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"I Know What I Mean But I Don't Know How to Say It"

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #49, 2002.

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David Marks


Learning to write is harder than it is to teach others to do it. If you're feeling frustrated with this task, imagine what your children are feeling. You've learned to write, and your children see how easy it is for you to put your thoughts on paper. It must seem almost magical to them!

Want to help them? Then read on!

Clarity First

For every exercise in writing, clearly establish your primary goal. It will help you if you write out this goal and review it as you and your children work toward it. This means that you can't let any secondary goals get in the way of your primary one.

If your primary goal is that you want your children to be able to express an idea with clarity, anything you do with them in teaching writing that does not support that goal could very well hinder the process of reaching it. This means that your concentration must be on clarity of expression. You can worry later about grammar training, punctuation rules, and spelling.

Clarity = Understanding + Organization

Next, for your child to reach your identified goal, you first must understand the skills you are trying to teach.

It is impossible to explain something well or to pass on an idea clearly unless the writer fully understands the subject. This means that the writer must have a clear picture of the subject or situation's organization. Children have to be taught how to understand how things and ideas are organized - how they are put together and how they work.

This is so familiar a process for us that we forget how complicated it can be for young minds. When we hear them tell us that they understand something but can't put it into words, it's because they don't understand how to organize their expression of the idea or object.

A Poor Description

Imagine that you have asked your child to describe what a bike is like. You might be presented with a description that sounds like this: "My bike is red and I got it for my birthday last year. I really like it. Next year my dad says I can ride it to the store. It is the best bike I have ever seen. I like to feel the wind in my hair when I ride real fast." Not terrible writing, but not a very good description of a bike. This would be what a child might write who hasn't been taught how to organize ideas so they can be given away. Children need to be taken by the hand and shown how to make things clear to other people. We have to show them how to organize what they know.

Children have to be shown that writers are responsible for their reader's understanding. Once young writers accept the idea that they are controlling their reader's mind when their writing is read, they'll look at the task of passing on information much differently.

How to Help Your Child "See"

Look at how such instruction might go.

Mom: Bob, I've read your description of a bike and there's some things I want to talk to you about.

Bob: Hey, I thought I did a good job.

Mom: Let's talk about that. The directions were to write about a bike so that your reader would understand what a bike is like.

Bob: That's what I did.

Mom: You talked about having a bike and what you like to do but not about what a bike is like.

Bob: Oh, I see what you're talking about.

Mom: Good. When you're asked to describe something, it's a good idea if you figure that the person reading your description doesn't know anything about the object at all.

Bob: Why?

Mom: If your reader knew about bikes, there wouldn't be a reason to describe what a bike is like.

Bob: Okay, how do I start doing that?

Mom: You start by thinking about: 1) what a bike is for, 2) how a bike works, and 3) how the parts are organized so it does what it should.

Bob: That's a lot.

Mom: That's only three things. The first one is what a bike is for. Talk to me about point one.

Bob: That's easy. A bike is to ride.

Mom: Work harder, Bob. A swing is to ride too. Remember, you're talking to someone who doesn't understand anything about bikes.

Bob: Okay. A bicycle is something a person can get on and make it take him to places. There, that's what a bike is.

Mom: That could be the description of a bus.

Bob: You're making this really hard.

Mom: Bob, you're responsible for what goes on in your reader's mind. I'm helping you understand how you can do that. I know it's hard, but it's your responsibility not to confuse your reader.

Bob: Here I go again: A bike is a two-wheeled object used for transportation.

Mom: Good for you. Now you need to explain point two, how a bike works.

Bob: A person sits on a seat and pedals to make it go.

Mom: If I didn't know how to ride a bike, that description wouldn't help me understand how to ride one. Try again, Bob.

Bob: Boy! The rider sits on a small saddle in the center of the bike and holds onto handles attached to the front wheel. He makes the bike move by pushing down on pedals on each side of the bike with his feet and steers with the handles.

Mom: You're getting it now, Bob. What about point three, how the parts are organized?

Bob: The wheels are on a frame, one behind the other. The saddle is on the top of the frame between the wheels and the rider's pedals are on a small wheel that is attached to the back wheel with a chain. When the rider pushes the pedals the small wheel turns and the chain makes the back wheel turn. The rider steers by leaning and turning the handles.

Mom: Bob, that's so much better that I'm really proud of you. Now all you have to do is put the three parts together and smooth it out and you'll have a description that could help your reader understand what a bike is like. Write what you have so far, then read it to me.

Bob: A bike is a two-wheeled object used for transportation. The rider sits on a small saddle in the center of the bike and holds onto handles attached to the front wheel. He makes the bike move by pushing down on pedals on each side of the bike with his feet and steers with the handles. The saddle is on the top of the frame between the wheels and the pedals are on a small wheel that is attached to the back wheel with a chain. When the rider pushes the pedals the small wheel turns and the chain makes the back wheel turn. The rider steers by leaning and turning the handles.

It's never this easy in practice, but you can see the writing instruction process in operation here. Bob is learning how to think about his responsibility toward his reader. If you explain this responsibility to your children and then show them how to organize the material they want to give to others, your children can learn to pass on information clearly.


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