Teaching Children To Write Is As Simple as Tossing the Textbook

     Over the past half century, there has been a transformation in the way people write. Formal writing styles have given way to short, direct, and easy communication. Conventional story writing is out and blogging is in. Nobody wants to take the time to craft a formal essay and nobody wants to take the time to read one either.

     I say “good riddance” to old writing conventions that were wordy and dull and focused more on proper punctation than effective communication. It’s good that people are focusing on content over style, and learning to value writing that is easy, not hard, and short, not long. These changes serve people well across all platforms — business, social, and educational.

     Don’t look to traditional schools and writing textbooks to jump on the new writing bandwagon soon. As always, they will persist in teaching “correctness” over purpose and creating young learners who hate to write.

     Homeschool teachers have the freedom to change things for their children. They can build great communicators who can navigate the writing demands of both college and work with success. Here are some guiding principles I use to teach my children to write in our homeschool.

     Don’t use English and writing curriculums to teach children to write.

     Toss the writing programs and textbooks. When writing is taught as its own subject, it becomes tedious and meaningless. It also encourages writing styles that are formulaic, stunted, and unnatural, the very kind of writing that turns off today’s readers. Writing programs also frustrate young writers because they often expect students to come up with their own topics, or, even worse, write about suggested topics they are not interested in.

     Instead of using a formal writing program, I give focused writing guidance in a casual manner as my children encounter the need to write in school or in their personal lives. I try to be patient and not frustrate my children in this area, understanding that learning how to express oneself gets easier as children get older. They also naturally pick up on proper spelling and punctation as they spend years reading books, magazines, Web pages, signage, mail, directions, computer programs, etc.

     First and always, focus on communication in writing.

     Writing instruction should always promote thinking and content above all else. I work with my children on meaningful communication first and only add in punctuation, spelling, syntax, and structure as needed to bring clarity to their writing as they get older.

     In school assignments, I don’t expect my children to write well-punctuated and well-structured sentences until their high school years. Prior to that time, I focus on WHAT my children say, not HOW they say it. This will pay big dividends later on when college professors and bosses are expecting written answers that have clearly-stated information and meaning.

     If my students haven’t naturally picked up on basic and necessary punctuation and writing style rules by high school, I will add in some editing curriculum for reinforcement. A workbook series I like is Daily Paragraph Editing by Evan-Moor Publisher, but there are many others. I assign my high school students one review page in the Grade 5 or Grade 6 book each day and they know everything they need to know about English “mechanics” in about five minutes a day spent over the course of one semester, even if they have never formerly studied English composition and rules in previous years.

     In addition to the workbook reinforcement of practical writing rules, I also spend some time preparing my high school students for the English section of the ACT/SAT college entrance exams. I use workbooks tailored for the college tests for this. They do an excellent job of not only reinforcing the English rules tested on the exams, but also giving students extremely valuable hints and tricks about how to ace this section of the exam. In my opinion, the English section of the college entrance exams is the easiest section because all the writing expectations and rules can be memorized and learned a few days before the test. My children have all done well on the writing section of the ACT/SAT and I give most of the credit for this to the focused test prep we have done just prior to taking the test.

     Pay attention to punctuation, but ignore grammar.

     Correct punctuation is necessary to great writing. It assists with meaning and clarity and substitutes for the pauses and inflections we use in speech to help listeners understand what we are saying. But grammar is something very different. It is our “system“ of language. It is a fascinating study of words and sentences, the engine that powers the vehicle, so to speak. But, in the same way you don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car, you don’t need to know how language works to speak and write well.

     Grammar has two components. First, it identifies and gives purpose to every word/phrase in a sentence. Writing assignments that have students circle the nouns in a sentence, find the direct objects, or underline prepositional phrases are grammar assignments. They are interesting for students who enjoy word study, but not practical or important to skill building. These kinds of assignments can be shelved with no negative consequences whatsoever.

     A second component of grammar is the rules of writing structure and syntax. These are much more important, but they are easily learned naturally in the context of normal conversation. When’s the last time you heard a happy, well-adjusted elementary-aged child tell a story using incomplete thoughts, incorrect tenses, and garbled sentences? It’s rare because children simply model the language they hear in daily conversation. They don’t need a grammar program to teach them how to identify and use words in sentences in order to use them properly and effectively.

     While shelving the grammar program, do the same with the spelling program. 

     Good spelling is important to readability and understanding in writing, but it simply can not be taught effectively in school. Instead, we learn to spell by reading, writing, and living in the word-infested world in which we live. This type of natural learning is not limited to simply remembering how certain words are spelled as we read them. We also learn the rules and patterns of spelling as we encounter more and more words in our environment.

     I used traditional spelling programs with my older two children, but shelved them with my younger three. I’ve seen little difference in the outcomes. My youngest daughter just turned 14 years old and has had zero spelling instruction. She went to a birthday party last weekend and I glanced over her shoulder as she signed the birthday card. She wrote “Your friend, Isabelle” with perfect spelling, style, and punctuation. When I asked her how she learned to spell the words and properly capitalize and place commas, she just shrugged.

     Good spelling is “caught,” not “taught.” And, when it isn’t, there’s always the fallback plan, which is “spell check” and “autocorrect.” Spelling lists and formal spelling programs simply do not work well to teach children to spell.

     Insist on brevity and simplicity in writing.

     Simplicity and brevity are the building blocks of great writing. Brevity is the first writing skill I focus on in our homeschool. It is important because it deals with a multitude of issues that crop up in writing — redundancy, verbosity, irrelevance, clarity, and more. If you teach children to use “economy of words,” it forces organization of thought, succinctness of communication, and prepares them well for all types and styles of writing.

     When my children are asked to answer questions in school assignments, I insist on short answers, using as few words as possible. I do not ask for complete sentences until the teen years and, even then, insist on short sentences. Forcing students to write more than the fewest words possible is like forcing children to eat every bite of food on their plates—the only purpose it really serves is in making them (or their writing) bloated and fat. Teach children to love and learn focused and meaty communication instead.

     By the way, “economy of words” is the most tested writing skill on the English section of the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. In fact, students are always advised to select the shortest passage on this section of the ACT and SAT if they are trying to decide between multiple possibilities. Brevity is valued in all corners of the educational and professional worlds.

      In addition to brevity, I encourage my children to keep their words and sentences simple. Since this is the style people like to read, it just makes sense that it is the style writers should seek to employ.

     In business and education fields where people must effectively write for public consumption, the readability of a document is critical. That’s why business and media writers often employ the F-K (Flesch-Kincaid) readability score to their writing to make sure they are on target.

     The F-K score measures what grade level a passage is written on. The lower the grade level, the more readable the passage. Most media and business communicators shoot for a F-K score of middle school or younger, as do writers who create for reading pleasure. The F-K scores of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King are all middle school and lower.

     Even those writers considered the “masters” have low F-K scores. Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” has a F-K score equivalent to fourth grade. Jane Austen’s work has an F-K score of fifth grade, while J.R.R. Tolkein’s work has a F-K score of sixth grade.  There’s a nifty tool available here where you can quickly obtain the F-K score of your own writing.

     To assist with organization, teach children to pay attention to order in their writing.

     All young writers tend to wander with their thoughts and they can end up with run-on sentences and difficult to understand and read written passages. While insisting on simplicity and brevity in writing helps this problem, there are also some concrete writing tools students can use to bring organization and order to their writing.

     If my students are asked to provide written responses to questions, I focus on helping them use numbers, bullet points, colons, and commas to make their answers as clear and organized as possible.

     In story writing, I help my children organize paragraphs with transition words like “first,” “second,” and “third,” or “in the beginning,” “then” and “finally,” or “previously,” “currently,” and “eventually.” At first, I insist children use these terms to introduce new paragraphs in order to bring form to their writing and keep them “on point.” Later, I allow them to drop the transition words if they so choose and can produce a fluid document without them. Even so, these kinds of tools remain useful and handy throughout life, even for the most experienced and accomplished writers.

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     My biggest fear about delaying writing instruction until high school and then focusing on practical writing skills over traditional English writing instruction was that my children would falter in college writing classes. I knew their writing would be appreciated in the professional world, but I thought college professors might care more about writing forms and conventions than actual communication.

     I was wrong. All three of my older children did well in their college writing classes. They may not have spelled every word correctly and properly placed every comma, but they could form a thought well and communicate it on paper. That’s something anyone can value and appreciate, even an English professor.

Until next time…Be fearless.