Teaching Writing: Building a Strong Foundation

Let's start with some myths you've probably heard about teaching writing:

  • Just have your students write, write, write. Begin early. It doesn't matter what they write as long as they write every day. Ignore spelling and grammar. Eventually everything will come together.

  • Journal writing will lead to students feeling more comfortable expressing ideas, thus (eventually) resulting in sound communication.

  • Computers make for better writing.

  • If your students read great literature, quality writing of their own will inevitably follow.

  • Public schools often seem to believe that if they just require younger and younger students to turn out creative and expository writing, and keep increasing the volume, then the quality will surely increase as well. But the average public school graduate still can't write well, according to numerous college professors. Discussing this, Jay Mathews of The Washington Post says, “Writing instruction is in crisis.” Janie Cheaney (a senior editor at World magazine, author, and former homeschool mother) and Susan Wise Bauer (The Well Trained Mind,etc.),  approach education from rather different viewpoints, but both believe that pushing writing in the early years is counterproductive.  (See links for articles each wrote about teaching writing at the end.)
  • Journal writing came into vogue during the '70s when it was cool to talk about emotions. This might be a useful technique for some emotive girls, but your average elementary aged boy doesn't typically doesn't even know how he is feeling or really care for that matter. 

  • Computers certainly make the writing and editing process easier, but they are not a solution to teaching how to compose logical, coherent essays. Furthermore, using computers can lead to lazy writing. Click – thesaurus; click – grammar check, which may or may not be smart enough to discern your intentions. (Computers lead to a slew of bad writing problems for older writers too. Check out “How Computers Cause Bad Writing” to see the problems composing on computers creates for much older writers.)

  • If you've read the blog for any time, you know I'm a huge fan of sharing good literature with children. Reading, and especially listening to, classic literature will certainly build strong language patterns into your children's brains, giving your children a leg-up when it comes to writing. Often you will find them mimicking similar styles when they compose their own pieces. However, simply reading and listening to good books alone is not sufficient except for the rare natural writer.* Most children need direct instruction to learn strong writing skills, but of course, keep reading aloud and giving them great books to read themselves!
So what is a homeschool parent to do?

If you survey different homeschool camps to see how writing is handled in the early years, you'll start to notice some overlap. From Charlotte Mason to Classical, Sonlight to Learning Language Arts Through Literature, Ruth Beechick to Karen Andreola, you will find repeated use of copywork, dictation, and narration. What's this all about? Though I used these tools (along with others, including everything mentioned in the myth section) with my oldest children, I didn't really understand the big picture of their purposes for many years. Without this understanding, these exercises can seem sort of trivial or frivolous, but this is far from the truth.

Written language differs greatly from spoken language, and learning the conventions and rules resembles learning a foreign language. Susan Wise Bauer in “Why Writing Programs Fail” explains that writing involves two separate and difficult steps for children:

inarticulate ideas -----> ideas in words

idea in words ------> words on paper

That is, first a child has to be able to take what may be a vague thought and put it into definite words, and secondly he has to be able to capture those words on paper which involves knowing the mechanics of writing, grammar, and spelling. He has to remember how to hold the pencil, how to form letters, how space words, add punctuation, and spell words all while trying to capture thoughts in his head. Instead of assuming these steps come automatically for your child, if you give him plenty of practice with each step first, allowing him to gain mastery of each one independently, then as he needs to put his thoughts on paper about, say, the piece he just read about solar panels, he will know how to pull it off.

And – ta-dah! - narration gives your child practice in summarizing and putting into words his thoughts about a particular passage while copywork and dictation help build the skills needed to learn how to transfer those ideas to written words that follow the conventions of English. Mrs. Bauer says:

The purpose of copywork is to get into the child’s visual (and motor) memory the look and feel of a sentence that is corrrectly composed, and properly spelled, spaced, and punctuated. The purpose of dictation is to have a child practice transferring his knowledge of the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation to actual writing.

That's why all those diverse programs include narration and copywork/ dictation, and why these simple tools should be the foundations of a good beginning writing program in the primary years. As you use these tools, your children will become skilled in putting thoughts into words and then in capturing those words in standard written English. Voila!

Do note that you can't simply give your child some copywork, walk away to pull the toddler off the top of your upright piano, and forget about the first grader doing copywork,. You need to stay close by, or at least come back after you've grabbed the toddler, and hang around to watch him as he copies. This way you can help him quickly correct mistakes, because you don't want incorrect spellings, capitalizations, punctuation, and other errors to have time to even begin to lodge in his brain.

Of course, you'll want your children to be able to write in styles other than simple narration or summary writing, but this is a strong starting point for children in the earliest years. Requiring persuasive essays from second graders who are still struggling with getting their thoughts together and on paper isn't going to ultimately result in articulate adults, even though it sounds impressive at the time. But laying a solid foundation on which you can then later build should.

In the next post on writing I will (finally!) get around to where I was heading when I started this one, namely reviewing The Institute for Excellence in Writing program and a couple of other writing resources.

* Yes, some children come naturally loving words and somehow seem to know how to compose brilliant stories and even essays practically from birth. Most often these creatures are of the female sex. If you have one of these word-loving children, rejoice! But these dear ones seem to be more the exception than the rule. Just as when you have a natural math student, the way you will instructsuch a child may differ from her brother who can't stand to hold a pencil. 

Here are some articles I've found helpful. If you read only two, read Janie Cheaney's Raising Writers piece and Susan Wise Bauer's explanation of Why Writing Programs Fail. The rest offer more details, but these aid in painting the big picture.

By Janie Cheaney:

This link is for writing “Rousing Starts”, but see the archive of other tips at the bottom of the page.

By Susan Wise Bauer:
Why Writing Programs Fail - Very helpful in understanding how children learn to write

Why Do Copywork and Dictation 

Dictation with Ben, Aged 7 
Script of SWB and her son, Ben, as he does a sentence from dictation. It'll make you feel better about what goes on in your house.

From Simply Charlotte Mason:

From Ambleside Online:



Michal said…
Thank you so much! This is so helpful. As a natural writer, it has been and will be difficult for me to teach the skill. I can point out what is wrong, I can re-write someone else's work, but I wouldn't be able to explain how to do it better next time.

I plan to begin copy work with Daniel soon. He writes full-page letters to people, then gets angry when he realizes even he can't read them. If I let him dictate to me, then let him copy it back onto his own paper, he'll be thrilled.

The explanation of writing being a two-step process involving articulating ideas into words, then putting those words on paper is also very helpful. I've noticed the same problem when people explain to a new driver how to drive a stick-shift. They always describe shifting as one fluid motion, with a reassuring, "You'll get the feel of it," tacked on the end. But really it's a three-step process that only feels like one fluid motion after lots of practice! Same goes for writing, I see.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Anne, looking forward to hearing about IEW. We are using Writing With Ease for the first time this year but I am finding it reeeeeaaaally boring. Her logic on the method is totally convincing but IEW seems like it would be more brain-engaging. I'd much prefer to refer to and use a text than a video though so I didn't commit to it this year (third grade for Addy, first-second for Jesse). Happy September!

-Lydia Carter
Anne said…
Michal - Yes! Excellent plan with Daniel. Also, stories that kids tell to you can make good beginning reading material since they like to read their own tales.

Lydia - What I actually end up doing with Ben (3rd grade)is a hybrid between Writing With Ease and IEW and miscellaneous writing assignments. To some extent the kind of writing program you want to go with will vary with child. I'll try to hit on some pros and cons with each.

- Anne (who is having a hard time being coherent because our four teens are hanging out in my bedroom, and two separate conversations are going on behind me)

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