How Did You Learn to Write?

The college professor handed out an in-class assignment to all of the students and then bent down near the two homeschooled students seated in the front row. Pushing their assignments aside, the professor huddled very close to them and spoke in a low voice of the type usually reserved for sharing state secrets. “How did you two learn to write?” she asked.

The two friends exchanged glances and tried to decide how to answer the unusual question. “We read a lot,” they both ventured.

“But how did you learn to write?” the professor continued, “No one else in this class can write — at least not like you two can. I know you were both homeschooled. What program did you use to learn how to write?”

The sixteen-year-old part-time college freshmen were also both still high school students at home, one a Junior and the other a Senior, and they knew that they had not actually used any specific writing curriculum. “We read a lot of books,” one repeated, “so we know what good writing should look like.” “And we learned grammar,” offered the other.

“But who evaluated your writing?” the professor kept probing.

Another glance was exchanged. “You mean… our… Moms?”

“That’s it? You read books, and that’s how you two learned to write like this? I rarely have a first-year student who can write a coherent sentence, and you two are telling me that your mothers taught you how to write this well by teaching you grammar? I am impressed!”

These two students revealed that they had learned by example: reading was their primary source for instruction in composition. Reading a variety of literature and learning the basics of grammar had set them apart from the rest of their English Composition I class and from the bulk of the students that this professor had encountered. The writing experiences of these homeschooled students prior to the college class had included writing a newspaper article and a short novel in group classes, but they had no previous exposure to analogy, comparison and contrast, or the other forms of composition introduced in this college class. Observation and imitation were their keys to success in writing: see an essay — write an essay. The quality of writing that had been observed through reading was easily reproduced in writing assignments.

My recommendation is to start your children out with phonics to teach them reading and basic spelling rules. Add in handwriting and let them practice copying anything and everything that interests them so that they can become confident in their own abilities to reproduce written material. Begin adding basic grammar rules once the students have mastered reading and add more complex rules as the students’ abilities increase. Regard vocabulary as an ever-expanding knowledge base, and use the dictionary daily to confirm suspected meanings, solidify pronunciations, and discover various word forms. Promote their consumption of all manner of reading materials, and discuss passages read to ensure comprehension of concepts and ideas, beyond mere words and sentences. Observation will lead to imitation, and the more they read, the better they will be able to imitate what they have read. Once the student has a broad background in reading a variety of materials, after he possesses a fairly substantial vocabulary, and when he has a solid foundation in grammar, then he can be expected to complete a writing assignment with proficiency.

I did not force writing assignments, such as book reports, journaling, or essays. In our past experiences, the public schools seemed to think that children should be composing stories even before they could spell simple words or form a sentence. The teachers there encouraged “creative” spelling, resulting in some rather curious inventions. If my students wanted to write something, I let them. However, with my students, that did not happen often. If ever. I did have them write thank-you notes when necessary, but that was about the extent of my imposed writing assignments. Grammar study was another story. I did insist on grammar lessons, along with lessons in fundamental spelling rules and proper use of punctuation. If you want to use a skill, you need the proper tools, and those rules are the tools needed for the skill of writing.

I did use a program during high school that taught how to read and analyze, a much-preferred alternative for us to the common creative writing programs for high school students. It was a 3-workbook set called The Elements of Clear Thinking and focused on effective communication and analyzing and revealing fallacies in reasoning. My students were not interested in writing fiction or poetry; they were much more focused on non-fiction, informational content, but not the dry reports or book reviews that usually require no critical thinking skills. The excerpts used in the Clear Thinking books came from authors, politicians, and world leaders, from magazines, newspapers, and biographies. What my students learned in those books prepared them for reading a wide variety of sources as required by their college classes and enabled them to organize their thoughts for writing logical arguments. (If you are interested in purchasing the Clear Thinking series for your high schooler, I highly recommend buying the answer keys as well.)

A student who can read fluently will be able to read a wide variety of literary forms and understand what he is reading. The more that student reads, the more that student will understand and retain about the proper structure of language. Grammar instruction will give the student opportunities to practice proper sentence construction without having to invent his own subject matter (creative writing uses entirely different skills from mere grammar practice). What the student has learned about the mechanics of written language and witnessed through first-hand observation of written language will be reproduced with proficiency. But I cannot promise that the college professors will not be baffled.



The Elements of Clear Thinking series has become a little tricky to find, so these links will show you what to look for:

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Accurate Communication

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Critical Reading

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Sound Reasoning

Note: My kids described some of the excerpts in these books as boring, confusing, or too intellectual, and I agreed. As a substitute for the more complicated passages, we went to the library and found long magazine articles covering topics that were more interesting (one article had to be at least 6 pages long for an amount of text comparable to the longest excerpt). The details are more fully explained in Kids Will Be Kids.

Start with Reading, Handwriting, & Arithmetic, and Save the Rest for Later

If you are just beginning your homeschool journey with a Kindergarten student, you may be wondering how much to teach him (or her; I use “him” generically). Many Moms who are eager to homeschool are busily planning lessons far in advance for elaborate historical reenactments or highly involved scientific experiments. I have often advocated that families just beginning to homeschool their wee ones should focus on just the “Three R’s” of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic without worrying about supplemental subjects until the mid-elementary years. Incredulous teacher-moms let a gasp escape from their open mouths and ask me if I am serious. I am.

I am also assuming that you have not allowed the past five or so years to slip by in silent inactivity. I am assuming that you have read books to your child, colored pictures with your child, sung songs, made crafts, played with puzzles, gone shopping and baked cookies together, and had all manner of delightful experiences together. You have most likely already taught your child how to count to 10, print his name, tie his shoes, sing the ABC song, and identify the colors in a box of eight crayons. You taught these skills without even thinking about it being “formal education.”

Now that you are ready to tackle “school,” you may find yourself wondering if history should come in chronological or geographical order. I say wait on the history. Wait on the geography and the science, too. Wait until at least fourth grade before introducing these more complex subjects. Your child needs to have a foundation of learning skills to build his education upon. Those learning skills are what you need to teach first — now.

Teach the ABC’s, if your child does not already know them. Teach your child the sounds made by each letter, not merely the letter “names.” For example, the letter “H” makes a “hah” sound, which is not really apparent when you simply call it by its name. Once your student knows the basic sounds made by each letter, he can understand how to string those sounds together to form simple words. Phonics lessons (free, downloadable lessons are linked here) can help you start with a simple order and progress in a manner that is not confusing to your child. Small, short-vowel words are the typical starting point, since they have no silent letters or other complicated rules. After your child has begun to read simple, short-vowel words, he will be able to comprehend the complexities of silent letters, consonant blends, and diphthongs (the new sounds made by combining consonants, such as “th” and “sh”).

Do not over-simplify learning to read (from your child’s perspective, it is difficult), and do not become frustrated if your child does not catch on immediately. You have probably been reading for at least fifteen years, so you have likely forgotten what a stressful experience it can be if rushed. Take it slowly, allowing plenty of time for your student to grasp each step, and encourage him for each accomplishment. The confidence you instill at this stage will serve your child well as he tries to read each new word, page, chapter, and book. Readers are made, not born. A child who becomes discouraged while learning to read is not likely to become a bookworm. A few children are eager to learn to read at four years of age, but also a few children (most often boys) may have difficulty grasping the concepts until age seven, eight, or nine. If your child does not respond well, put the lessons aside and wait a couple of days, a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, then try again. When you teach at a pace which allows the student to fully understand each component before moving on, the student who is ready to learn will show quick results. (Remind yourself that one of the reasons why you chose to homeschool was this exact one of working at your student’s pace, not forcing your student to comply with a scheduled academic calendar.)

Once your child begins reading, continue to expand his reading ability through advanced phonics studies and vocabulary-building exercises. This is a good time to introduce the dictionary for any unfamiliar words he finds in his reading material. I preferred to teach this by example, looking up a word with my students at my side, showing them the entry, and briefly explaining it. After a few repeats of that, I switched to asking them to get the dictionary for me, and before long, they were flipping through its pages, racing to be the first to find the word. Handling the large dictionary was a privilege that instilled in my students a fondness and longing for the secrets of knowledge it held. I did not want them to view “look it up” as a punishment, so I made sure they saw me using the dictionary often for personal reference. (I also kept the dictionary on a bookshelf in the kitchen, since that was where we usually were when a question arose, and it helped to remove the stigma that can accompany large, imposing reference books.)

Encourage your young reader to explore a variety of subjects through reading and let trips to the library become adventures in exploration, but hold off on the formal lessons in other areas until he has a firm grasp on the basics of reading, handwriting, and arithmetic, usually around fourth grade. Allowing your student to read as much as he wants on a subject will only whet his appetite for more information, providing you with an eager student who is already learning how to teach himself.

Along with visual recognition of letters comes the child’s natural attempts to reproduce them, but do not expect shaky fingers to produce beautiful calligraphy with the first try. As with any other life-skill, practice is necessary to develop excellence. Once again, discouragement can be a confidence-killer, but the wise parent will praise every legitimate attempt to train those fine-motor muscles to accomplish this new task.

When my children were in public Kindergarten, it was a common practice of their educational establishment to have “mentors” visit from the older classrooms. Students from the third or fourth grades were paired with the youngest learners for the purpose of being scribes: the younger student dictated a story while the older student wrote it down. While that works well in theory, I felt it did not work well in practice; most adults cannot write (or even type) as quickly as someone can dictate. The activity was intended to link reading skills with handwriting skills, but often limited the imagination of the younger child’s mind to the note-taking ability of the older student and resulted in a story that the Kindergartner could not read for himself. I heard many youngsters proudly proclaim to their parents, “I wrote this story!” When the enthused parents asked, “What does it say?” the confused authors had to admit, “I don’t know,” because they could not read the words that had been written for them.

In my opinion, beginning students should have opportunities to practice handwriting that do not involve creating stories… yet. We allow children to learn to read each letter/sound before we teach them to string those letters/sounds together to be read as words. We teach them to put those words together into short, easy-to-read sentences before we assign entire books for reading. We provide them with many beginner books before we offer them their first chapter book to read. I think the same system should be applied to handwriting — copying many letters, and then words, and finally simple sentences to gain mastery of the physical skill of handwriting — before the brain-exercise of creative writing is added into the mix.

I remember taking one of my favorite storybooks as a child and copying word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page into my Big Chief tablet. It was not assigned homework; it was my own idea, in order to practice this new skill called handwriting. Thinking up an original story requires an entirely different set of skills than the ones needed to put that story onto paper. Attempting too many new skills at once can leave the student muddled in confusion.

Children need to have a solid understanding of number concepts before adding and subtracting will make sense to them. Most adults can quickly recognize the amount of money represented by an assortment of coins, but few five-year-olds have achieved that ability. Your Kindergartner will benefit from much practice in counting and sorting, learning to associate digits with their values. Once the basic concepts of 1-10 are mastered, the average child is ready to understand eleven, twelve, and so on, and the foundation is laid for understanding our numbering system based on units of ten. Carrying, borrowing, and even decimals are merely extensions of the basic unit of ten. Addition and subtraction are easily mastered by the child who fully understands number values.

Continuing practice and expanding the skill levels in each of these areas will fill the majority of your homeschool day. Obviously, the child working on these skills does not need to spend hours and hours at them each day. Most public school kindergartens operate for 2 1/2 to 3 hours each day, and large portions of that time are spent in recess, bathroom breaks, learning to stand in line, being reprimanded for talking out of turn, and the other necessities of large-group crowd control. It is common for a five-year-old child to complete a full day of homeschool classes in under an hour, and that time can be divided up into smaller blocks throughout the day, depending on the child’s attention span and the other needs of the household (for example, if Mom’s attention must be shared with an infant sibling).

No one would consider building a house by starting with the roof: the foundation must come first. So it is with education: learning to read is the foundation for education. That base must be securely in place before other things are attached to it. Reading is the visual recognition of language; handwriting is the physical application of that language. Understanding the values represented by numbers and using them to count are the equivalents of understanding the sounds represented by letters and using those letters to form words. Patiently wait until your child is reading fluently to add other formal academic studies, such as history, geography, and science. Help your child develop a love of reading first, and then let the pleasure of reading lead him into other areas. And, by all means, please continue to read books to your child, color pictures with your child, sing songs, make crafts, play with puzzles, go shopping and bake cookies together, and have all manner of delightful experiences together.

Teaching Spelling (and Grammar) Through Reading and Listening

Before your children learned to walk, they spent a lot of time observing. They saw you walking around, starting, stopping, stooping, bending, turning, reversing, hopping, skipping, jumping, running, etc. That formed the basis of their knowledge of how upright ambulation is supposed to occur.

The same principle can be applied to learning grammar. The foundational knowledge of sentence structure, subject/verb agreement, pronoun use, verb tenses, etc. will be learned by example through listening to other people speak correctly. Conversely, if poor speech is modeled, it will become the standard.

Once again, apply the principle to learning spelling. Choose reading material that uses correct spelling. (I know that seems like an odd remark, but there are popular children’s books today that pride themselves on their “creative” spelling.) I encouraged my students to pay attention to the spelling of words as they read. My challenges to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary often resulted in races and traffic jams in front of the bookcase. We discussed other forms of the words and their roots. I challenged family members to strive for correctness in emails and computer chats — I have noticed that the better my spelling and grammar are in my emails/chats, the better the spelling and grammar are in the responses that I get. Quality begets quality.

I am not advocating total disregard of grammar curricula; in fact, I put a strong emphasis on learning the correct grammar rules. I do believe, however, that any grammar program should be supplemented with heavy doses of observation and experience through personal reading.

Our hometown newspaper is valuable only in that it provides a wealth of misspellings, punctuation errors, and butchered grammar. (I do not subscribe; it is too frustrating. The shopper is delivered free twice a week whether you want it or not.) In case your local papers suffer from the same problem, you have my sympathy: it is very difficult to teach your children correctness when ineptness is published regularly by so-called professionals. However, we did manage to utilize the errors in our own “Can you spot the mistakes in this ad/article?” game. (I have also been known to shout at the television news readers, informing them of their mistakes.)

Part of the blame for poor grammar/spelling lies with allowing computers to do our proofreading for us. A machine cannot read for context nor determine the difference between their, there, and they’re. If I type “than” when I really mean “then,” my computer is oblivious. Spell-checking programs are wonderful — as far as they go, but please discuss with your students why it is necessary to proofread their work. Besides, we humans are so impressed with what our computers can do, that it gives us a tremendous feeling of superiority to know that we can still do some things better ourselves.

Perhaps it is just my hyper-picky nature, but I pointed out spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors to my students whenever I found them. We used these moments as impromptu mini-lessons to discuss what was wrong, what it should have been, and why. My students’ grammar and spelling skills improved dramatically with their reading ability and with the amount of time they dedicated to reading. The more they saw the correct forms modeled for them, the better they could remember how it was supposed to look when they tried to write for themselves.

Tests, Book Reports, and Other Un-necessities

Tests are valuable only if you do not know what your student has learned. If Johnny spends 45 minutes telling me about something that only took him 20 minutes to read, he is ready to tackle the next thing. He does not need to waste time (his or mine) taking a test or writing a book report. Tests are great for a classroom of 30 kids and a teacher who has no idea who knows what. Unless you have an extremely large homeschool family, you probably have a pretty good idea of what is being learned.

It is my personal opinion that book reports should be banned. Reading books should be encouraged, but I do not want to ruin a budding love of reading by enforcing reports. Reading well-written books teaches by example: sentence structure, grammar (formal/descriptive and informal/conversational), spelling, punctuation, etc. A student who reads often and reads from a variety of sources will pick up a surprising amount by observation. Then, and only then, should they be expected to write.

My students participated in a co-op class in novel-writing (meeting twice a month for a semester). My daughter, a voracious reader, had little difficulty with descriptions, character development, etc. My son, who had read very little on his own at that point, struggled tremendously. He had great difficulty trying to put his thoughts on paper. His scene descriptions were awkward, and he felt every scene should be done with only dialogue. I eventually realized that he was not writing a book, he was writing a screenplay — he was more familiar with movies than with books and therefore wanted to use that format. I changed plans and rearranged my son’s assignments to include more time for reading and a greater variety of reading materials, emphasizing things of special interest to him. Sometimes I allowed him to watch a video, then read the book afterward, reasoning that knowing the plot ahead of time would help to keep his interest as the story slowly developed through the pages of the book. It worked. His reading speed increased dramatically, his comprehension level increased, and his understanding of grammatical rules increased.

After a couple of years of heavy-on-the-reading-time-but-no-writing lessons, I again brought in a serious writing assignment. Wow! What a difference! I actually had to (tactfully) ask him where the idea had come from for the paper, because I suspected he might have plagiarized it from a magazine article. Not the case. He had used a magazine article as his resource material, but it was an article he had read months before at the library and just used the facts from memory. (Several weeks into his first semester of college English composition, the instructor pulled my son aside and remarked, “You know you don’t really belong in this class — you already know how to write very well!”)