Developing Writing Skills

By Kirsty James

Learning to write is a broad theme, covering such diverse topics as forming letters, learning correct grammar and syntax, and essay writing. This article is just a starting point, and illustrates not only some of the ways in which different families have approached these tasks, but also the variety of possibilities. 

In general, home educated students do less physical writing than in school, as there’s no need to write in order to demonstrate learning. Children are more likely to show their knowledge via conversation, or more formally by Charlotte Mason style narration. Home educators appreciate that many of the early writing skills such as syntax, vocabulary, grammar, sequencing and creativity can be expressed verbally. The quality of story created by a child who asks the parent to scribe can be superior to one they write themselves, and the process is much faster. HE parents also tend to focus on quality rather than quantity, in everything from handwriting to essay writing. 

In comparison to the English-heavy focus in school, home educators often batch much of their English learning with other subjects because they understand that writing about areas of interest is an effective way to learn. Kids who are interested in history can write comparative essays about the Greeks and Romans, and those who are interested in science can hone their writing ability by focusing on reports. This idea of using a student’s own interest is also used to great effect by some of the popular home education curriculum such as Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) and Cover Story, as well as by parents who know how best to support and motivate their own child. 

My older children did not do much formal writing during primary school. They wrote notes, cards and letters and we worked on handwriting and spelling. I think the most important thing we did was to read together, learning in the process about poetry, vocabulary, grammar and story structure. With this foundation (and their own reading) they found it easy to transition to IEW levels B and C at home, before moving on to create their own writing styles in different ways. My youngest daughter did not like the IEW style, so we tried a different approach (Cover Story). 

All of my children struggled initially with editing and correcting their own creative writing. IEW helped with this, as the early levels involve rewriting a given topic, and marking it using a rubric. Having a clear idea of the expected outcome made writing less stressful. Other strategies I found helpful were to create paragraphs for my children to correct (mirroring their own common mistakes), and asking them to improve short passages/simple books. 

One friend spent a couple of hours brainstorming with her child how to make a passage from one of Eoin Colfer’s books boring. By replacing the vivid vocabulary with the most pedestrian of words, then altering the sentence structure to be repetitive, her son created a dull and uninspiring story. Without needing any prompting, he immediately implemented the reverse strategy to his own writing. 

One of my sons is studying engineering and, unlike his arts-focused brother, he did not learn to write essays. But why? We all know that no child can have a good education without learning this important skill, right? A few years ago I would have agreed, however I changed my mind after hearing my son’s argument. He had the skills to coherently explain why this was not important for his intended study path (he only needs to write reports), to describe why he preferred to spend his time doing activities which were relevant (science, maths, building things) – and believe me, he was both persuasive and argumentative! 

So please enjoy the following passages contributed by experienced home educators and alumni; hopefully there will be something within them which will resonate with you. 

Jackie Crosby – Natural Learning

 Following a whole language approach to writing means combining exposure to good literature as well as everyday writing. It is then about providing purposeful opportunities to write. Good writing exposure can include stories, information, books, comics, poetry, classics and fun stories. It may involve reading to your children every night and providing books relevant to their interests, and then combining this exposure to formal writing with everyday writing such as shopping lists, letters, recipes, texts, emails, magazines, newspapers, essays and instructions. Writing is about communicating a message; sometimes in a beautiful, poetic, descriptive, elaborate or formal way, sometimes in a to-the-point, practical way.

Whole language is about immersion in language which melds very well with a natural learning philosophy. For our family the practical activity of writing began at a foundation level with labelling family names, making books with simple repetitive sentences, helping write the shopping list and keeping a diary of our holidays. This flowed on to recording the recipes they cooked and writing postcards home from our holidays. Using devices for texting and emails followed, as did using a search engine to find things on the internet. We found simple poetry formats to help us write poems The kids created posters of information on topics we were focusing on or a homeschool outing we had been on. By upper primary age we were looking at styles of writing, having a go at a persuasive piece, plays and writing in the third person. As we always kept travel diaries, by this time instead of a sentence “we did a, b and c” they were beginning to include opinions and feelings in their entries.

Alongside a whole language approach I have provided the tools my children would need when they were ready for them. At a foundation level it was the alphabet, the 100 most used words and relevant words in their lives, with much of this through matching games, memory work and computer programs. Middle primary brought grammar into the mix. By upper primary continuing with the grammar books we added planning writing to get a beginning middle and end to a piece and to ensure any main points were included.

I have spoken in terms of foundation, middle and upper primary just to outline the progression. All my children worked at their own pace in their own time and I found by their teen years they all ended up at about the same spot regardless of the age they began writing. For us it was about providing the exposure to writing, grabbing the opportunities and building on quantity and complexity of writing naturally over time. Seeing a need to write was the motivator to write and having positive experiences provided the framework.

Melissa Gijsbers – Published Author 

When I was learning about writing, I was frustrated. Teachers taught a formula for creative writing and it was one that never sat right with me.

As I’ve grown as a writer, and been working with young writers, I have found there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula to creative writing. If you get ten authors in a room, all who write similar books, you will find ten or more methods for writing stories.

Here are my top tips for teaching writing:

  • Play with different styles and genre
  • Crazy and unexpected writing prompts make writing fun
  • Encourage entry to competitions and anthologies, these are a great experience
  • Read lots of books and a variety of books – this can give children experience of how different authors put together their stories
  • Keep writing – the best way to improve is to practice

My best tip for teaching writing is to have fun with words. Writing stories is a lot of fun.

Oriyla Nelson – HE Alumni 

My journey with the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) started several years ago, when I began attending an IEW class at The Berwick Tutor. Learning in the class environment along with my peers, I loved having the input and encouragement from my tutor and classmates. 

One of the strengths of the IEW program is that it splits up the task of writing into manageable steps; starting by creating a comprehensive outline, from which sentences flow and turn into paragraphs – each as separate tasks. On top of this, the program teaches stylistic techniques, which you gradually add on and include in your pieces. 

Personally I found this ‘step by step’ approach extremely beneficial, as I have always struggled with a condition I like to call ‘slydexia’, also known as dyslexia. With IEW I could plan, gradually build my paragraph, and then add in techniques and styles that immediately impacted and ‘dressed-up’ my writing. Through IEW, I was able to break the barrier I’d always encountered with writing, the process presented by the program allowed me to get my thoughts onto paper, separate from my struggle with spelling and grammar. 

The program of IEW takes a very structured approach to writing, something that can often be approached in a very vague, nebulous way. It progresses gradually in a way that builds a solid foundation before moving on. A classic saying in IEW is “easy plus one”, after a technique becomes easy and is mastered, you learn another one. 

The progression is manageable, yet immediately evident. 

Prior to IEW, approaching the task of writing was extremely daunting, especially creative writing. While I could always verbalise my story, I could never get it on paper, I felt like I didn’t have the tools. Through the IEW program I was given a toolkit, which not only broke down writing into tasks, but gave me a foundational platform, which I could be confident would produce a product I would be happy with. I felt like I was able to build on something solid. The techniques I had learnt were simple but reliable. 

Three years ago, I began teaching IEW at The Berwick Tutor and privately. I have continuously found that students become confident in their work because the program takes the guesswork out of writing; they know they have either included the techniques or haven’t. Since teaching it, I would say I have an even greater appreciation for the program. Andrew Pudewa, the creator of IEW, is clearly quite passionate about the skill of writing and communicating; but he articulates the parallel need for developing thinkers and questioners. I think if someone has learnt how to communicate effectively and meaningfully, they can impact the world around them and they are less likely to be impacted by the voices calling for their attention. For these reasons I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to take this journey. 

Kirsty James – Final Note 

In my introduction, I mentioned Cover Story. This curriculum covers a variety of writing styles from poetry (eight types) to letter writing, non-fiction articles, and short stories. It is similar to Byline (see Reviews section) in its use of video lessons combined with a student book, but Cover Story also includes a journaling element – scaffolded by the mythical author Professor Gunther Von Steuben. 

The different writing tasks are linked by a common theme, chosen by the student, leading to the creation of a magazine. There’s no requirement to create a physical magazine, pieces could just be displayed in a folder, but many students would enjoy the challenge of laying out the pieces using a software programme, and incorporating images. My daughter used Cover Story last year, and chose Africa as her theme, finding it easy to fit this to most of the tasks. 

For a variety of reasons we didn’t finish the whole curriculum. I could see that as a failure, but in fact Cover Story was still a success because it met our needs. My reason for electing to use a curriculum was that my daughter struggled with the physical act of writing, finding it tiring and boring. 

Cover Story ignited an interest in journalling, and I now have a child who writes most days, happily and at length, and without needing to be reminded; she has discovered the pleasure of writing, and I couldn’t ask for more. 

Otherways 165

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