reference works, but point them toward different resources for information, such as primary source documents, professionals, teachers, librarians, experts and those with personal experience, and reputable biographies. Allow them to form a hypothesis, do their own experimentation, and explain their outcomes.

Spend less time looking for correct/incorrect conclusions, and more time assessing their use of language. This one can be tough for parent/teachers. Be careful about dampening creativity and discouraging the normal youthful struggle of learning about the world and their place in it. Obviously it is appropriate to point out inaccuracies, and I would be very concerned about a paper titled "The Holocaust Was Awesome", but letting them explore the substance of issues and express their opinions freely not only releases them from the added (and artificial) pressure of 'pleasing the teacher', but will help you as the parent/teacher to gain insight into their thought processes. The point of writing is language - not parroting 'approved' ideas.

Write more by writing more often. Don't assign a 5-page essay until they've mastered the Five Paragraph Essay. Do small scale, fun, and creative writing projects to increase their competency and comfort level with writing.

  • Compose a commercial for a preferred product or place to visit.
  • Write fan-fiction scenes from a favorite book or movie.
  • Have them imagine they are running for a political office and compose a campaign speech.
  • Design short essays to provoke specific emotions- humor, joy, sadness, fear.
  • Compose a dialogue between characters from different books and different genres.
  • Describe a recent family or church event.
  • Interview a local professional about their job.
  • Explain a procedure in step-by-step detail.

Analyze and evaluate a variety of points of view on controversial topics. This is WAY scary to many parents. We don't want to expose our children to strange and potentially harmful ideas. We want them grounded in truth, so we show them nothing but what we consider to be good and true. In my opinion, this can severely stunt a child's ability to learn critical thinking skills. They need to learn how to discern 'spin', straw man arguments, logical fallacies, hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, appeals to coincidence, similarity, and false authority, confusion of correlation and causation, and other fallacious debate tactics. We can do this by examining opposing arguments and discussing complex issues. After all, if what we believe is true, it should be able to stand up to a certain amount of age-appropriate challenge. The internet is chock-full-o-experts, self-declared and otherwise, who have given voice to and published their opinions on religion, politics, parenting, education, the environment, nutrition... there is no lack of material for this exercise.

Children come into this world with many gifts, but it is our job as parents to nurture those gifts, to help them mature and bear their full potential. Children will not spontaneously reel out pages of coherent thought without being shown the tools of the writing trade, taught how to use them, and then given the time to practice, just as we would any other instrument. Teach writing as much more than pen to paper or words on a screen.

Words can create worlds- what universe has your child made today?