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Building Writers for the NEXT Millennium
Raising Writers at Home
by Barbara Smith

(Text of a Talk given August 21, 1999
for Walkersville Christian Family School Homeschool Conference, Roxburty PA)

God used educated and uneducated men to record His word. Moses, Isaiah, Ezra were educated writers. David was a shepherd who God chose and empowered. Peter was a fisherman who preached and wrote life-changing words. Our God has a habit of selecting the simple and confounding the wise. Is it too much to think, then, that the Lord of the Universe, who has not misplaced one star in all the heavens, throughout eons of time, cannot teach our children how to string a few simple thoughts together, on paper – IF it serves His purposes?

A good piece of writing begins with an original idea. Ask God for something original to say — He’s original. And just as I say that, I bet at least one person is saying, “Yes, but, then what? . . . How do I help my child get any ideas down on paper?”

Unlike most highschool test banks and standardized tests, writing essays reveal how well a student has mastered the facts. Writing reveals language competence and intellectual ability. Maybe that’s we all clutch when we see blank, lined paper.

Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century English essayist and philosopher knew writing reveals: “Reading makes a full man; conference, a ready man; and writing, an exact man.”

Note: If reading is receiving language, then writing is producing it. Writing is thinking on paper, revealing our selves in black and white. Writing, then, is an instant index on how well one grasps an idea. It is scary endeavor because spoken words go by so fast, others may miss our ignorance by the speed or flourish of our words. However, when we commit words to paper — we commit to exposing a part of our souls, a part of ourselves that will remain — that others can judge our proficiency.

SWEEPING GENERALIZATION #1: You Must THINK intelligently, before you write intelligently!
If you are thinking intelligently — you have fed your mind with useful information and are trying to explain what you have learned. Writing sharpens thinking — thinking intelligently of course depends on good circuitry in the brain, BUT thinking intelligently depends upon reading good stuff. If you write well, you are exercising the brain circuitry and building appetites and muscles to keep thinking well.
READING written words is how we learn; WRITING words is how we show how much we know about what we have read. Reading and writing are the most important aspect of education, for reading another person’s words are how we learn -- how are brains grow up -- It is important then what we feed our brains — and our children’s brains. Reading and then clarifying your thoughts in writing are the integral parts of learning.
If your little child cannot string one or two verbal thoughts coherently together, don’t freak because they can’t write two or three connected thoughts! Intellectual maturity takes time -- the one thing we frequently overlook in the education rush to excellence. This growth may seem imperceptible but real progress does take place -- that is what your writing assignments should document -- not just for a portfolio or transcript -- but for your child to see how far God is developing their brains!
Thinking critically is a skill that is developed over time and through experiences — If you short-circuit the time, you short-circuit the processes that produce thoughtful writers. Where do any of us get an extra hour? Check the TV time and start shaving! Hang-up the phone and log-off the computer. Go to the library at least once a week and spend an hour roaming with your kids — for years we made weekly trips to the library.

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.
If you will pray and if you are willing to master a few essentials of the English language, you can create a writer-friendly environment in your home.

I. An Essential of the English Language
In 1919 William Strunk, Jr. required his students to use a handbook he wrote: The Elements of Style. E. B. White, a grateful student of Professor Strunk’s applied these elements and added a list of reminders. This unusual “collaboration” is a delight to read, and if [you and] your children master the elements Professor Strunk and Mr. White propose, writing will become a delight. The first four sections of Elements of Style discuss what is correct or acceptable English usage. The fifth section is a refreshing and simple discussion of what distinguishes good writing. Mr. White wrote it, conceding his list of reminders is not an infallible guide that defines style. (But it comes pretty close!)
Even if your student has never cracked a grammar book, Elements of Style outlines basic tools of the craft. Before you begin writing assignments, master these elementary rules and principles! Before you hope to encourage your writer, you should study E. B. White’s “Approach to Style.” And, of course, your student should plan to camp out on these nineteen pages for awhile, too! It will make conversations about rewriting less difficult.
Nancy Witherspoon, an AHSG mom suggested how to incorporate Elements of Style into homeschool lesson plans. Depending on your student’s language skills, Stunk and White can form 18-20 lessons on usage, composition, vocabulary and spelling . With Nancy’s kind permission, here is a suggestion how to use this handy little volume.

Lesson Assignment
1st Read and outline the Introduction in a writing notebook.

I. Elementary RULES of Usage

2nd Read pages 1– 5. Study rules 1-3.
Write TWO or more examples for each rule.
Note: For Rule 3, “parenthetical” is another term for an appositive
3rd Read pages 5-7. Study rules 4, 5 and 6.
Write TWO or more examples for each rule.
4th Read pages 7-9. Study rules 7 and 8.
Write TWO or more examples for each rule.
5th Read pages 9-13. Study rules 9 and 10.
Write TWO or more examples for each rule.
Note: If one can’t bake a cake without knowing what ingredients do what when combined with others, one is wise to KNOW the basic ingredients of writing. Be CERTAIN you know the eight parts of speech. List the parts of speech, define and give examples. Use a standard grammar text for definitions and examples. Keep this list handy!
6th Read pages 13-14. Study rule 11.
Write TWO or more examples for this rule.

II. Elementary Principles of Composition

7th Read pages 15-17. Study rules 12 and 13.
Outline the main points.
Write TWO or more examples for these rules.
8th Read pages 18-23. Study rules 14, 15 and 16.
Note the main reasons good writing is active voice, stated in positive form.
Why is definite, specific, concrete language preferable?
Write TWO or more examples for these rules.
9th Read pages 23-28. Study rules 17-19.
Make-up some wordy sentences and then correct them.
Note the important points for rule 18.
Write TWO or more examples for rule 19.
10th Read page 28-32. Study rules 20 and 21.
Summarize why clever writers keep related words together.
Describe common mistakes writers make.
What are verb tenses?
Note the important points about verb tenses you will apply to your writing.
11th Read pages 32-33. Study rule 22.
Write TWO or more examples for this rule.

III. A Few Matters of Form.

12th Read pages 34-38. Study Professor Strunk’s description of form and content. He shows how to avoid common, sloppy techniques that detract from your ideas. MASTER these matters! Note in your writing notebook what you learn. Be certain you can define terms and apply standard manuscript form.

IV. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

13th Read pages 39-65. LEARN this stuff!
When we fail to use words properly, or misspell the obvious, we look stupid. (Trust me, here, I know whereof I speak!) Get to know your dictionary — take one to lunch routinely. Note the edition’s to which the good professor refers.

V. An Approach to Style (with a list of reminders)

14-16th Read pages 66-85 carefully; read them more than once. You may think you already know what Mr. White is saying, but you don’t. You will not know what he means until you apply his reminders to your writing!
17th Review pages 66-69. Outline Mr. White’s description of STYLE
18-20th Review and summarize Mr. White’s 21 reminders. These reminders will breathe a little life into dead tired assignments, making the difference between mundane and magnificent writing. These are points that engage an editor’s attention.

II Reminders with love from me to thee:

A. If writing is your passion, then YOU must decrease.
(Sounds almost BIBLICAL, huh? See. John 3:30.)
B. Be yourself in your writing assignments — and be the best *self* you can be, too!
(See 1 Sam 17:38-39)
C. Keep your writing simple. (See Eccl 12:10 )
D. Keep it clear: use nouns and verbs. (STUDY! Eccl 5:3, 7; 6:11; 9:17)
E. Revise & rewrite. Now, fellow writers: If you cannot accept criticism, you will never GROW UP as a writer! DEAL with it! And consider the following:
1. Psalm 141:5: Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; it is oil upon the head; do not let my head refuse it, for still my prayer is against their wicked deeds.
2. Proverbs 9:9: Give {instruction} to a wise man, and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man, and he will increase {his} learning.
3. Proverbs 12:1: Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
4. Hebrews 12:11: All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. And GOOD writing!

III. 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.


  • Keep Journals — all types — prayer — diaries of events — record keeping of academic work

  • Review all kinds of publication and discuss

  • Review the history of the English language — maybe look at a language tree.

  • 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
    • Learning to write to the government, newspapers or magazines.

  • Dictate increasingly difficult passages.

  • Good writers read good writers; not workbooks! Workbooks help us keep track of what we teach. Homeschoolers can avoid this pitfall.

Tamara Eaton in her article, “A Love of Writing” (1995, from the Christian Homeschool Forum WebPage, http://www.thekingmaker.com/) warns parents off the writing workbooks that seem so popular in public education today. "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."

Tamara, a homeschooling mother of six children (kindergarten-high school) 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.
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. 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. 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!”

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.
Writing well is like painting well: Like a painter must know how oils react to brush strokes upon with canvas, a writer uses a noun or a verb to build tension, relieve suspense, or inspire wonder. Watercolorists must learn how the water diffuses color before they start breaking the rules. Before they bend the grammar rules writers must learn the basics: the elementary rules of usage, the elementary principles of composition of language, a few matters of form, words and expressions that are commonly misused, and words that are commonly misspelled.
Does that sound so scary? Neither does breathing until we try to explain respiration to our children, right? But, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
Now, using a medical text might not be the best tool to illustrate breathing principles, so some grammar books complicate learning to write.
Teaching our children to write well is linked to our attitudes. If we flinch, fuss or fume about writing assignments, we can short circuit our kids’ creativity, enthusiasm and willingness to take a risk and try something. If we consistently connect writing to preparing for college entrance essays, if we can disconnect delight from diligence. If we become critics instead of encouragers, we will train students whose writing is technically proficient, but devoid of conviction, humor or talent.
So – am I saying anything goes. Of course not! By the time a highschool student approaches the kind of delight-directed writing assignments, he or she must know the basics of the English language. But as your student writes now, all those interminable grammar “rules” come as alive with possibilities, just as a pallette vibrates for the artist who understands how to handle color. And like the painter who grows in confidence and competence and creativity, the more canvasses she completes, your writer will become better.
My watercolor teacher told me years ago, “If you want to paint – paint. Don’t get sidetracked – paint in the midst of your circumstances!” She was a wife and mother of 4 children who set up her workroom on her kitchen table. The same goes for writers. And their parents, who must be wise stewards of time.
Technical writers, those who work at moving words around a white surface to transit information can leave their work and go onto other activities. Writers have no choice but to work with those same words on that same white surface, but ours is a passion that keeps us framing and revising our words until we show you our heart.
Now, many hearts are ugly, and their authors use careless, crude streaks, communicating despair. Pray that God gives your child a message, pray that He builds a zeal to write well for His glory, whether it is devotional, humorous, persuasive or journalistic. How many redemptive messages could we write if we simply opened ourselves up to God?
Moses didn’t think he had much talent, but God thought differently: "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes {him} dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say." (Exod 4:10-12)

© Barbara W. Smith 1999, 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.

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