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Building Writers for the NEXT Millennium
"Back to the Techniques of
Teaching Writing"

by Barbara Smith

SWEEPING GENERALIZATION # 2: Children ARE impressed by seeing what their parents do.

If you do not put a priority on learning, reading and writing -- neither will your kids. If reading is a delight — if parents make reading a delight and model delight when they read — children will imitate what they see. Children who read are better writers -- the wider their reading experience, the better their writing.

Did I mention READING TO YOUR KIDS? Please, read to your kids!

In order to teach writing, parents should read and master Strunk & White's Elements of Style Parents MUST invest in

  1. a good dictionary or three. (Merriam-Webster, or American Heritage Dictionary for example. For kids through fourth grade--a good children's dictionary with larger print is helpful)
  2. An English handbook — a reference for grammar, usage, mechanics, syntax, effective paragraphs and letter form. (Maybe yours -- to refresh your memory)
  3. AND lots of good books!
  4. The most priceless of all writing tools: Time to discuss ideas.

Now — back to the techniques of teaching writing:

I. The "How-to's" of a seemingly terrifying task: Mastering Daily written assignments:

Tell your children they must turn in one written assignment a day. Introduce them to small notebooks to keep ideas or questions — this is how all brilliant writers keep in touch with their creative selves. Don't criticize too much — note errors and incorporate them into lesson plans for spelling, grammar, history, etc.


  1. Keep Journals — all types — prayer — diaries of events — record keeping of academic work
  2. Review all kinds of publication and discuss
  3. Review the history of the English language — maybe look at a language tree.
  4. Writing LETTERS: — the lost art. Family letters, thank you notes — and letters sharing comfort of thoughts of love. Notes to missionaries! Learning to address envelopes. How to write to the government, newspapers or magazines.
  5. Dictate increasingly difficult passages.

Tamara Eaton in her article, "A Love of Writing" (1995, from CIN's Christian Homeschool Forum WebPage) warns parents off the writing workbooks that seem so popular in public education today.

". . . years ago, workbooks were not the method used to produce good writers! Only when public schooling began and teachers had to deal with large groups was it deemed necessary to convert to workbooks for writing and grammar."

Homeschoolers can avoid this pitfall. Tamara writes: "One of the best ways to teach writing is by having the children copy portions of good writing. When the children are very young, it can be just a word or a sentence. As they mature, let them copy paragraphs." Then she also uses dictation in their writing exercises, dictating a paragraph or so. Her children will write it, then they will compare it with the original and correct any mistakes.

"Dictation and copying good literature helps the children see good examples of writing," Tamara believes. "You can use these lessons to point out nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. as you go, if you like. Once they understand the basics, they are able to do more creative writing on their own."

Assign increasingly difficult passages to copy — being certain that punctuation is correct.

Tamara, a homeschooling mother of six children (elementary through high school and beyond!) gives her children a little notebook where they copy well written phrases they come across while reading, favorite poems or sayings, even new words and their meanings. She gives the youngest a special notebook to copy new spelling words. She mentions several prominent writers who literally taught themselves how to write with this method:

  • Jack London would go to the library and ask the librarian for good literature, then he would copy portions by hand.
  • Benjamin Franklin also taught himself to write well by reading good essays, then making outlines, and using the outlines to re-write the essays as well as he could later. "He would then compare his efforts with the original and either see needed corrections, or sometimes find his result was even better than the original!"

Use passages to teach--action verbs or helping verbs--or whatever part of speech you are studying. Look up irregular verbs — and see if your children can identify them.

Tamara suggests several books to encourage children to enjoy writing. "It's an excellent way to motivate! For reluctant boys: All the Henry Reed books by Keith Robertson. Of course girls will love these books, too! I read them over and over again as a child and so have my daughters. The main character is Henry and the book is written as a journal. If your kids aren't used to reading this style of writing, you might want to read aloud the first chapter or two, by then they will surely be hooked! For girls: Anne of Green Gables, and other books by L.M. Montgomery. Little Women, and other books by Louisa May Alcott. (Although the ones featuring "Jo" deal with writing the most.)"

Teaching writing to children is not difficult if you provide them with excellent examples, opportunities to write and good incentives. How we speak, using lively, descriptive language -- being story-tellers about everyday events, and making word pictures — also helps in our children's ability to communicate effectively with others

Tamara says we can encourage reluctant writers to write by providing them natural and useful writing activities, such as journals, letters to family and friends, making a newspaper, or book, writing off to companies to request information or products. "Pre-stamped post cards can be obtained at the post office very inexpensively and these are especially good choices for younger children or children who hate to write. They only require a small amount of writing and children can use them to send off brochures from travel agencies or chambers of commerce, or for short notes for friends and family with perhaps a small drawing or some stickers for decoration!"

Still stuck for intelligent writing ideas? Tamara prompts mothers to let the children write a little book of their family history or even their own autobiography. We can provide family photos which the child can include in his book. This is a handy way to develop interviewing skills too as you encourage kids to interview older family members and friends and write an article about them. You can "publish" these in a little newspaper or newsletter and distribute it to friends and family. She also concurs that keeping a "Spiritual Journey Journal" in which they write notes about what the Lord is doing in their lives and favorite Scripture verses is a good use of their time.

B. About Writing Readiness:
Writing readiness is tied to language sophistication — it is important that you speak to and with your children and that you are reading to your children. Before you expect Pulitzer prize material from your young child, here's guide. Be certain they can do the following:

    Speak in complete sentences
    Follow ORAL directions
    Tell a short story
    Say their name, address and phone #
    Recognize rhymes
    Listen to others reading
    Write simple sentences with periods
    Capitalize first letters of sentences, proper names, the pronoun "I"

Now I give this only as a list of suggested skills. DO NOT freak if your child can't do everything. These are targets at which you can aim — suggestions to incorporate into your lessons, OK?

Approximation of AGE for Language Arts Mastery
By age 7-8
Again parents must keep refining their children's ability to follow oral instructions. And see that they can —

    Add suffixes -s, -ed, and -ing
    Recognize some uses of apostrophes
    Alphabetize by the first letter
    Follow a series of instructions
    Introduce syllables
    Begin to use a dictionary
    Write short stories, notes or reports
    Capitalize days, months, cities, streets, states, reverences to God and the Bible.

By ages 9-10 Keep building their ability to listen and follow oral directions. They should be able to:

    Write and relate original stories, reports, etc.
    Use simple punctuation
    Recognize and use COMPLETE sentences
    Capitalize initials
    Use pre-fixes and suffixes
    Follow logical sequence in telling or writing reports
    Use a dictionary
    Recognize the number of syllables

By age ten: You should be introducing important aspects of language arts, such as word usage.
They should be able to:

    Participate in a discussion
    Write simple stories, poems, letters, reports, etc
    Punctuation skills with a period, comma, exclamation point and initials --
    Describe types of sentences
    Use periods after abbreviations
    Use apostrophes in some contractions and in possessive words
    Group related sentences to for paragraphs
    Write a simple letter and address envelope
    Identify nouns and verbs
    Improve dictionary skills
    Use correct verb forms -- singular/plural, past, future

By 5th grade level, grammar programs repeat and become increasingly difficult -- beginning emphasis on vocabulary skills — because foundation skills should be in place. By age 11 they should be able to:

    Interpret oral information
    JUDGE content and presentation
    Participate in discussions
    Give oral reports
    Use punctuation correctly: including quotation marks around titles and direct quotations, underline titles (BOLD ITALIC)
    Write notes, invitations, book reports, original prose and poetry
    Proofread and edit their own work.
    Identify prepositions, conjunctions, interjections
    Identify subjects, predicates, direct objects
    recognize subject-predicate agreement
    Use adjectives and adverbs in writing
    Use verbs correctly
    Identify prepositions, conjunctions interjections
    Recognize agreement between pronouns and antecedents
    Diagram* subjects and predicates
    Diagram* direct objects
    Diagram* adjectives and adverbs
    Diagram* prepositions and conjunctions
    Recognize indirect objects
    Diagram* indirect objects
    (*NOTE: Diagraming is a good use of your student's time — for it teaches and stretches their understanding. Keep at it— most kids may not completely master this until high school.)

© Barbara W. Smith 1998, all rights reserved
Permission is given to reprint any of Barbara's articles in non-profit publications as long as the article is reprinted in full and contains the copyright information and Web site address.

Please send a copy of the publication to:
Third Floor Publishing
PO Box 827
Arnold, MD 21012

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