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Building Writers for the NEXT Millennium
"Learning From Barbara's Mistakes"
by Barbara Smith

I have made a lot of mistakes teaching writing primarily jumping into elementary school lessons without properly reviewing what I was doing or why. DON'T DO THIS.

II. Mastering the types of writing: describing, narrating, explaining or reasoning.
Young writers will rarely do more than list or explain. Misspellings are common use the errors as handles on what to teach. Watch your attitude and the spirit with which you correct errors. COMFORT them with the news that rewriting a piece is part of good writing nobody gets it right the first time, except GOD!

A. Description
Beginning in 4th grade students can probably describe an event or a room or a toy, for this is the least complex style.

Students, even in middle or junior high school who have good writing ideas rarely develop them as fully as they might. Don't despair if the writing sounds pedestrian. Their minds and hearts are a work in progress they can't produce what they have not taken in.

If you read their work carefully and pray for guidance, God will show you how to ask questions to expand your writer's horizons. Try to see yourself as a co-laborer, spurring your student on get your ego or fears out of the way!

B. Narration

  1. Assignment
    Beginning in 4th grade, assign your students to tell [narrate] one Bible story that they know like Creation or the Flood, or tell one event or series of events. Younger writers will simply report, older, maturing students may insert some cause and effects. Sixth graders and older students can progress beyond just reporting including more interesting details or showing relationships. Don't freak if they don't! Developing detail or making connections between events in a narration is a good topic of conversation among co-laborers.

    Students who are thirteen or older should be narrating a more complex story. BUT you know their maturity level! Young writers can not write beyond what they are experiencing, or know about. Students who are thirteen or older may have a better sense of writing to please an audience, and use some techniques such as suspense or humor or irony though they may not completely recognize these tools.

  2. Technical
    Don't let spelling or punctuation errors upset you these are the roots of good lessons!

    If the ability to use punctuation is improving by age 11-12, the ability to write proper paragraphs may not be established. Pick a favorite passage and read it. DISCUSSING what the point of each paragraph is, and asking them to highlight if two or more ideas have crept into their writing is helpful. (This also is a sneaky way to stress the usefulness of an outline ) You, the teachers, need to be sure how to use commas for this is a common error.

    Older writers should be encouraged to proof their work carefully. Therefore you can be firm about simple spelling or punctuation errors, and admonishing them. However, many points of grammar, style and organization remain as grist for your teaching mill. You are still very much an encourager and co-labor who points out how and why to use apostrophes, for example.

C. Explanation
Beginning in 4th grade assign your students a topic to explain, such as how to get peanut butter off the roof of your mouth in front of friends. Or how to cut paper dolls. You may assign more complex topics to older students--but don't skip over a simple explanatory paragraph, like how to make a tuna sandwich. Your goal is build precision and completeness into their writing with this assignment. Get them to see that they are showing someone how to do something many grownups cannot do this and so lose their jobs!

Try letting them follow their own instructions by way of editing!

Stress order and clarity first. Encourage them then to think about interesting words after they have written a logical sequence by using words such as first, then and next.

By 6th grade, many writers will add more details, but don't be discouraged when they make omissions. Older students become increasingly precise and use adjectives more fluently. Again, try letting them follow their own instructions by way of editing.

D. Reasoning/Opinion
Develop a topic that even 4th graders can reason through. State an opinion: "Some people think that homeschooled children should spend part of their time helping their family with chores or family business. Do you agree? Why or Why not?" (Ruth Beechick, p. 107)

Many 4th graders will be able to state an opinion and give reasons supporting their reasons, and indicate when each new reason begins separate paragraphs. Some will not. Ask God to show you how to draw thoughtful opinions out of your children, giving them confidence that first God is interested in their thoughts and you are, too.

Help your child to understand how to develop reasons why they believe what they believe. This may be time-consuming, but it is not a waste of anyone's time!

Some 4th graders can include a conclusion or summation, but usually this is a skill that older students demonstrate.

By middle school, particularly 7th and 8th grade, many students can develop their opinions and support them with three to four reasons; many are still unable to do this well. Practice, practice, practice. Use discussion to eliminate dead-brain syndrome.

Ask them what they think about ____ and why. Wait for an answer. Don't put words in their mouths. Your respect for their views will be a crucial contribution to their growing command of language, spoken and written.

By this age, they should understand some of the following common mistakes, how to identify them and correct their own work.

NOTE: Common Errors and what students by 7th grade should catch and must correct, especially if you their co-laborer spot include:

  • Capitalization
  • Punctuation:
    Exclamation points, periods, commas, (the most troublesome of all punctuation marks), colons, semicolons, apostrophes, question marks, parentheses, dashes, etc.
  • Form manuscript form penmanship spelling

III. Editing & Correcting
A Christian writer whether five or fifty-five is first a competent writer, who uses language well to express ideas that first honor God. God is orderly, precise, imaginative, loving, peaceful, kind so our written words must reflect the God who gave us words to speak. Moreover, a Christian writer is always willing to learn to write better, and is, therefore, willing to accept "criticism."

A writer who is unwilling to accept criticism will never grow up as a writer.

The mechanics of writing, while important, are not the essence of good writing. A child could write an error-free paper, but still write poorly. Mechanics are lower level skills. Good writers mature and the child's total thinking matures. Home schooled children tend to write better because they often have more opportunity to read widely and talk about it. Watch out for any semblance of whining here! Your attitude is a powerful deterrent Writing is complex and difficult, it is hard work but it is not boring because it engages the total brain. An "engaged" brain is just the beginning of a wonderful adventure you do believe that sounds wonderful, right?

A. NOW please note LOOSE the red pencil for 90% of a young writer's career.

B. Be positive ask God to show you how to bring out the best while strengthening the weak points. Remember, Max Lucado and Elisabeth Elliot didn't just start writing that way the first time THEY put pen to paper and the college entrance people will not be reading this piece that your fifth grader just completed! RELAX! Make writing a delight, not a distress by showing respect for the effort and appreciation for the imagination that produced it.

C. Talk about the writing piece make suggestions on a separate sheet of paper if necessary. This will make it easier for you to correct the rewrite, too.

IV. More Specific Ideas to pump up your writing program from You CAN Teach Your Successfully, Grades 4-8 by Ruth Beechick

  1. After reading a story, (usually an animal or adventure) write your own story. Is yours true-to-life or fanciful? Pinpoint what you did that helped to make the story either true to life or fanciful?
  2. Read a story with a surprise ending then write one. Discuss what made the ending a surprise.
  3. Rewrite a favorite story in play form rewrite a favorite play as a story.
  4. Rewrite a favorite poem as prose
  5. Write out a proverb -- or line from a psalm. Ask your child to write a paragraph explaining what it means or how they can apply it.
  6. Write a saying from say Poor Richard's Almanac. Ask your child to say whether they agree or disagree and why.
  7. Choose a favorite Bible verse and discuss it in a simple paragraph.
  8. Introducing Outlines
    Start with a piece of writing that is full of information.
    See if they can find the main points.
    Underline them in one color.
    See if they can pick out supporting information. Underline them in another color.
    Write out each main point leaving space for supporting info fill in the Roman numerals, Capital letters and numbers.
  9. Use a narrative paragraph from reading book written in the past tense. Rewrite in the present tense -- then try the future tense.
  10. Read newspaper articles and decide if you think they told the whole story.
  11. During the sermon, write down something the pastor said and then discuss it in writing.
  12. Wherever possible use REAL writing to analyze use library books, story books, or reading anthologies like the Book of Virtues.
  13. READ TO YOUR CHILDREN! Did I mention that?

© 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

We hope our thoughts encourage you in the Lord Jesus Christ who has enabled us to do exceedingly abundantly more than we could have asked or imagined -- please let us know what YOU think. E-mail us at workbook@toad.net. (Please don't forget to include your e-mail address with in the body of the message--we've had some of our responses returned due to insufficient e-mail addresses.)


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