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July 2018 Subscribe to the Toddlers to Tweens newsletter >>

9 Tear-Free Tips for Teaching Writing

by Stacey Wolking
HSLDA Toddlers to Tweens Consultant

Many years ago when I was homeschooling, teaching writing to my oldest child seemed to come fairly easy. Now for my confession: while watching my friends struggle to teach writing to their kids, I am ashamed to admit that I thought I must be a pretty good writing teacher.

Haha . . . not!

After enduring many struggles while attempting to teach his younger brother (and eventually two more kids), I realized that it wasn’t me at all! Turns out, our oldest child had some natural gifting in that area. (So I know I don’t get to take credit for that adult son’s successful writing career whose résumé includes Communications Advisor for Speaker of the House John Boehner, Press Secretary for Senator Marco Rubio, and currently, Communications Director for U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy.)

Unless you or your child are particularly gifted in writing, it can be a real challenge. It’s often one of the most difficult subjects for a parent to teach—and one of the most tear-worthy for a student to learn.

One reason writing may be a struggle is because it requires so many different skills and processes. Not only is a child expected to come up with accurate content (either the correct answer or interesting and creative prose), but he is also expected to remember all the paragraph, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation rules—all while forming each letter correctly and neatly. Whew! That’s a lot to think about all at the same time!

With this in mind, here are my best tips and tricks for teaching writing that I learned through my experiences with talented AND challenged writers —the things that have helped my children go from frustrated tears to actually enjoying the writing process. I hope they’ll be helpful for your children, too!

  1. Start with some small exercises that will allow your child to taste success. Here are two ideas:
    • You do the writing. Offer your child some fun prompts and have him tell you a story while you write it down for him. Then he can proudly read his story to daddy, to a sibling, or even to grandma over Skype. Make this a fun game while you encourage his creative storytelling. You could then introduce very small writing assignments. Make it manageable—maybe just a few words. And when he is successful, be sure to respond with lots of praise!

    • Model creativity and the enjoyment of writing. When you think he is ready to try some writing, ease him into it with the silent storytelling game. You write one sentence on a piece of paper, then pass the paper to him so that he can add one sentence, and then he hands it back to you for another—and back and forth it goes. Be sure to keep it light and fun and enjoy lots of laughter over the crazy developing story!
  2. Break down the writing process into small, doable steps.
    • Step 1: Have your student write down some thoughts and ideas.
    • Step 2: Go back and form those phrases into complete sentences.
    • Step 3: Arrange those sentences into paragraphs. I learned from Jeanne Mulligan’s Pencil Playground that cutting the paper into strips and manually rearranging the sentences can help a child organize his thoughts.
    • Step 4:Once he has a complete paragraph, have your child go back and look at his spelling, punctuation and capitalization, one at a time.
  3. If there are still mistakes, count the number of errors, and just like in The Great Editing Adventure series, or Critical Thinking’s Editor in Chief, challenge him to find all the errors before you do. Even if he isn’t sure how to fix a mistake, at least encourage him to identify what doesn’t look right. If necessary, give him clues, like a spelling error on this line, or a punctuation error on that line.

  4. Find the tools and resources that work for you. Among other things, my family used IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing). To be honest, I found the program to be a bit overwhelming at times, but there were portions of it that I absolutely loved. Their “Dress-ups” were particularly helpful and inspiring. In order to improve what he’s written, the student is encouraged to add, for example, some “-ly adverbs,” “who/which clauses,” and “strong verbs.” Other ideas include using prepositional phrases as sentence openers and avoiding words on the “banned word list” (e.g., announce instead of say, obtain instead of get). Keeping this “Dress-up” checklist in front of my child eventually resulted in these kind of improvements coming more naturally.

  5. To avoid discouragement, be sure to let your student know that you expect many drafts and corrections. All good writers rewrite . . . and rewrite . . . and rewrite. As you progress to more involved writing assignments, give your student a check-off list of the many planned steps, drafts, and edits, so he will know what to expect before the paper is final.

  6. Hunt down writing opportunities. Have your student look for and enter competitions and essay contests. (One example is HSLDA’s annual Essay Contest.) It helps to have a purpose for their writing—and whether they win, place, or even get an “Honorable Mention,” it is a big boost to their confidence. Our son entered many essay contests and even won a few. Winning 1st place in a well-known national essay contest was a big boost to his resume . . . and his wallet—he was awarded $5,000! Now that made all that writing practice worth it! It goes without saying that winning essay contests could rack up some serious college scholarship money.

  7. There is a tremendous amount of research on how well-developed gross motor skills are essential for a child to have good fine motor skills / writing aptitude. Check out this article for some suggested gross motor activities to help develop your child’s handwriting skills.

  8. When your child is little, you can practice these other types of “writing” to help him develop his fine motor skills: sky writing, writing in sand, or rhythmic writing (an educational therapy technique that helps attention, processing skills, and handwriting).

  9. And this is the most important one of all—be sure to balance encouragement and critique. Because writing is such a detailed and subjective process, I found it tricky to correct or give constructive feedback to my child without unwittingly discouraging him. A coach or tutor, or even a peer group, can be a great option, since students will often hear constructive criticism better from someone (anyone!) other than mom or dad. Another benefit of someone else doing the critiquing is that you, as the parent, get to focus on being the much-needed cheerleader and encourager! (Looking ahead: for a great high school resource, check out Patrick Henry College’s excellent Writing Mentorship Program.)

Given the unique challenges posed by teaching your child to write, you may sometimes wonder whether it’s worth so much time and effort (I know I have!). Are excellent writing skills really that important? I’ll leave you with some encouraging thoughts from HSLDA Chairman Mike Farris:

All knowledge uses one of two languages—either the language of words or the language of numbers. With this fact in mind, the lesson I’d like to share with you today is this: strive for mastery in just two areas—language and math. . . .

A good academic education will provide a well-rounded exposure in a broad variety of disciplines that we call the arts and sciences. But your emphasis at this stage should be in mastery of the two languages. I say this because I fear that homeschooling parents have become sidetracked and forgotten some of the basics. . . .

Teach your children to read and write to a level of mastery. Math skills should also reach a level of basic mastery. Emphasize these basics, and all the rest will be added unto you.

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