For many homeschooling parents, getting your high school student to write is like
pulling teeth—really big teeth. How can you make writing a joy rather than a
burden for your teen? Hear the answer from Carol Becker on this week’s
Diane Kummer: My guest today is Carol Becker. Carol is my
fellow high school consultant here at HSLDA, and she homeschooled her two children
all the way through high school. Once her own children left home to attend college,
Carol taught English courses to homeschool students for several years before coming
to HSLDA. Carol, welcome to the program!
Carol Becker: Thank you, Diane. It is a pleasure to be
No more pulling teeth [0:39]
Diane: Carol, for many homeschooling families, high school
writing is frustrating and difficult for parent and student alike. What’s the
secret to making high school writing a joy rather than a burden?
Carol: Some teens truly enjoy the writing process, but most
teens find composition challenging. Removing the burden from writing often requires
that parents and teens take full advantage of pre-writing discussions, rather than
skipping directly to writing assignments where students stare at blank pages, no
concepts materialize, creativity flounders, frustrations grow.
Pre-writing discussions are an important first step to help teens learn how to
observe events, connect ideas, detect patterns, and make insightful conclusions. Your
teen develops these higher thinking skills by walking through the process with you,
the parent. I recommend that you intentionally schedule discussions of this nature in
your homeschool. Brainstorm ways to create an environment where these types of
discussions can occur, because a teen first needs something to say before he or she
will feel comfortable writing it down.
Diane: Great advice, Carol. You know, we’ve all heard
the complaint from our teens: “I just can’t write!” What should a
parent do when her teen isn’t motivated to write?
Carol: Motivation is a tricky topic. I hope the following
analogies will help parents understand how to work with reluctant writers develop
When teens conduct a science experiment, they practice observational skills. Most
teens observe the obvious—but observing a fuller, more complete picture takes
practice. You want to help your teen begin to exercise literary observational skills
on characters, temperaments, biases, strengths, weaknesses, situations, symbolism,
mood, and others.
When teens study history, we help them tie together events through understanding
cause and effect. Likewise, help your teen process the causes and effects of choices,
temptations, foreshadowing, cross-purposes, misunderstandings, dilemmas, conflicts,
climax, and consequences within a novel, short story, or play.
When your teen studies math, they practice pattern recognition, because this helps
solve similar types of problems. Recognizing patterns woven through a literary work
helps your student grasp the major themes being promoted and endorsed by the
Once your teen comprehends the author’s truth, discuss whether your teen
agrees or disagrees with the author. Great literature addresses the human condition,
and that is a worthy discussion to have.
On our website, we have [an] archived newsletter called “Literary Analysis:
Developing Discerning Readers.” This can help parents
begin developing pre-writing skills and promote discussions. With practice, all of
these pre-writing skills improve over time to transform a reluctant writer into an
Common writing roadblocks [3:25]
Diane: Carol, what are some of the most common stumbling
blocks that stand in the way of a young writer’s success?
Carol: Oftentimes, a young writer stumbles because he or she
can only write using basic sentence structures with commonly used verbs, nouns, and
adjectives. Your teen may only feel comfortable writing simple or compound sentence
structures. Fortunately, students have been speaking English longer than they have
been writing it. Teens can benefit from recording their spoken thoughts using a
smartphone or tablet. Then writers can transcribe the recording later onto paper or a
word processor. By harnessing spoken vocabulary over written vocabulary, even young
students will write at a more advanced level.
Other students are word-poor and need a significant investment to grow in their
appreciation of the wealth of English words and ways of expression. Budding writers
need to hear English spoken well and with elegance, because teens’ listening
skills strongly influence their writing skills. Look for ways to give students
exposure to concise yet content-rich sentence structures. We want our teens to become
accustomed to hearing poetic phrasing, rich metaphors, elevated vocabulary,
perceptive analogies, pertinent examples, and persuasive arguments.
Language is fundamentally spoken communication, so a rich oral environment builds
a young writer’s success.
Diane: Carol, how can parents help their teens defeat these
Carol: Being a good reader helps with writing skills, but
often teens pass over unfamiliar vocabulary, skip long sentences, or ignore
descriptive sections when they read silently. Unfortunately, entertainment media and
technology do not demonstrate nor encourage patterns of expression worthy of
Parents can make headway by choosing simple things like reading good books aloud,
borrowing CDs from the library, and watching good dramas. Hearing the expression and
cadence of well-written prose helps students develop both a writing voice and style.
A side benefit is that students need to hear elevated vocabulary pronounced and used
Spending time one-on-one with a parent has a profound impact on a student’s
appreciation of our language and his or her ability to use language effectively
.Practice describing things creatively. Play with vocabulary. Tell stories. Ask
students to summarize things such as events, trips, articles, concepts, movies, or
shows. Homeschooling students have a unique opportunity to benefit from both quality
and quantity time with their parents.
“Where do I start?” [5:44]
Diane: Carol, one question that we receive from many parents
is, “I know my teen needs help with his writing skills, but where do I even
start?” How would you respond to that?
Carol: Organization is the first writing skill to develop,
because it is the foundation for all other skills. Most parents find organization
easier to teach as well. Begin with techniques to write well-organized
Many teens have only learned one or two methods to develop paragraphs, but
expository writing can use such diverse organizational models such as analysis,
causation, classification, comparison, contrast, definition, description, evaluation,
example, illustration, time order, problem/solution, process, prominence, or
proposition. So take plenty of time to develop expository paragraph proficiency.
Diane: When it comes to a student’s writing abilities,
Carol, what are some good goals or benchmarks that parents can shoot for in the high
Carol: I recommend that parents begin by assessing the
writing skills their teens already possesses and build[ing] from there. When I
tutored public school students, I developed a technique I call Color Mapping. I also
used this method with the English classes I taught for homeschooling students,
because color can help students understand the content and organization of both
paragraphs and papers. You and I have explained this concept in an archived
newsletter entitled “Color Mapping Paragraphs and Essays,” which parents
can find on the HSLDA website.
Once teens understand the organizational aspects of paragraphs, I recommend that
parents teach how to organize an essay, and this brings into play new skills, such as
outlining a paper, building arguments, and crafting a thesis.
Students who plan to attend college will benefit from PEAK (that’s P-E-A-K)
Paragraphs, which stands for Point, Evidence, Analysis, and Key, as well as PEAK
(that’s P-E-A-K) Essays. Hotlinks to these resources can be found in
the “Color Mapping” newsletter.
I encourage parents to continue assigning paragraphs to beginning through advanced
students, because teens can hone new paragraph skills in between working on
beginning, intermediate, and advanced essays. In essence, good writing is a blend of
both logic and creativity, which means students need to harness both of these
faculties to write well.
Critiquing your student’s writing [7:55]
Diane: Carol, one area of high school writing that can be
tricky for parents is evaluating their students’ writing. We hear from parents
who say they know good writing when they see it, but aren’t sure how to nurture
that excellence in their teen. Do you have any guidance for them?
Carol: Often, students get into the habit of reading and
rereading their papers to fix organizational problems, so spending time teaching
outlining skills and color mapping organization will resolve this part of the editing
Next, it’s time to turn your student’s attention to grammar,
punctuation, style, and voice. A poorly organized paper can’t be fixed by
enhancing a writer’s grammar, punctuation, style, or voice; however, a
well-organized paper can significantly be improved by refining these four areas.
If organization addresses the what, when, and why of composition, then grammar,
punctuation, style, and voice address the how of writing. Fortunately, parents can
purchase curriculum to cover common grammar and punctuation problems. Parents and
teens can also search online for writing resources that discuss particular problems.
Consider developing a grammar practice exercise that addresses an issue.
Style and voice are more esoteric ideas. A writer’s style principally
addresses sentence structures employed. A writer’s voice essentially captures
vocabulary chosen along with usage of active, passive, and subjunctive voice.
The most important word in any sentence is the main conjugated verb. Employing
better, more descriptive main verbs is the single most effective method to improve
the quality of any sentence. I encourage parents to show students how to use
dependent sentence structures and elements such as adverb clauses, adjective clauses,
appositives, and a whole slew of phrases. I recommend that students use these
techniques to write more concisely rather than inflate simple sentences.
Diane: Not many teens like being told what they did wrong. Do
you have any tips for parents on critiquing their student’s work not only
constructively but also graciously?
Carol: There are several ways parents can critique their
student’s work constructively and graciously. I required my writing students to
submit a first copy of their composition for review. As part of that review, I
answered the question, what does this writer do well in this paper? Taking time to
describe a writer’s strengths makes it easier for your teen to accept guidance
on certain weaknesses. I evaluated the first copy by the same standard I would employ
to grade the final copy. I wrote advice on the first copy, so teens would know the
areas that I think needed fixing. When I gave the evaluated first copy back to the
student to rewrite, a week later, the student submitted the final copy, which I
graded. Employing this method meant that the first copy review helped the student
write a better final copy.
Using a personal editing sheet [10:26]
Diane: Carol, many students complain about having to revise
their papers or spend extra time polishing something they see as done. How can
parents teach their children to embrace every step of the writing process?
Carol: Well, your primary goal is for students to see their
writing improve over time. Progress can significantly help motivate teens to polish
To accomplish this, students need to take ownership of their own writing foibles,
and all of us have writing eccentricities and common errors. The key is to recognize
these mistakes, search for them, and weed out known problems. This discipline helps
students see a definite end to the polishing process.
To help students understand their writing quirks or outright mistakes, I recommend
the use of a personal editing sheet. Here’s a method I used for my teens: When
I hand back a graded English paper, I ask each student to take out a blank piece of
paper and write down 5 to 10 things they would do differently on their next
composition. Teens must be specific about each item listed.
When students submit the first copy of their next paper, this personal editing
sheet must be on top. Its purpose is that each student knows exactly what specific
problems to search for and fix before they hand it in.
In my review, I basically ignore problems listed on the personal editing sheet.
This is a known issue that the student is aware of and can take full responsibility
for fixing. You can jot down a note where you see one of these known issues.
When students submit the final copy, the personal editing sheet must again on the
top. When I grade the paper, personal editing sheet mistakes do affect their paper
grade. I find it easiest to give a separate grade for paper organization, one for
style and voice, and one for grammar and punctuation.
Over time, students recognize their own mistakes and have an incentive to search
for them before submitting a paper. Self-editing is a powerful tool.
Diane: In your experience, Carol, what are some of the best
options for high school writing curriculum?
Carol: Finding services and curriculums that best suit your
teen is important, and you and I have listed good writing resources on the HSLDA
Homeschooling thru High School website: Parents can find online expository writing
courses with feedback on assignments and periodic teacher conferences; they’ll
find a selection of semester or 8-week workshops covering specific writing
skills; they’ll find methods to train students and parents to think
deeply by asking and answering thought-provoking questions; they’ll
find self-directed programs that focus on learning how to think, argue, and
develop a student’s own writing style; they’ll also
find resources to teach style, voice, grammar, and punctuation.
And of course, the Patrick Henry College Writing Mentorship Program links
students to PHC writing mentors. Parents have great flexibility to tailor this
service to best suit their teen’s needs.
Diane: Thanks, Carol. It’s been a pleasure talking
with you this week. Teaching high school writing is not an easy thing to
tackle—but if anyone can do it, homeschooling parents can! Thanks for tuning
in, everyone. I’m Diane Kummer, and I’m cheering you on.