December 11, 2008

How to Teach Writing in the Home School is all you need to know:

WRITING IS NOT HARD. Writing is communicating. If you can think, you can write.

So why do home schoolers spend so much money on writing curriculum, give writing assignments starting in first grade, and worry that their kids don't write enough? Probably because the home schooling parent went to traditional school and that's what they went through, or because that expensive curriculum I just bought says we have to, that's why.

It's hard to imagine a world where eight-year-olds are not asked to find the topic sentence of a paragraph or where 12 year-olds are not asked to write book reports. What would become of our youth?

Abraham Lincoln lived in that kind of world. He only spent a few months in a traditional school setting. The rest of his childhood was spent in search of time to read, and no one asked him to write anything. In fact, he didn't have paper. He would write in the dirt or scratch on wood. As a farmer, he had time to think about his readings as he plowed fields or chopped wood, but he never wrote a summary or an analysis of his readings. He didn't even take notes.

When he moved away from home, Lincoln became a store clerk and had plenty of time to read behind the counter. When a family moving West had to lighten their load, he bought a barrel full of their belongings. "I found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries. I began to read those famous works, and I had plenty of time; for during the long summer days, when the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far between. The more I read, the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.” source

That's how Abraham Lincoln became a lawyer. He read, studied what interested him, and passed the bar exam. Without traditional education he became one of the most eloquent, influential communicators in American history. He never took a speech-writing class, yet the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address are among the best speeches ever delivered (and yes, he wrote his own speeches).

But could he write a five paragraph essay? Argh! I'll have more on that topic in a future post.

Here are some specifics for today's student:

1. Let them read.
2. Let them think and express opinions about what they read.
3. Respect their opinions and insights so they will feel the freedom to talk honestly with you.
4. Share your own insights and wonder at a writer's ability to communicate.
5. Don't kill the fun of writing by pointing out spelling or grammar mistakes all the time.

Here's what we did.

At the age of six or seven, Peter began reading the Boxcar Children Series over and over again. I had to remind myself that even if these weren't Dickens, he was at least being exposed to correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. At one point he told me that on the second or third reading he started to notice how the writer was laying out the story, foreshadowing, and creating suspense. This is a good thing to remember: On the first read you are engrossed in the story; on subsequent readings you can be more detached and notice the craft. He even noticed how quotations were organized so that each new speaker had his own line--pretty sophisticated stuff for a young reader to discover on his own. If you think your child isn't picking up on these things, you could casually point them out, especially if you are reading out loud to him. But keep comments minimally invasive or you'll kill the joy of reading.

As your child is reading books that interest him, allow him to respond naturally. He may want to talk about it, write about it, act it out, find more information, who knows! Then he will find more books and websites and have more responses. This can go on for years.

Encourage creative writing by suggesting your child write his own book. Or if he likes to create imaginary worlds, give him a little journal to chronicle his adventures. Melissa had dog stories going on for awhile. She liked to type them into the computer and work on them with friends. At one point, she created a newspaper that reported on happenings around the house, including an advice column and comics.

Meg was a late reader, but she loved to listen to books, and we did a lot of that (Little House on the Prairie, Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, etc). Around the age of 10, she started reading on her own, and with very little instruction, her spelling and grammar are up to grade level just from the exposure she gets from her books.

In 8th grade, take stock of your child's knowledge of grammar, especially if you have not been taking standardized tests all along.*
How do you assess your kids in the area of mechanics? Check out She has a great grammar basics section and links to other sites, including a free assessment with online lessons. To check your child's knowledge in the least threatening way, just read over the basics page together, or do the assessment together and see what areas are weak. I also like the Online Writing Lab from Purdue University. They are concise and have a nice list of topics to choose from. has free worksheets on various grammar topics if your child wants to try those. And my all-time favorite book on English mechanics is Woe is I by Patricia T. O'Connor.

For high school, encourage your child to continue reading great books and allow plenty of opportunity to research whatever interests him. If your child needs some help finding things to read, I highly recommend Invitation to the Classics. It gives short background information on the most respected authors through time, discussion of some of their most important works, along with some questions for thought. Your child could start reading through this book until she comes upon a piece of literature that sounds interesting, then find it at the library. Or you and he could be reading the same thing so you can have the fun of discussing it. This is a great guide to help you find wonderful things to read.

You could give writing assignments, but I wouldn't unless the child really wants one. Melissa used to do this to me. In junior high she'd ask me to give her a research assignment. She tended to do reports about animals. I'd tell her what types of things she might want to find and she'd come up with her own way to present it, complete with pictures she found on the Internet.

One year during high school, Peter and I met with another home schooled student and tried to do a more formal type of literature class. It was fun to have a time set aside once a week to do that, but it really helped the other girl more than Peter. He found the writing assignments easy because he likes to read and talk about what he reads. And after all, that's what makes a good writer--someone who can think and communicate logically. I spent most of my time trying to help the other child who'd been very traditionally schooled at home all her life.

The first semester of his senior year, Peter took a composition class at our local community college. We decided to do that so he could prove to himself and colleges that he could write. Unfortunately, it was mostly a waste of money. They had him writing essays (yes, the old five paragraph essay) on different topics. He got A's on all of them and I hear now his essays are used as examples in the class. Now he's completing his first quarter at the University of Chicago. He gets A's on his papers and at least one teacher used his paper as an example for the rest of the class. His friends wonder how he can be such a good writer when he's been homeschooled--meaning he was never subjected to hours of writing instruction and practice. Maybe that's the key. (edit: Peter won the University of Chicago's Crerar Writing Prize in May of 2010)
If your child will take the SAT or the ACT, you need to teach them about the five paragraph essay. I will have a thorough discussion of that coming soon. But instead of teaching that topic ad nauseam for years, start about four weeks before the test to allow time to practice a few.

Home School Meets Public School in English Class

A few weeks ago they started learning how to write the five paragraph essay. If you haven't noticed by now, I have strong opinions about this traditional way to teach writing, and I can't wait to get some time to dive into it. But even worse than the fact that high school freshman are learning how to write the five paragraph essay, the teacher told them they wouldn't be writing a persuasive essay until next year because they just "aren't mature enough yet." Excuse me? How many eight-year-olds can present persuasive arguments, especially now, around Christmas time?

For the first time in her life, Melissa is taking notes on a book she's reading. She has discovered that the purpose of the note cards is to prove they are actually reading the books. At various points in the unit, each child has to stand in front of the class and talk about the notes they are taking. Melissa did hers yesterday. I asked her how she did. "Fine. I always get full credit for things."

"How did the other kids do?" I asked.

"Terrible! It's amazing how no one can talk. The teacher has to pull things out of them and they just mumble."

But wait, these kids have been in a classroom since they were five years old, becoming magically socialized and learning such wonderful things! And here the child who spent her elementary years "in the wild" can actually talk and write about things she's learning.

Be assured, the freedom to read and think and follow his interests will make your child a natural, effective communicator.


The Five Paragraph Essay

1000 good books--the ultimate reading list

Newberry Medal and Honor Books

*If you live in an area where standardized tests are required, find out what exactly they are looking for and be sure your kids can do those things at a passing level. Scores on standardized tests in the elementary grades mean nothing to colleges. If, however, you plan to send them to a private high school, it might be a good idea to check ahead of time if those schools will use your elementary scores to determine admission or scholarships. Even if you have to "teach to the tests," you can probably cover what they need to know in just a few days if the rest of the time has been rich in reading and discovery.


Penny said...

I've been pondering this very topic for days and really appreciate your post. My homeschool is full of reading...I read to them, they read to me and we listen to books on tape in the car...and it's all three almost every day. However, we're a little weak in writing. I require 3 sentences for my 8 year old when he blogs (not very often) and he writes about 1 letter per month but that's about it. I think I'm starting to ramble but my point is I appreciate your perspective as always and think I'll just relax a bit!

Anonymous said...

Are you a mind reader? You always manage to post on the topic that is worrying me the most :)
Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.

G.Dowell said...

Thanks Jena for another educational post. I'm learning so much from your experience. Yes, I need to relax more . . . and breathe. I think I'll grab a book to read.

Heather said...

Brilliantly put. We are finding the same things here. And I learned to write because I read all the time, not because of anything I learned in school--the teachers were always surprised at my ability, though they also complained about my use of out of style language (I once used thy in a paper unwittingly, because I had been reading a book full of thee and thy and didn't notice it creeping in.) If you would, could you share this over at CU? I think it might ease some minds.

Oh, and as I write this my 3 are writing a play to put on for hubby and I.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to see your 5-paragraph essay post. I don't even really know what one of these is, never having lived in a country where SATs are required.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for expanding on how you handled writing in your HS.

Your posts are so helpful to me because you and your children are living proof that the relaxed way of learning can reap wonderful rewards- smart, confident, dedicated and motivated people.


Anonymous said...

Jena - I've been following your blog for several months now. I so appreciate your perspective. I'm at the early end of our homeschooling journey. Since your opinions on education mirror my own, I'm so happy to read about how well your child-led approach has suited your kids in the long run. I love what you've said today about writing. I couldn't agree more!!

Jena said...

Thank you, everyone, for your encouragement. I'm so glad to hear about your experiences--Heather, love the "thy" in your writing! Kids can do so much more than we give them credit for. Spoon feeding them and over analyzing every writing move is killing their natural abilities. Reminds me of some of the things Ken Robinson says about creativity. Just look at a four year old, then look at a 12 year old who's been traditionally school. What do we do to our kids in the name of education?!

Karen said...

Jena, this is my favorite post of yours yet! You have taken my son's lack of writing interest and turned it on its head... he's a voracious reader and a great communicator, and that is what really matters.
PS I'd like to link to this post if it's okay.

Jena said...

of course! link away!

Mindy said...

ONce again your blog has made me say "ah-ha" and inspired me in my homeschooling efforts.

Traci said...

Jena, thank you so much for this post. It has been my worry for a while that I'm not doing enough. But as usual, I seem to be right on track! The soon to be 8 year old is reading like a fiend and talking like a small adult. I think that she has a great base of knowledge to build on for later!

At A Hen's Pace said...


This was encouraging to me because I'm always disappointed when we don't get to writing as often.

And your daughter's experience at school sounds similar to our daughter's--she is just shocked that so many kids don't bother to do the assignments!

We had student-led parent-teacher conferences this past week, in which she talked us through a folder of work she had selected from her various classes and we discussed it with her and her homeroom teacher. To her it was an easy task, because, she said, "I talk to my parents!" She was surprised that other kids were nervous about it, but she said that's because they're not used to talking to their parents. :)

And here's the kicker: After it was over, my husband, who's been interviewing college graduates for a client services position, said her presentation was hands-down the the most professional, articulate thing he'd seen all week!


My Journey so Far... said...

Great post, as usual! Your posts always allow me to breathe a little easier about what we are and aren't doing. :)
Today my 17 yos came to me and announced he wants to take a poetry class. Well, after staring at him for a moment with my mouth open, I said sure. He is wanting to write music, but doesn't feel he has a way with words so he feels a poetry class might help. Hmmm?
All this to say, that when our dc pursue their interests and passions, they do learn what is necessary and they desire to learn to be their best.

Letitia said...

Very good post. I have found everything you've said to be true. The only "problem" I am having with my 11 year old, is that she has no interest in writing any type of creative story. Maybe it will still come. She started one this past spring, and it was wonderful, but she said she ran out of ideas, so she didn't finish it. I've not pushed the issue.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post.

It's baffling how schools believe that the way they teach writing is truly okay. It almost kills the desire to communicate in many children. Much like the way reading is forced, or even how it's initially introduced (I recently blogged about that).

Hmmm.... and the knitting thing is weird, considering my last post! lol

Nice to meet you.

Anonymous said...

Very comprehensive, Jena. Thanks for this post!

Unknown said...

What has worked for my 10 year old daughter is email. When she first started really writing last year, she emailed my mom many times a day. She loved getting the immediate feedback. Now, she enjoys going on proboards and chatting with friends or writing stories together. They have this wonderful thing they do where one person starts a story and then the next person in line has to write the next part and so on. She will follow me around the house sometimes so excited to hear what the next person wrote. The internet is wonderful for writing in my opinion. Also, allows you to publish and sell your own books which my daughter did. So many fun things out there.

Thanks Jena for the always motivating topics you present here. Cathy

23 degrees said...

Great thoughts, ideas and examples about writing and learning.

Very liberating, motivating, encouraging...

Very Jena.

Fanny Harville said...

Just want to say how much I agree with what you've written here. As a college literature professor, I absolutely believe that reading widely and deeply, and talking about your reading with others, is the best way to become a good writer. The weak writers I see in my freshman composition courses are students who don't read much, who don't love reading.

Jena said...

Hello Fanny! It's nice to hear from you! We all wonder what college professors--especially writing and lit professors--think of our education philosophy. Thank you for the affirmation. And by the way, I just love your blog. I hope all my friends head over there and start reading.

Kathy said...

This post was over a year ago but I just have to tell you how much I appreciate it! I invested in a curriculum last year that had my kids screaming by Christmas that they hated school. Mercifully, I've stumbled on some great unschoolers and your blog! I have completely discarded the scheduled curriculum and we are just going to read and explore like crazy! My girls are 6 and 5 and they like learning again. Phew! Thank you so much for showing me how it is done! Writing was stressing me out.

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