Writing:  A Practical Approach
Ruth Martin, Ph. D., © 2000 (updated 2013)


How Can They Really Learn to Write?

As recently as 50 years ago, writing was our primary means of communication.  It was the only effective, efficient way that people could use to communicate o0ver distance and time.  People wrote to spread news, to keep records, to meditate, to pass the time – really any reason at all was a reason to write.  We’ve seen those journals written by Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War POW’s, letters home during World War II.  Everybody wrote.  Some took it to an art form, but even normal, everyday people wrote.  And they wrote well.
Over the years, with the advent of technology, we’ve gotten out of the habit of writing.  We’re so used to texting, cell phones, headsets, pagers, e-mail, CD’s and DVD’s, that when someone says, “Write something”, we panic!  I felt that way when asked to write this article.  Why are we so afraid of writing?  It’s because we’ve gotten out of the habit.  And because we’ve gotten out of the habit, our children have, also.  Besides high school math and science courses, the activity we fear most in home schooling is writing.  We want someone else to teach our children how to write and someone else to grade their essays.
The purpose of writing is to effectively communicate thoughts, ideas and feelings to our fellow man.  The bottom line in teaching anybody how to write is:  are they learning to communicate effectively?
There are two schools of thought that are generally recognized in the area of writing.  The first is the grammar/sentence diagram approach.  The idea assumes that is a child knows how to diagram sentences, that child can write paper.  We think that if our kids do hundreds of grammar exercises and trudge through every single writing assignment in a “grammar and composition” book, they’ll learn to write.  Students don’t learn to write by doing grammar exercises and diagramming sentences.  They DO learn grammar and they DO learn to diagram sentences.  They learn how our language fits together, but they don’t learn to write by doing composition exercises or filling in workbook pages.  While these elements are essential to learning our language, they do not lead to good writing skills.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that encourages the child to explore writing with minimal interference from the teacher.  This method often utilizes a daily journal in which the child relays his innermost thoughts.  Generally, these writings aren’t corrected, allowing the child freedom of thought.  Spelling is encouraged to be “inventive.” In other words, however the child “thinks” a word is spelled.  The child is encouraged to produce great amounts of writing, but very little instruction is given.  With these two broad goalposts, it’s easy to get out of balance.  Grammar is useful, within reason; instruction and encouragement are essential.
How do children really learn to write effectively?  They learn by being exposed to great pieces of literature, modeling the masters, actually writing, then editing and revising.  The more they write, the better they write, the more confident they become in their writing.  Writing can encompass anything:  a grocery list dictated by Mom, a letter to Grandma, a birthday wish list, a thank you note, a short story, a poem.  Keep it light.  Keep it practical in the beginning.  The main thing is to get them to write and encourage that writing.  The encouragement part is more important than you may think at first.  Show them what they do right!  Don’t be so quick to point out ALL the errors.  They’re works in progress.  Encourage them.  
Developmentally, young children, ages 6 – 12, don’t usually understand the abstract concept of parts of speech.  They can learn definitions, even be trained to find nouns, pronouns, verbs, etc. in sentences.  But, the concept is abstract.  The ability to think abstractly develops around age 12 to 13 and takes many years to mature.  In light of this, expose them to some grammar in those younger years, but don’t overdo.  When children are required to complete workpage after workpage of grammar and diagramming, they tend to hate English, especially grammar and writing!  In 7
th and 8th grades, it’s time for a good grammar course, building upon the foundation you’ve laid.  Several come to mind:

Spectrum Workbooks by Frank Schaffer – inexpensive around $11.00 each; don’t need a teacher’s edition; available everywhere in book, school, and office supply stores.  These books provide grammar skills without overkill.

Analytical Grammar – grades 4-12; -more in-depth grammar and punctuation study; need the teacher’s book; student materials around $40.00; even the author says that this course doesn’t teach composition!

Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition – this one is still my favorite, although it’s out of print; find it on-line.  It’s a thorough, no-frills approach that doesn’t overdo.  It provides a good solid grammar foundation.  You can also find it through used-book sales and websites; secular, but doesn’t take a position on any topic – just good, solid grammar and composition skills; the 7th grade book has a great section on spelling which may be the only spelling you’ll need at this level.  This book is enough for even high schoolers!

Easy Grammar – Kids who can’t get the concepts with other books or programs seem to respond well to this approach.  It’s a thorough course, but starts out differently that other courses by introducing prepositions first.  Start this about 7th grade.

A Beka and Rod and Staff – these are okay if you don’t feel the need to do every example on every page.  (Just how many nouns do you really need to underline once, verbs twice??)  Diagramming is a skill that needs to be touched on, but not carried to extremes.  Diagramming does illustrate sentence structure – how sentences fit together – but, it doesn’t teach kids to write!
By 9th grade, students should have a good grammar base and begin more serious writing exercises.  If they don’t have a good grammar base, take time to incorporate one into their English program.  This is the time of students’ lives when they begin to hate the word “essay”.  An essay is the same as “a theme”, which is the same as “a paper”.  An essay can be from 1 to 5 or 6 pages long.  The lengths should vary. Not all of them should be long.  My personal favorite writing program for the high school level is Wordsmith Craftsman.  This is an English course directed to the student minus the literature and vocabulary.  It has an adequate grammar review, a section on sentence structure and word usage, and teaches how to write different types of essays.  This book can be used from 1 to 4 years – the structure is laid out very clearly for the student and the teacher at the beginning.
Possible Course of Study – Grades 1 – 12
Grade 1

Listen to Mom read.  

Copy letters, words, and short sentences.

Begin to formulate original simple sentences with simple grammar instruction – capitals, periods, question marks.  

Phonics – builds reading and spelling skills.
Grades 2 - 3

More listening to good stories and biographies, history, science; Bible stories

More copying

Short stories of 1 – 5 sentences, building into an actual paragraph or several paragraphs by the end of 3rd grade.

Begin to build spelling vocabulary.

Each student should have a personal copy of Spelling Dictionary for Beginning Writers available through Educators’ Publishing Service (www.epsbooks.com).

Reinforcement of simple grammar from last year with a few new concepts introduced, i.e. exclamation marks, basic comma use, and by the end of 3rd grade the use of quotation marks in dialogue.
Grade 4

More listening

More copying

Creative writing – original stories for fun

Letters to Grandma, other practical daily writing

Dictation exercises from daily reading
Grades 5 – 6

More listening to great literature – yes, I know they’re getting older, but they still love for you to read to them!

Short essays on topics from history and science

Creative writing

Daily practical writing

Begin simple note taking skills

One 1 – 3 page report
Grades 7 – 8

Grammar mastery – now it’s time to hit it as a subject

Short essays using compare and contrast skills

Discussion questions on tests requiring more than “fill-in-the-blank” thinking

One good research paper about 5 – 7 pages handwritten or 2 – 4 pages typed with bibliography.
Grades 9 – 10

Grammar review, if needed.  Go to http://www.dailygrammar.com/index.shtml for free short grammar lessons.  The archived lessons are free.  There are numerous other ones, but this one’s short and sweet.  And the best part is that it’s self-checking!  The answers are there!  You shouldn’t have to do ANYthing!

Essays every week or so on just about anything and everything. These can be ½ to 2 pages in length.

One 8 – 10 typed-page research paper in MLA writing style on a topic of interest.  This paper should take 6 - 12 weeks to complete, including topic selection, research, typing, editing and a Works Cited page.  

Spend about 6 weeks learning MLA writing style – available free on-line.  Google:  MLA Writing Style.  The Purdue University On-line Writing Lab (OWL) is a fantastic resource!
Grades 11 – 12

Essays, essays, essays and another big paper with outline, citations, and Works Cited page, which should take another 6 – 12 weeks to complete.  

Creative writing should be continued if that’s the area they’re planning to pursue in college or just for fun.  It still counts as the composition component of an English course. Or, it can stand on its own as an English elective.
This course of study is very general and not intended to be complete.  Rather, it is to give parents a practical idea of what might be expected at each level.  Basically, in grades 1 – 8:  Write something everyday – short or long – just write.  Don’t overdo.  If your student is writing a history report, don’t insist on a writing assignment in English, also.  In light of the above, combine as much as you can!
In Grades 9 – 10:  Essays – 1 – 2 pages long – use these for learning to type, if they don’t already know how.  They’ll need to type in the “real world” and in college.  Research:  ONE good paper.
In Grades 11 – 12:  One good paper each year – typed, correct MLA format.  Essays on literature, arguments on topics, character sketches, position papers, compare and contrast essays.  Essays every week with emphasis on editing, revising, and polishing.
Usually, in an effort to prove their children are learning, parents mistakenly require reports on just about everything.  Book reports, field trip reports, what you did last summer reports, etc., etc.  Don’t make your students write a report on every single thing they do or every field trip they attend.  If you do, you will effectively kill their desire to write.  Other ideas that accomplish the same objectives:

Try photojournalism.  Basically, all this requires is a simple, sturdy camera or phone with camera, a printer, a picture album, and a pen or pencil.  Let them take pictures of field trips or activities, then follow up with a sentence or two, perhaps a short paragraph (but not for every picture!!) describing the pictures.  It’s a field trip report without the tears and maybe, if you’re into scrapbooking, a little creativity!

Which leads into the next activity . . . .scrapbooking!  This activity doesn’t have to be expensive, but it’s so creative.  Kids usually really get into it.  It’s the same concept as photojournalism, but your children can express themselves artistically by trying their hand at creative lettering or calligraphy.  If you’re a scrapbook novice, try youtube videos for help.

For book reports, have them draw a picture or two from different sections of the book, then write several sentences about them.  Look for other creative ways to report on reading.  You probably don’t write a report on every book you read! If you had to, you’d probably stop reading!!  Think about what you’re asking your children to do.

Tech-y kids would love doing a Power Point presentation or other type of creative project.
Great Writing Resources, in addition to those already mentioned:

The Great Editing Adventure and Great Explorations in Editing available from www.commonsensepress.com.  Short grammar reviews with a little vocabulary practice for middle and high schoolers.

Everything You Need to Know about English Homework by Zeman and Kelly – available at school supply stores or bookstores – Elementary and Middle

Write Source 2000 – Middle school/Jr. High

Writer’s Inc. – Jr. High and High School

Elements of Style – Strunk and White – Senior High – Classic writing book

A Writer’s Reference – Diana Hacker – Sr. High, College, Adult – a great reference for you and those research papers!!

Ruth home schooled her three children for 22 years beginning in 1983.  They all three went on to college and beyond, making A’s on their papers!!
© 2000, updated and revised, 2013 – Ruth R. Martin, Ph.D.