Guest post: Teaching Writing [Relatively] Painlessly by Denise Boiko

With most of us under some sort of stay-at-home order, I know many parents who are bravely trying to homeschool their kids for the first time! The learning curve is steep, and it can be hard to know where to start, especially in a subject that’s difficult for you–which for many people means writing.

Today I’m lucky enough to host Denise Boiko–veteran homeschool mom, teacher, speaker, and author of the book Homeschooled and Headed for College–for her tips on teaching writing at home. This post specifically focuses on elementary- and middle-school-aged children, but there is a version on her website focusing on high schoolers.

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Welcome, Denise!

For many parents, getting an elementary or middle school student to sit down and write a paragraph or essay is like pulling teeth. (Actually, pulling teeth is easier, especially with the Siren song of the Tooth Fairy.) Writer’s block, combined with the fear of blood-red ink defacing the first draft, can deter all but the most passionate writers. Clearly, writing skills are vital for school success and for life, but getting there can be quite a challenge. However, with a little forethought and the courage to just plunge in, you can successfully coach your student in writing skills.

First, Set Goals

Assess your student’s starting point and then set measurable, high-priority goals for each school year. For instance, does your student need to write longer essays? Does his or her style need polishing, with more sentence variety and specific words? Is this the year to work on inserting higher level vocabulary? Or would you be content if your student conquered a raft of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors? Whatever your goals, communicate them to your student and set manageable checkpoints. Maybe a reward system, too!

Teach Writing as a Process

The best pieces of writing don’t flow effortlessly out of the pen (or keyboard) without some crucial steps engaging the brain. Teach your student to approach the rather amorphous task of writing, one step at a time. First, prewriting involves brainstorming and outlining ideas before beginning a draft. The beauty of prewriting is that it can be done anywhere and at any time—ideas may pop up when the student least expects them. The next step, drafting, means capturing ideas in an approximate, “pretty good” form, while revision requires polishing the piece’s content, style, organization, and mechanics. To help a student suffering from writer’s block, walk through the prewriting stage together, moving steadily from the spark of an idea to the rough outline and then to an expanded outline with specific useful examples. 

Use a Check Sheet

To turn the fuzzy task of evaluating an essay into a more objective, goal-oriented task, try using a check sheet of elements you’re looking for in the finished essay. My own rubrics include sections for content, organization, style, and mechanics. Content means having enough “meat” and examples to develop the topic sufficiently. Organization involves inclusion of thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions. Style encompasses sentence variety, smoothness of phrases, and adding “sparkle” with elements such as “-ly” words and strong verbs and nouns. Finally, mechanics deals with the proper use of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. Remember that young writers will always make mistakes in these areas. Focus on what they are saying and how they are organizing their thoughts.

Insert Variety

The younger the student, the more important it is to experiment with creative fiction, journal entries (real-life or writing as a fictional character), mini-mysteries, letters, and other fun genres to add different “food groups” to their writing plate.  You can even have your student write a “how-to” essay: students will enjoy showing off their knowledge of cooking scrambled eggs, creating a virtual background for Zoom, or climbing a tree!

Likewise, whether or not your student demonstrates a flair for writing, discovering practical or artistic applications of the writing craft can make a huge difference in motivation. Writing for newsletters, contests, blogs, or other online venues—as well as crafting real-life letters to loved ones, or pursuing creative poetry—can be a fruitful and fun way to hone skills and to enjoy “being published.”

Use Literature as a Springboard

Uncovering themes, symbols, character traits, and author techniques is a key focus of literature-based essays, and much of this will arise after a lively discussion of the literary work. Begin teaching your students how to use examples and quotations from the book to support points being argued. Instead of just retelling the story, the student should examine how the author communicates themes or develops characters.

Revise, Revise, Revise – But Not Ad Nauseum! And Not in Red Ink!

Diligent revision is the mark of a skillful writer and should be neither skipped nor skimped. But neither should it become a dreaded chore. Work together as needed, teaching your student to proofread essays slowly and deliberately. Seek out mechanical errors, as well as spots where ideas don’t flow logically. Check for lackluster words; change sentences that need variety. One third-grader I once tutored said “revive” instead of “revise,” and indeed, an essay that has been revised has been “revived,” or given new life. This is the time to reinforce style and grammar rules, gently, and with an “I’m on your side” attitude. One more trick: use colorful gel pens for correction—never red—so that it doesn’t look like something bled and died all over the essay.

Finally, Write, Write, Write

One bit of advice that has stayed with me since my own high school years is “The only way to become a good writer is to write, write, write.” While mastery is elusive, improvement is guaranteed if your student keeps practicing and keeps producing. And in the end, encouragement and consistency can be the most effective tools in your writing teacher’s toolbox.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Denise!

If you’re interested in more homeschooling resources, a copy of Homeschooled and Headed for College, or connecting with Denise, please visit her website or pick up her book on Amazon!