New Thoughts on Writing

Dear Reader,

This seems to be a subject I keep coming back to. I also find that it comes up in discussion with a lot of other homeschool moms. Writing is a tough subject to teach. One of the biggest hurdles is just know how much to teach it and how. Do we make them write every day? Do we concentrate on the mechanics? Do we point out every  mistake? Do we care more about building their self-esteem and confidence? Do we focus on creative writing? The list goes on and on.

I have blogged previously on our attempts this year to follow something like the progymnasmata,  a classical approach to writing. What I really have liked, and still do like about this approach, is that it teaches writing through imitation. Just as painters learn by copying the great masters, so our kids learn by copying good writing. I also like that it does not leave kids floundering in search of a topic. While what we have done (rewriting fables and narratives) is creative, it doesn’t leave all the finding of ideas up to the child; they have some direction given in the assignment itself. And my kids have responded very well to what we have done this year. In fact, my daughter asks to do it more often. My son does not, but he does put in a good effort and generates some good writing when we do it.

But I am not sure we are going to continue with the progymnasmata. Mostly I am at a loss as to what to do beyond fable and narrative. The progym calls for some forms of writing which I just don’t find that valuable. For example, one is asked to write an essay praising a famous person. It sounds very ancient Roman to me, but it just doesn’t seem like a form of writing that will be valuable to my kids.

Instead, I think I would like to take the principle behind the progym and apply it to more modern forms of writing. We can still imitate good writing, but I’d like to focus on kinds of writing that I think my kids will actually need some day. Having said which, I haven’t actually decided what those are or made a plan about how to proceed from here. I have till September at this point to think about it and I am most definitely open to ideas if you have any.

But I also wanted to say that while these kinds of writing assignments are something we do every couple of weeks or so, I do not view them as the only thing we do to build writing skills. Taking a Charlotte Mason approach to education, we do a lot of narrating. Most of what we do is oral at this point, but the children do do at least two written narrations a week. And the older two kids, at least, do a good job with it. Even oral narration requires kids to organize their thoughts and present them logically. This is a large part of the process of writing. We do some grammar and spelling as well as copywork or dictation to help with the mechanics. But I do not correct their errors in their written narrations. In fact, I usually don’t read the older kids’ but have them read them aloud to us so if there are spelling errors or the like, I don’t see them.

I have also been very encouraged lately by this article by Stephen Palmer at TJEd (see my post on TJEd here). I first ran across this article thanks to Homeschooling Middle East. The part that particularly strikes me is this:

“I’d rather have a wild stallion as a student who thinks wild and free, than a docile gelding who knows the technicalities but doesn’t know how to think.”

and this:

“Big ideas should be the pilot, technicalities the co-pilot.”

In other words, don’t worry too much about the mechanics of writing (though there is a time to polish those up), the most important thing is that kids have ideas so they have something to write about. I think Charlotte Mason would be cheering us on at this point. Her whole approach is about feeding kids with real, living materials that contain the intellectual food their minds need which is ideas. So really one of the biggest things we do to foster good writing may involve no writing at all; it is just to have them read (or read to them) good, living books. One can’t write if one has nothing to say. Ideas fill their minds, give them something intellectual to chew on. And it is only after they have been ingesting these ideas for a number of years that we can really expect them to produce some good writing of their own. So I don’t think early writing instruction can be that helpful. They need time to take in ideas first before they produce much. Of course, mechanics are still important. But if they have something to say, they will want to communicate it clearly to others and then (I hope) they will desire to learn the mechanics so that their writing can be easily understood by others.

So I think the basic outlines of my plan for the future are to continue to read and narrate from good books and to occasionally look more closely at a good piece of writing and to try to imitate it in some way. When I say this, I mean to look at one specific aspect of a piece and to focus on what makes it effective writing. An example might be a piece that switches to using short sentences when the action gets moving. We would read the piece, talk about how the author varies his sentence structure to convey action, and then have the kids try it on their own.

Those are my thoughts on writing at the moment. What are yours?


2 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for referring to my blog homeschoolingmiddleeast 🙂 I love it when I feel my ideas spark off the ideas of others (and it’s a wonderful chain because mine have often been sparked by the ideas of others too). My son dictates wonderful stories to me and this is only from reading and being read to. Since he left school he hasn’t wanted to write anything himself and we don’t discuss the books we read in terms of structure. However, I think this might be a good thing to start doing. I love your idea about discussing sentence length when the action picks up.

    I have been looking through the Rainbow Resource catalogue recently – the weighty tome that it is! There is a lot in there about teaching literacy and some of it is interesting. I’m not sure I’ll buy anything – postage is expensive to Dubai of course, but it’s food for thought. There is plenty aligned with the Charlotte Mason Method. I like some of the packages which encourage kids to be literature detectives, they sound quite fun for a change.


  2. […] Why, oh why, does this topic come up so often? When you tell someone you are going to homeschool, they always talk about calculus: “How are you going to teach it?” (And don’t you just love the lack of confidence in one’s abilities that that implies?) But as our kids get older, the thing moms seem to stress about most is how to teach our kids to write. (And how many times have I addressed this issue already! Here are posts one, two, three, four, five and six!) […]


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