Homeschooled students write the cutest stories! You can see them in newsletters, magazines, presentation nights, and on our refrigerators. But something seems to happen when these same kids hit older levels and need to write essays and purposeful reports (as opposed to reports that merely summarize five different things the child knows about some topic). Logical argumentation, comparison and contrast, and orderly progression demand skills beyond the elementary story-writing level. This is where I see a chink in the wall of homeschool excellence.
What's the Problem?
My guess is that a lot of us parents are stymied two ways when it comes to helping our kids develop more advanced writing skills.
First, we do not perceive ourselves as writers -- possibly because of inexperience, poor grades in school, or disinclination. We find it difficult to help our children go beyond where we feel competent. We often feel that we just are not equipped to evaluate what they write or address methods of improvement.
Secondly, many of us have an unfortunate tendency to rely on the textbook to teach the subject. However, writing is a subject that is taught through interaction much more than through textbook exercises.
We assume that our kids know how to prepare an outline, because they encounter roman numeral outlines in the grammar textbook once each year. We overlook the need to apply that outlining skill in subsequent writing projects unless it is emphasized in the text.
As each writer begins to develop his or her own style of writing, it becomes even more difficult to generalize about what constitutes good and bad writing.
These are real difficulties that many of us face, but they are surmountable.
Let's start at the beginning with outlining. Roman numeral outlines are the old standard for outline format. There's nothing wrong with that method, but it just does not connect with some children. I found the question/box/map method of Mary Lou Ward from her book Writing Step by Step to be a more successful outlining method for a greater number of children.
Ward helps children frame their topic sentence as a question so that supporting sentences are actually answering the topic sentence. The logic is much more obvious, especially when the key questions and answers are written in boxes connected by lines. As children reach the point where they can add supporting information for their "answers," the subpoints are then listed under the appropriate boxes. A number of different reproducible "maps" are included in the book to use at the various stages of skill development as well as for some different forms of writing.
Once your children have learned to organize their material, it is time to help them develop their essay-writing skills. After all, essays are one of the primary places students need to apply those outlining talents.
Many of us recall our lessons in essay writing from our school days. "Summarize what this paper is about in a topic sentence, write three paragraphs supporting the topic sentence, then tack on a conclusion that restates the topic sentence." In reality, following that formula as most of us did in school makes for a very boring essay. Professional writers realize that they have to grab their audience with the first sentence or two. A boring topic sentence is likely to discourage readers before they have a chance to find out if the writer has something interesting to convey. Look at a magazine or commentary article in the newspaper. Is the first sentence a "school style" topic sentence, or is it a "grabber" sentence? Most of the time it will be the latter. (See Professional "Grabber Sentences")
Why not teach our children to write this way from the beginning? It is more fun to write and definitely more fun to read. Don't expect professional grabber sentences from elementary or even junior high students, but do urge them to stretch beyond the boring. Suggest opening with dialogue, a quotation, a description of an incident, or a startling remark rather than something dull. Writing With A Point is a helpful resource for helping students develop grabber sentences (known as "point sentences" in this book). It is also great for style development in general.
Now that they've got a great opening, what next? Good writers have a bag of tricks that get their point across without boring their audience. Two key strategies can best be labeled as questions: "What's your angle?" and "So what?"
"What's your angle?" directs the writer to come up with a fresh or interesting way to present information. If the assignment is to write about summer vacation (ugh!), the writer narrows the topic down to a single interesting experience rather than a list of "what I did." The result is an entertaining essay about the struggles of learning to get along with an unlikable cabin-mate at camp or the woes of year-round home schooling without a real summer vacation like everyone else. Children are unlikely to come up with the narrower, more interesting topics on their own. We need to spend time talking through the topics until we hit on one specific angle that sparks enthusiasm.
"So what?" helps give the writer direction and drives the paper to closure. It provides a clearly identifiable goal or focus. The writer must ask himself what it is he wants to convey to the reader. The reader needs to be left with a challenge, a motivation, or information that he can put to use.
If the goal is simply to entertain, this can best be accomplished by including a subtle lesson or message. For example, in the piece about getting along with the unlikable cabin-mate, humorous conflicts can buttress the subtle point that we grow when we try to "love the unlovable person."
Students need to keep their outline (or organizational "map") handy while they write so that the essay flows logically. It is very easy for an inexperienced writer to begin talking about the struggles involved in getting along with a difficult person at camp, but digress into getting along with a younger brother at home. One guideline which helps prevent such diversions is to keep the essays short until your children develop skill in keeping on target. I too often hear of parents assigning five-page reports to children who cannot write an essay. These children lack the organizational skills to write a coherent report of such length. The usual product of such assignments reads like snippets from an encyclopedia, glued together in random order. Any report assignments for younger students should be short and narrowly focused. For example, instead of a report about Texas, the topic should be narrowed drastically to a single person, place, or event.
So now we have our students practicing the writing process. But how do we evaluate their writing if we are not good at spotting problems? Try enlisting the help of a friend who is more proficient than you are to either work with your child individually or, even better, with a group class. I have found group classes wonderful for motivation and stimulation of ideas. A group class can be used as co-editors to help with improving and polishing written pieces, and as an audience for sharing and encouraging.
A good example of the motivational value of group classes are the two samples in the sidebar from my son Matt's original and revised versions of an essay on Constantine. The first version was the typical half-hearted, boring version our children so often presented to us. When Matt read that version to the group, they were hard pressed to come up with any positive comments. (We always ask for positive comments before accepting any constructive criticism!) We then discussed how to improve the essay, emphasizing "painting a picture" rather than simply stating a list of facts. Although I had made some of the same suggestions to Matt privately before class, he was much more receptive when the rest of the group confirmed that the paper did indeed need help. The revised version was a major improvement.
In situations where group classes are not possible and no help seems to be available, take advantage of long distance help. Lighthouse Editing Service, a ministry of the Kustusch family, is a new business that enrolls families for $15 per year, then edits all work for $1 per page editing fee. No grades are issued, but they include helpful suggestions for improvement. I have a feeling that the Kustusch family is likely to be overwhelmed with response since their charges are so reasonable. Perhaps other "editors" are willing to share their services?
Don't rely on workbook exercises to teach young people how to write effectively, or you are likely to be disappointed. Writing needs to be an interactive, shared process. That will not happen unless we make development of writing skills a priority in junior and senior high children. This means that we take extra time and seek out the resources and assistance we need to make that happen.
Practicing the Writing Process: The Essay, Educational Design, Inc., 47 West 13 St., New York, NY 10011, (800) 221-9372.
Lighthouse Editing Service, The Kustusch Family, 6064 North Paulina, Chicago, IL 60660, (312) 743-3625.
Writing Step by Step, by Mary Lou Ward, Builder Books, P.O. Box 5291, Lynnwood, WA 98046-5291, (206) 778-4526.
Writing With A Point, Educators Publishing Service, 75 Moulton St., Cambridge, MA 02138-1104, (800) 225-5750.
Professional "Grabber Sentences"
You can find good examples on almost any commentary/editorial page of the newspaper. I found the following two examples simply by picking up today's paper (The Registore, August 10, 1993).
"There's many a slip between the cup and lip. That old cliché, one of the many Anglo-Americanisms that are disappearing from our TV-drenched vocabulary, aptly sums up the caution that any seasoned observer is bound to apply to the Middle East." (Eldon Griffiths, "A Glimmer of Hope for Peace in the Mideast.")
"The fraud has worked.
"Congress has now passed President Clinton's so-called 'deficit reduction' bill, with retroactive tax rate increases and 'spending cuts' postponed for years, while total federal spending continues increasing every year." (Thomas Sowell, "Fraud is the Core of Clinton's Budget.")
The assignment was to write a brief report about a person about whom they were studying in history. My son Matt (at about age 11) chose to write about Constantine. Below are the beginnings of his initial and revised versions.
Constantine came to power after his father died. In 306 he was pronounced Caesar or Roman Emperor. In the West, Flavius Valerius Severus was overthrown and Maxentius became Caesar.
Constantine and Licinius went to Italy to fight Maxentius. Constantine got Verona. During the campaign Constantine saw a vision. He saw a flaming cross, and on the cross were the words, "In this sign you will conquer." At the sight of it he became a Christian.
It was night. An army of about 30,000 men lay asleep ready for the battle next day. Constantine, their leader, was concerned about the battle and could not sleep. But soon he fell asleep and had a vision -- a flaming cross appeared in the sky, and on it were the words, "In this sign you will conquer."