338 | Teaching Writing the Easy Way (Janice Campbell)
Teaching writing doesn't have to be hard, intimidating, intimidating, or expensive. Just start with the books, pencils, and paper you already have, and follow these simple steps. Some children progress quickly; others slowly, but they can all learn to read.
Janice Campbell, a lifelong reader and writer, loves to introduce students to great books and beautiful writing. She holds an English degree from Mary Baldwin College, and is the graduated homeschool mom of four sons. You’ll find more about reading, writing, planning, and education from a Charlotte Mason/Classical perspective at her websites, EverydayEducation.com, Excellence-in-Literature.com, and DoingWhatMatters.com.
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Janice Campbell [00:00:05] Hello and welcome to the Homeschool Solutions Show. My name is Janice Campbell, and I am one of many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging conversation from this busy and blessed journey of educating our children at home. While the title of the show is Homeschool Solutions, we do not pretend to have the answer to every question related to homeschooling. It is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ that you may seek His counsel as you train your children in the way they should go. We are so glad you joined us for today's conversation.
[00:00:39] Hi, I'm Janice Campbell. And today I wanted to share some thoughts on teaching writing. I know that teaching writing can seem intimidating, but it helps to remember that we don't have to start by teaching students to write research papers or analytical essays. Instead, we start with what I call model-based writing, and we build from there. As I share a bit about steps toward teaching writing, I'll share some favorite quotes on writing and teaching writing, and I hope you find it helpful. Let's begin with a quote from Abraham Lincoln who said, "Writing—the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye—is the great invention of the world. Great, very great in its enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn at all distances of time and space. And great not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help to all other inventions.".
[00:01:37] Writing is one of the most important skills a person can learn. But I've often been asked why students, especially young children, seem to dislike writing assignments. Often it's a case of too much, too soon. Parents often feel that if a child can read fluently, he or she should also be able to write fluently. However, reading and writing require much different mental processes and motor skills. While reading is primarily a mental process of decoding and comprehending words that have been put together by someone else, writing is much more complex. Not only must the student be able to comprehend words, he must draw upon his own limited knowledge or experience for a subject, organize his thoughts, choose appropriate words, try to spell them correctly, and use his budding penmanship skills to put it all on paper. It's no wonder that children can be overwhelmed by the task.
[00:02:32] On the subject of readiness, Henry David Thoreau said, "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live." It is necessary that children learn to write, but when should they be taught and how? The timing varies for each child, depending on his mental and physical maturity level and his home life. A child who grows up in a home where books hold a place of honor and screens are limited, will usually be light years ahead of the child who spends his free time being mindlessly entertained by television or video games. Children who see their parents read and write for pleasure are likely to imitate them at a very young age, thereby increasing their readiness skills. Parents who spend time in conversation, enjoy a variety of creative pursuits, interact with nature, and read aloud with the family, are providing for their children a content rich atmosphere and sensory input that will help the children write with vividness, depth, and insight. Household environments, therefore, can cultivate a lifestyle that makes learning seem simple and natural.
[00:03:37] Laura Ingalls Wilder is an example of the effectiveness of this type of lifestyle learning. Though her formal education was limited, she was able to translate her rich childhood experiences into prose that brings that period of history to life. Even though life in the 21st century is very different from the life Laura recorded in her Little House on the Prairie series, the prescription for developing writing ability has not changed much. Children need exposure to language and high quality literature early in life, conversation, interaction with adults, personal experience with nature, time alone for developing thoughts, and a great deal of independent play and penmanship practice so that a lack of physical skills, motor skills, and physical writing fluency does not limit the children's creative expression. Ideally, all these things—except penmanship practice, of course—will be part of a child's life from the day he or she is born.
[00:04:38] The first step in formal writing instruction—surprise—is reading. Ernest Gaines offered what he called the six golden rules of writing: "Read, read, read. And write, write, write." Simple enough, huh? If you have older children and reading and conversation haven't been a regular part of your home life, it's never too late to unplug the screens and begin reading aloud and discussing good books. This is the vital first phase of writing instruction, the construction of a sound foundation of literary experience. And ideally, it should last from birth through high school and even beyond.
[00:05:17] Hearing good literature read aloud does several things for a child. It allows the child to hear words put together in ways that are more powerful and expressive than ordinary conversation. It exposes the whole family to vocabulary they may not normally use. It often introduces people and places the family would never encounter in real life, opening an opportunity for exploration and understanding of other people and cultures. It provides a opportunity to internalize correct grammatical structures in an informal context. And finally, it can create an atmosphere of emotional intimacy in which serious or personal issues can be discussed through the context of the book's characters or situations.
[00:06:01] Reading aloud is foundational for learning to write, but it's also foundational for developing a lot of personal and psychological skills that help your student all the way through life. If for some reason, it's not possible to read aloud regularly within your family, at least provide them with audiobooks. These can be borrowed from the library, rented, or purchased, and thousands and thousands of titles are available including fiction, biography, poetry, and nonfiction. Many of them available on a service called LibriVox. LibriVox.org offers free amateur recordings of all sorts of books, and they are easily available and downloadable, and you can listen to them any time. You can even contribute a few. Audiobooks usually have the added benefit of being read with perfect diction, which is not only helpful for comprehension but can improve personal pronunciation.
[00:07:02] The second step in writing is to build skills through copying and narration. Michael Woods suggested we are what we write. And this suggestion is borne out when many children begin to write. Many launch naturally into the second phase of writing instruction with very little prompting. Fingers clutched around a fat pencil, they work hard to copy the letters of their name or the title for the drawing they have just created. At this stage, you'll often hear, "Mommy, can you write something for me?" as they realize that letters put together in a certain order mean something. This is also the stage when they will want to retell—often at great length—a story you have read or they have heard on tape. Copying and retelling—often called narration—are critical to the development of writing skills as they develop many of the mental processes necessary for good writing.
[00:07:57] A third stage in teaching writing is copying or copywork. The importance of copying is often underestimated and it's discarded as soon as a child is able to write a few words on his own. This is really unfortunate for frequent copying of well-written sentences or paragraphs provides several specific benefits. First, the opportunity to see and reproduce properly written and punctuated writing many times before attempting to do it independently. Thus, you know what a sentence is supposed to look like, where punctuation is used, what properly spelled words look. Second, the opportunity to become familiar with new words in a low-stress learning situation. Number three, practice in handwriting without the distraction of trying to create content and remembering how to format, spell, and punctuate it. And fourth, multi-sensory input tends to be memorable. If a child sees a word written, says the word to himself as he writes, he has engaged several senses and is likely to internalize the information after following the process many times.
[00:09:13] Alexander Pope wrote that "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those who move easiest have learned to dance." The easiest way to approach copying is to use a piece of a child's lined paper—I like the size of a lined paper designed for third or fourth graders—and write a sentence, verse, or quotation using the style of printing you are teaching your child. Skip a line between each line as you write so the child can form his or her letters directly beneath yours. This is much more practical than simply writing line after line of the same letter. It allows the child to see and copy proper letter and word spacing, as well as proper letter formation, capitalization, and punctuation. Practice copywork daily until the child is able to copy neatly and easily. And this is a stage that girls often reach earlier than boys because fine motor skills often develop earlier for girls than for boys. But it's a stage that everyone eventually can reach.
[00:10:18] If you want your children to learn italic writing, which is a beautiful and natural style based on a triangle rather than an oval or a circle, you can learn to write italic yourself, which looks like calligraphy. It can be beautiful. And in order to make copy sheets or you can use a program such as Perfect Reading, Beautiful Handwriting—which is a book I have—or an italic program such as Fluent Handwriting by Jay Barchowsky. Those things can help your student who's finding difficulty, especially with writing, to learn to form letters correctly in practice without you having to make original copy sheets.
[00:10:58] The fourth stage in teaching writing is narration or telling back something that has been read. Quintilian, who lived in the first century, was an orator who reminds us that writing and speaking, when carefully performed, may be reciprocally beneficial. As it appears that by writing we speak with great accuracy, and by speaking, we write with great ease. Both of those are communication skills, and they're both two sides of the same coin. So during this stage of learning, narration helps to develop the writing readiness skills of thought organization and sequencing. So the way it works is you read a story to your child and have him or her retell it or narrate it back to you in sequence.
[00:11:45] Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educator whose methods are used by countless modern homeschoolers and even schools, has used retelling as a major learning tool and a means of evaluation. As the child listens to a story, he chooses those parts that seem the most important, mentally organizes them, and chooses the words with which to narrate the story back to you. Just as writing helps an adult or older student detect gaps in his or her knowledge, so narration helps younger students to discover their strengths and weaknesses in listening and comprehension.
[00:12:23] Narration also allows you to immediately detect and correct comprehension problems. Once a child has mastered the skills required for verbal narration, he or she will find it much easier to move into written narration, which is also known as composition. Sounds much more difficult than written narration, doesn't it? But it is easier. Once you have learned to organize your thoughts verbally and speak them in a coherent fashion, it is much easier to learn to put thoughts on paper in the same way.
[00:12:58] So the fourth stage of teaching writing might also include dictation, which sharpens writing mechanics such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Because remember, with copying, your student has been including copying the punctuation, spacing, and so forth, all the mechanics. And now with dictation, they will be able to reproduce those things without seeing them. So once they're comfortable with the copying and narration, just choose a brief first rhyme or quotation from a good book and dictate it to the child one portion at a time with no repetition. That means you read—if you choose to do a verse or a poem or something—read one line or one phrase and do not repeat it. It teaches the child the skill of close listening. And you allow plenty of time to write, then you go over the paper with him and help him or her see whether the paper matches the original thing that you dictated.
[00:14:05] You always let them see the passage you're going to dictate before you dictate so that they can study it and see if there's any words that are challenging to spell and practice those before they take dictation. But one of the things that happens when you dictate— you might be shocked to discover that your child, who has developed a fairly neat, careful penmanship— that suddenly has disappeared. And it's a little bit less tidy and can be a little bit scrambled because the student's attention has moved to trying to capture words that he or she can't see. So in the process of learning how to take dictation, it's inevitable that there will be distraction from the careful letter formation. Don't be alarmed. This is perfectly normal. And with a little encouragement and practice, the handwriting gets neater as you go. But you know how it is when you're taking notes in a meeting or anything else. Your penmanship does tend to get a little messier.
[00:15:10] So you continue your practice with dictation, increasing the length and difficulty of the dictation pieces until you feel the child has mastered the skills involved. Once a student's comfortable with dictation, he'll be able to use writing as a means of communication, not only in birthday lists and captions for his drawings, but also for letters and stories. It can be helpful to provide supplemental practice in recognizing and correcting errors in punctuation and grammar, too. And you can do that with workbooks such as Fix It Grammar from IEW or the Editor in Chief series of books. Those are great resources.
[00:15:49] So the fifth stage of teaching writing is actually teaching composition, which can be creative or analytical writing. Historian David McCullough wrote that, "The essence of writing is to know your subject." So normally a student would practice writing as they're writing about school subjects. It could be history or science, any other subject or about a book that they've read or whatever. But once the child has achieved fluency in copying—which is penmanship and all the things that go with that—narration and dictation, he will have the skills of mental organization, sequencing, and word choice and have practiced spelling, punctuation, and proofreading, that child is usually ready to start adding the skill of composition on paper in writing, as opposed to narration, which is composition and speaking. This is the writing stage in which the student pulls together all the skills he or she has learned and applies them either creatively or analytically.
[00:17:00] Creative writing includes the composition of poetry, stories, and personal essays. And it usually seems to come more easily to girls than boys, though not always because there are plenty of really good authors who have written great stories who are men. It's a skill which has limited use in the adult world, except for the talented few who will become published authors. However, expository writing, on the other hand, has endless use for learning, for business, and all of that. It includes reports and articles and descriptive, informative, and persuasive essays and other nonfiction writing. The composition stage can begin earlier for some children than for others, but most students are ready to begin sometime within the middle grades of school, junior high level or somewhere around there.
[00:17:51] So by this time, I hope it's become clear that learning to write can happen with nothing fancier than books, pens, and paper. If you have an especially motivated student, he or she can become an excellent writer using what I call the Ben Franklin method. We learn more about this method in the Autobiography of Ben Franklin, in which Franklin himself relates how—after his father pointed out his lack of elegance of expression—he taught himself to write more elegantly and expressively.
[00:18:19] So I will let Benjamin Franklin tell you how he taught himself to write. He says, "About this time, I met with an odd volume of The Spectator. I thought the writing excellent and wished if possible to imitate it. With this view, I took some of the papers and making short hints of the sentences— sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again by expressing each hinted sentiment at length and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. And then I compared my spectator article with the original, discovered some of my faults and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words or readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore, I took some of the tales, turned them into verse, and after a time when I had pretty well forgotten prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collection of hints into confusion and after some weeks, endeavored to reduce them into the best order before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper. This was to teach me method in arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them, but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that—in certain particulars of small import—I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language."
[00:19:52] Again, Benjamin Franklin from his autobiography. So he apparently pursued this self-education in writing during his early teens. And this is a reasonable age for students with a strong foundation in reading and dictation to begin working with more challenging assignments. There are several points to remember when teaching the composition stage of writing. First, it's not a speedy process. A completed composition sequence includes establishing a topic, gathering and organizing information, creating a rough draft, evaluating and improving the rough draft, and presentation of a final draft. My Excellence in Literature curriculum, by the way, includes a whole week for that process. We have a week for the initial writing of the draft and a week for the evaluation and completion of the second draft. And I think that's an important thing that you can include on almost any assignment as the student grows older.
[00:20:51] Another thing is that much of the writing process is mental, so you have to leave time for brainstorming and mental organization before you expect the student to start typing or writing. Also work with the student's natural learning style. Some students enjoy visual organizing methods such as mind maps, while others like the structure of an outline, and some prefer to do most of the pre writing process mentally. It's important that students learn how to organize their study time and study skills and learn how they prefer to learn and write. Because if they go on to college, these are things they're going to need.
[00:21:28] It's also not necessary to go through the entire composition sequence with every assignment, particularly if the student is writing frequently for other classwork. Integrate writing lessons with other subjects by using the composition sequence for history, literature, or science topics. Early composition assignments should be brief. Don't spring a five page essay assignment on a student who is accustomed to dictation of no more than a page at a time. I tend to assign 500 to 750 word essays at the high school level simply because I feel like those are very reasonable. And at the college level, that was a length that we were assigned quite frequently.
[00:22:13] And for students who are reluctant writers, the writing process can be made less painful by permitting them to choose topics they find interesting. While a rich vocabulary is best developed through reading good literature, extra instruction can be useful. Vocabulary from classical roots is just one of the helpful programs that can assist a student in developing a strong vocabulary which will help them through life. But after a student has written, after you have taught all these things, how can you evaluate a writing assignment? Sometimes that feels almost as daunting as teaching writing, but honestly, it doesn't have to be.
[00:22:57] William Strunk who wrote The Elements of Style, along with E.B. White— strunk and White's Elements of Style is one of the most classic writing manuals, and I do recommend that you and your students read it at least a couple of times while the student is in middle or high school. He says, "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 an outline, but that every word tell."
[00:23:42] So it might seem surprising, but the evaluation process is incredibly important in helping the student learn to write well. Ben Franklin apparently wrote evaluated his own writing using published writing as a standard of comparison. And that's not something I would expect most students to be motivated enough to do. But parents can learn to evaluate by reading extensively. If you're not comfortable with your skill in evaluation, you may be able to find another homeschool mom or a friendly English major, perhaps at church or in the community that can help evaluate your student's work and provide feedback. You can also seize the opportunity to improve your own writing skills and learn to discern good writing by reading books such as On Writing Well by William Zinsser or Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. E.B. White is the author of Charlotte's Web, by the way, just as an interesting aside. Or my little booklet Evaluating Writing the Easy Way.
[00:24:44] Writing is the most permanent form of communication. When you take the time to improve your own skills, you demonstrate to your students that you believe that writing truly is important. As Pliny the Younger reminds us, "Next to the doing of things that deserve to be written, there is nothing that gets a man more credit or gives him more pleasure than to write things that deserve to be read.".
[00:25:09] Finally remember the process of teaching writing does not begin with composition, but with reading. If a student is steeped in well-written, well-spoken words, he or she has a foundation to write and speak well. But if a student lacks a good verbal foundation, it's best to spend time building that strong reading foundation so that it will be possible for them to write well. Students who have many good books to read, lots of practice in copying, narration, and dictation, and plenty of time for absorbing ideas, can learn to write well. As a homeschool parent, you have the opportunity to gently shepherd your child into a world of literary delight. So enjoy the process. You can do it.
[00:25:52] You can connect with me, Janice Campbell, and check out my Excellence in Literature curriculum, planning booklets, McGuffey readers, and other resources at EverydayEducation.com. It's where you'll find my book on model-based writing when I get that done too. If you'd like to read more about reading, writing, planning and homeschooling in an eclectic blend of the Charlotte Mason and classical traditions, my blog, Doing What Matters, has quite a few years worth of posts. And finally, the Excellence-in-Literature.com website is filled with articles and resources for people who are learning and loving great literature because reading well can change your life, you know? Thank you for listening and goodbye for now.
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