Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Some thoughts on teaching writing

As I've been thinking about how to teach writing, I've scribbled a couple of thoughts about it here. I'm no expert on how to teach writing; I love to write, I love to teach., and I am teaching my four children  how to write and so I thought I would share a part of my  journey with you.

Content of writing versus form of writing

There are two basic layers to teaching writing: content and form. There is the WHAT of what you want to say, or the content, and then there is the HOW of what you want to say, or the form. One of the difficulties of teaching how to write is just this: learning how to write while trying to figure out what to write.

In one sense the form or rules of writing can appear easier to teach than the content of writing. Somehow the rules of writing: grammar, spelling, capitalization, and commas seem easier to correct than content but they are closely related to content because WHAT you want to say influences HOW to say it.

Yet, I do agree that Content is more difficult to teach because how can you teach someone to think and to articulate ideas if they haven't already been thinking for themselves. As I pondered this difficulty of the tension between how to write and what to write, I asked another homeschool mom in passing how she taught her children to write. She said, "They write every day" and then she had to dash off.

I wasn't sure how that helped me. But I took that little nugget and came up with a method for them to write every school day. Now, after a few years, I see the beauty in this. The way to learn how to do something, is to do it.

So it is in writing that one can learn to write. 

Learn how to generate ideas
So how do we write to learn how to write? A simple form is a 10 minute journal. Find a notebook and a pen. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Find a prompt: such as a word or a question. Start the timer. Begin writing and don't stop writing while the timer is timing, even if it means that you write: "I don't know what to write but I have to write for 10 minutes: over and over again. There is no worrying about spelling, grammar, handwriting. Just write without stopping for ten minutes.

This simple exercise teaches you how to get ideas out of your head and onto page or screen. You can use a pen and paper or a computer. This exercise is somewhat like playing scales on the piano. It gives muscle memory about how to write.

Getting to the ideas in our minds is one skill set while organizing and editing those ideas is another skill set. When I began this idea, I was surprised how much my children enjoyed doing this and asked to do this and often write longer than the prescribed time.

Later on in our schooling, the students have had writing assignments when they simply stared at me with no idea how to begin. Then I told them to set a timer and write on the topic for 10 minutes without stopping -- idea generation! Immediately they got unstuck.

I also have them edit journal entries once a week. They take one of the free-writing sessions and give it form and structure, proper spelling and punctuation along with other editing as needed, so that it can become a piece of writing that they are proud of.

The next part of learning how to write is to read. It is important to read great books, great fiction books. It will introduce the children to books that have something worth reading both because of its content and its form. It therefore becomes important to:

Find great books. Read great books. 
Read them aloud; read them quietly. Read great books.

Finding great books does not necessarily mean the top 100 classic books that every child should read before going off to college. There may be some books on that list that are great, however, not all books are great just because they are on that list.

You need to learn how to find great books that are worth reading again and again.

It starts by finding the books that impact your heart, mind, and emotions, leaving you a changed person. Now, there are those books that many love. Those are good places to start but don't worry if that book isn't for you. You will find your way in time. Although I do need to caution you that a lot of the great books were written in a time and an age where time was slower-paced than our world is so some of the great books need to be given time to warm up -- maybe even halfway through the book. Yet, even after giving it some time, you may find that the book still doesn't resonate with you. That's fine. Set it down and keep looking.You'll need to learn some discernment and learn which books are great books by reading them.

It is hard work finding great books. It is hard work to find the type of book that impacts you both with its message and with the way it is said, but keep looking because it's worth it!

When you find the great books, read them aloud and  give them to your children to read them to themselves and read them yourself and don't get in the way. Enjoy the story for the story sake. Do NOT make your student write a book report.

Do take time to discuss favorite treasured parts of the book, as long as it's not forced. Keep a quote book of favorite pages. Keep a book journal, making a list of the books you've read and what you do or do not like about them. Read what your children are reading. Ask them what they like about it. Let them enjoy the story for the story sake -- just like you would enjoy a movie without dissecting it. Read it. Enjoy it.

Remember that every great book you love or that your favorite English teacher loves or your aunt that is always reading loves just MAY not be the book that you love. But find the fiction books that craft a story that draws you in. But is imperative for you to find really great books and have your children read really great books. Writers read.

And it is in the reading great books with great ideas that it will stir and generate ideas in your students. Childhood is a time to instill in children what is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and true. Children are curious quite naturally. They are fascinated with dandelions and bring them to their mothers. Fan the flame of their interests. Talk with them. Answer their questions and ask them questions. Spend time together and these activities will build experiences, thoughts, observations, and perceptions that they can then begin to put on paper.

There are many more aspects to writing but these two are great places to start. The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease is a great book to read to be inspired to read aloud to your children and includes a book list in the back. I have found some treasures in his book and at least one of his books that he went on & on about, I didn't like. I didn't read it aloud. BUT, the rest of the book inspired me and made me want to change the world by reading stories aloud to children, adults, to all the people of the world. It gave me a great perspective.

As far as editing writing, I use Strunk & White's Elements of Style. It is not a complete how-to manual but it is concise and helpful.

Any other thoughts that you may have about teaching writing? 
Did you have an inspirational writing teacher that taught you?


  1. Kathleen, you are very smart........and your children are blessed. Anything to add? A book?--yes, 'Rumors of Water' by LL Barkat. (Tweetspeak Poetry founder--button is on my blog). And journaling? Her book 'God in the Yard' changed my life. Truly.
    Blessed to read your words here!

    1. Jody, Thank you! You are such a faithful blog friend and an encouragement to me. I have not heard of either of those books. I am adding them to my list to read and can't wait to check them out. Kathleen

  2. Well thought out post! I've never tried to teach writing, but as I thought about how I learned to write I feel like my lessons were pieced together over a very long time! Some of it does come from a natural affinity for words. I remember a few things taught by teachers, but I never considered myself a writer until I actually had to do it myself. Years of reading newspapers, magazines, and books paved the way. Then job opportunities required me to free form write letters and that led to other types of writing. I do believe practice is key.

    1. I am finding that teaching writing and teaching driving have similarities. There are rules that must be followed. It can feel a little reckless. There are guidelines and wisdom that help flesh it out more than the rules alone can do and really you can only learn by doing it,for better or for worse!


Thanks for being part of the conversation...I love hearing from you. Kathleen

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